August 2, 1776: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not”

Excerpt from David McCullough’s John Adams – on the signing of the Declaration of Independence

Apparently, there was no fuss or ceremony on August 2 [1776]. The delegates simply came forward in turn and fixed their signatures. Also a number of the most important figures of Congress were absent – Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Oliver Wolcott, Elbridge Gerry – and would sign later. A new representative from New Hampshire, Matthew Thornton, who had not been a member when the Declaration was passed, would sign his name in November, and Thomas McKean of Delaware appears not to have signed until January 1777, which made him the last.

Like the others, Adams and Jefferson each signed with his own delegation, Adams on the right, in a clear and firm plain hand, Jefferson at lower center with a signature more precise and elegant, but equally legible.

The fact that a signed document now existed, as well as the names of the signatories, was kept secret for the time being, as all were acutely aware that by taking up the pen and writing their names, they had committed treason, a point of considerably greater immediacy now, with the British army so near at hand.

Whether Benjamin Franklin quipped, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately” is impossible to know, just as there is no way to confirm the much-repeated story that the diminutive John Hancock wrote his name large so the King might read it without his spectacles. But the stories endured because they were in character, like the remark attributed to Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island. Hopkins, who suffered from palsy, is said to have observed, on completing his spidery signature, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”

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