Between the States and the Signers: The Politics of the Declaration of Independence Before the Civil War – Article by Bernadette Meyler

From Volume 89, Number 3 (March 2016)

It is almost impossible to conjure the thought of the Declaration of Independence today without also raising the specters of the signers. Commonplace invocations of “John Hancock” stand in for the prototypical signature, and elementary school children throughout the country learn details about the lives of the signers. The signers did not, however, authorize the Declaration simply for themselves. As Jacques Derrida wrote in 1986, “[t]he signature invents the signer,” meaning that the signatures affixed to the Declaration in the name of the “People” created the very people whom the document invoked. But simply invoking this People does not answer many questions about its identity; who constitutes the People temporally and spatially continues to trouble political theorists. ? The problem is far from new. The circumstances surrounding the initial articulation of the Declaration already indicated some uncertainty about how the people would be identified and how the relevant people might be organized. In particular, as Danielle Allen has explained, there were four different official versions of the Declaration, only the last of which included the signatures that have now become synonymous with the document. John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration demonstrates another difficulty surrounding the identity of those who authorized it; for painterly as well as pragmatic reasons, Trumbull’s representation includes not only some of those present at the signing, but also others who voted for the Declaration yet did not sign it.

This Symposium Article tells the story of the relationship between the emergence of focus on the signers and arguments about the “People.” At the same time as autograph collectors began accumulating the signatures of the signers, the political contest over the “People” of the United States drew the Declaration into its arguments. Controversy focused, in particular, on whether this People was united from the Declaration onwards or consisted in the people of the several states.