It began in the spring of 1776, as North Carolina and Virginia became the first colonies to actively support a separation from Great Britain. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia first proposed a resolution stating "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States ...." John Adams, a big proponent of Independence from the Massachusetts Bay colony (which bore the brunt of the burdens), seconded the motion, but a vote was postponed until a formal Declaration stating the reasons for such an action could be written. By doing so, the members of Congress hoped to gain support from other nations in the struggle that was sure to follow. A committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman was organized to bring the document into being.
But who was to write the document? Livingston and Sherman had other commitments, and Franklin was still recovering from a trip to Montreal. Adams was brusque and not altogether well liked in Congress. Jefferson, the soft-spoken Virginian was a master of the written word, and finally agreed to draw up the document. The Declaration of Independence was completed and introduced to the Congress on July 1st. The next day, Lee's resolution was officially approved (actually making for the argument that July 2nd is the true Independence Day). After several changes to Jefferson's original document, including the removal of his denunciation of the slave trade (despite being a slaveholder himself), the Declaration of Independence as we know it was adopted on July 4th, 1776, and officially approved on the 19th.
A total of 56 signatures appear on the document, one for each of the delegates to the Congress, but the formal signing didn't begin until August 2nd, 1776, and not all the members of that Congress signed at that time. Virginian delegate George Wythe signed his name on the 27th. Richard Henry Lee, who made the original proposal, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts, and Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut signed in September. Matthew Thornton became a New Hampshire delegate in September and put his name to paper two months later. The last man to sign was Delaware's Thomas McKean in 1781. McKean had served in the army in the mean time, and had received special permission to put off the signing until his service was finished.
It was also McKean who was responsible for bringing fellow Delawarian delegate, Caesar Rodney to the July 2nd vote to break the tie in Delaware's decision to vote for or against Independence. Without Rodney's vote, the required unanimous decision would not have been reached, and the United States might very well not exist today.
But who were those men who risked their very lives and livelihood to revolt against the largest and strongest Empire to reign on earth since the legendary Roman Empire? What happened to those men after they became traitors to the crown by putting pen to paper? Click the link below to see a brief bio of each of the 56 men who shaped the country we live in today.