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The Liberty Bell on display in Philadelphia. A prominent crack in the bell is visible

Debunking famous myths about the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is a core document in the founding of the United States. Find out which stories about it aren’t quite true.

Image: It has often been said that the Liberty Bell was rung so jubilantly on 4th July 1776 that it cracked |

The Declaration of Independence is a momentous document in US history. It marks the moment when the colonies (that would later become the United States) announced that they were independent from Great Britain.

It is understandable, then, that a few legends have developed around this document. In fact, you might even be surprised to hear that some commonly believed ‘facts’ about the Declaration of Independence are actually myths.

It was signed by all the delegates on 4th July

Everyone knows that the United States’ Independence Day is celebrated annually on 4th July. But strangely, that date is not the one on which the colonies declared independence. It was actually on 2nd July 1776 that the Continental Congress voted for and announced their independence from British rule. The 4th was the date when the Declaration of Independence was formally approved and adopted.

The first copies of the Declaration of Independence, printed on 5th July, were signed only by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, its secretary. But the Declaration that would feature all the delegates’ signatures was ‘engrossed’ or written out by hand. Most of the delegates actually signed it on 2nd August of that year.

John Hancock joked about his famously large signature

John Hancock was known for having a very large signature. On the Declaration of Independence signed by all the attendees, his signature is noticeably far larger than anyone else’s. It is easy to understand why ‘John Hancock’ has become a slang term for a signature!

However, a myth has arisen around that famously big signature on the Declaration. The story says that after John Hancock signed, he pointed to his signature and said that ‘John Bull’ (a personification of Great Britain) would be able to read it without spectacles.

Sometimes, the story says that Britain had put a bounty on Hancock’s head and that Hancock’s large signature was meant to show his defiance and fearlessness. At other times, the story replaces John Bull with the more literal embodiment of Britain, King George III.

However, nothing about this myth is true. There is no indication that Britain ever offered a bounty for Hancock. Also, the document was never intended to be sent to Britain, so there was no reason to believe the king or any representative of Britain would read it.

All this being said, it does seem that the delegates felt they were placing themselves in danger by signing the document. According to another story about the signing of the Declaration, Hancock said, ‘There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together.’ Supposedly, famous wit Benjamin Franklin replied, ‘We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.’

The Liberty Bell was rung and cracked on 4th July 1776

The famously cracked Liberty Bell, still a popular sight for tourists in Philadelphia, seems as though it ought to be linked with the Declaration of Independence. For one thing, the name ‘Liberty’ appears to connect it with the fight for national independence.

However, that is not the case at all. The Liberty Bell was originally called the State House Bell. A Bible verse about liberty is written on it: ‘Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ But the bell only became known as the Liberty Bell in the 1830s, when it was connected with the movement for the abolition of slavery.

A popular myth about the Liberty Bell is that it was rung on 4th July 1776 to celebrate the Declaration of Independence – and that it was rung with such jubilation that it cracked.

Sadly, there is no evidence that the bell was ever rung on 4th July. The city of Philadelphia celebrated the Declaration of Independence on 8th July 1776 – so it might have been rung then, but there is no proof that it was.

As for the crack, no one is completely certain how it came about. Some believe it was cracked just after it was made. The largest and final crack happened in 1846.

It contains a secret map

A more modern myth about the Declaration of Independence is that it contains a secret map on its back. We can thank the Nicholas Cage film National Treasure for this tale. Unfortunately, this is just a bit of movie magic. The back of the Declaration contains only a note describing what it is and its date.

To learn more about pivotal moments in the American Revolutionary War, read about Yorktown, its last major battle, or the Treaty of Paris, in which the British formally recognised the new republic’s independence.