On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress of the 13 Colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, which was signed by Charles Thompson, the secretary of Congress, and John Hancock, the presiding officer. Copies were printed by John Dunlap and distributed to the states on July 4th. (Twenty four copies of that first printing still exist, includng the two in the Library of Congress.) Independence was first announced to the public in Philadelphia, July 6th, and around the fledgling country days and even weeks later.
When Hancock put his famous signature on the document, he said, "We must be unanimous, we must all hang together." Ben Franklin replied, "We must indeed all hang together — or else, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
The other signers of the Declaration of Independence added their "John Hancocks" between August and November of that year. Last to sign was New Hampshire's Matthew Thornton.
The first official printing with the famous signatures was in January, 1777. Unfortunately, the first edition omitted the signature of Thomas McKean of Delaware, who claimed to have signed in August and was added to later editions.
Fifty-six signed in all. The youngest signer was South Carolina's Edward Rutledge, aged 26; the oldest, Pennsylvania's Ben Franklin at age 70.
Eight months after the signing, John Morton of Pennsylvania became the first of the 56 to die.
Seventeen went on to fight in the Revolutionary War. Richard Stockton of New Jersey, George Wallon of Georgia, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, and the wife of Francis Lewis of New York were all taken prisoner by the British. Another seventeen lost most or all of their property and wealth. Not one renounced the Declaration, or left the cause.
Two of the signers (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) became Presidents of the U.S. Three became Vice Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts, after whom the word “gerrymander” gets its name.) Two became Supreme Court Justices (Samuel Chase of Maryland and James Wilson of Pennsylvania). Four became senators; four, ambassadors; seventeen, governors of their states; fifteen, state judges, including nine chief justices; five, speakers of their state legislatures.
The last survivor was Maryland’s Charles Carroll, who passed on in 1832 at age 95. He had also been the wealthiest signer; when he affixed his signature, one of the other fifty-six quipped “There goes a million dollars.”