Contrary to popular belief, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4th. On that day, the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted by the Continental Congress. On July 19th, the Continental Congress voted to have it engrossed and signed. The document was ready for delegates' signatures by August 2nd, and that is the earliest date at which Jefferson and the other delegates present in Philadelphia could have signed it.
The Dunlap Broadside
On the evening of July 4, 1776 a manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence was taken to Philadelphia printer, John Dunlap. By the next morning finished copies had been pulled and delivered to Congress for distribution. The number printed is not known, though it must have been substantial; the broadsides were distributed by members of Congress throughout the Colonies. Post riders were sent out with copies of the Declaration, and General Washington, then in New York, had several brigades of the army drawn up at 6 p.m. on July 9 to hear it read. The Declaration was read from the balcony of the State House in Boston on July 18 but did not reach Georgia until mid August. Twenty-four original copies of what is referred to as the "Dunlap broadside" are still in existence.
The Engrossed Declaration
By July 9 all thirteen colonies had signified their approval, and so on July 19 Congress was able to order that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment. . .and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." Timothy Matlack is believed to be the engrosser of the Declaration. On August 2nd the document was ready, and the journal of the Continental Congress records that "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed." Following the signing, it is believed the document accompanied the Continental Congress during the Revolution and remained with government records following the war. During the War of 1812 it was kept at a private residence in Leesburg, Virginia and during World War II it was housed at Fort Knox. Today, the original document is kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Hazelton, John H. The Declaration of Independence: Its History. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1906. Reprinted 1970 by Da Capo Press. In-depth look at the creation of the Declaration of Independence. An appendix contains transcriptions of contemporary letters and annotations on the various drafts and changes to the Declaration.