Great moments in document history: Reimagining the Declaration of Independence as a PDF

Digital image of The Declaration of Independence.

On the Fourth of July in the United States, we observe Independence Day, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Signaling a critical step toward the formation of the United States of America, the Declaration is among the most famous and important documents in our history.

Most of us in the U.S. are familiar — to some degree — with the Declaration of Independence. We think about what the Declaration meant for the Revolutionary War, for the American system of government, and for the idea of a free democracy. And we get together, shoot off fireworks, and celebrate on our national day.

But we don’t often think about the document itself, or the process of actually composing it. What of the two-plus weeks Thomas Jefferson spent iteratively writing out the political origins of a country? What were the revisions made by Ben Franklin and John Adams? We know of John Hancock’s oversized signature, but what about the other 55 delegates who signed the parchment with their quills?

In his biography, Ben Franklin provided a glimpse into the collaborative, painstaking process behind the development of the Declaration of Independence — detailing the various drafts, meticulous edits, and vital changes that went into crafting one of the most influential documents in American history. But what if it had been a digital document created using PDFs and electronic signatures?

Declaring America’s independence, digitally

Holed up for 17 days on the second floor of a rented Philadelphia boarding house in 1776, Jefferson set about writing the Declaration of Independence — without much consideration for preserving the paper trail that produced such a defining historical moment.

But suppose Jefferson could have easily saved his work as a PDF as he went along. He could have kept and accessed previous versions of the document, or exported and sent them in various formats for safekeeping. Certainly, archivists today would be grateful.

According to the Library of Congress, a rare “original Rough draught” of the document “shows the multiplicity of corrections, additions and deletions that were made at each step.” Franklin and Adams were the first to review Jefferson’s initial manuscript, making 47 revisions before it went to the full Congress for further refinement. By the time the Declaration was ratified, nearly 100 manual alterations had been made to the handwritten document.

At least 86 alterations were made to Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence document before its final adoption on July 4, 1776.

Rather than writing alone by candlelight, crumpling up and tossing away drafts as he worked to perfect the Declaration, Jefferson would have appreciated the benefits of real-time digital document collaboration with Adobe Acrobat. He could easily create a link and send it to multiple reviewers, sharing the PDF file with all the delegates who needed to review it and using @ mentions to guide exactly where feedback was needed — even if Jefferson didn’t necessarily want the feedback.__

Nevertheless, reviewers could have left comments and annotated the document, working collaboratively from anywhere, on any device, and in real time — no need for all those delegates to get together in that Philadelphia convention hall and look over each other’s shoulders. They could ratify the Declaration instantly, seamlessly, with just a couple of clicks on their smartphones.

Ever the decision-maker, Franklin would have likely been happy for the ability to directly edit the text — rather than waiting for Jefferson to finish and hand him the physical parchment. Perhaps he would have enjoyed the simplicity of editing within his favorite Microsoft 365 application integrated right into Acrobat.

“I wish sincerely, as well for the honor of Congress, as for that of the States, that the Manuscript had not been mangled as it is.”

Thomas Jefferson, on the revisions made to his work, perhaps wishing he could have used Adobe Acrobat to lock the PDF and disabled edits.

Then there’s the signing of the Declaration. Within a month after it was ratified by the Second Continental Congress, the document was completely signed — in person, with pen and paper — by 56 delegates from the 13 colonies. While the official Declaration of Independence was signed and dated on July 4, historians generally agree not every delegate actually did so that day, because of travel issues, disease, or other factors.

Many delegates would have welcomed being able to add their signatures to the document electronically. They could have used the Fill and Sign tool for Adobe Acrobat Sign to quickly and easily put their names on the Declaration, and do so from anywhere in the country using a web browser or their smartphone.

Image of the Founding Fathers looking over The Declaration of Independence.

Not only could the Founding Fathers have signed remotely and electronically, but they could have requested signatures by sending it to delegates who needed a reminder.

And let’s not forget about document security. Planning political independence, writing and formalizing a document expressing independence, and gathering to sign the Declaration of Independence was a fairly risky endeavor at the time for this important group of soon-to-be Americans.

With the total document security of Adobe Acrobat and Acrobat Sign — including encrypted password security for PDFs, 100 percent legal and compliant e-signatures, and the reputable trust of a global brand — the Declaration would have been completely safe and protected from the British.

Digital image of and old document on a laptop.

Digital benefits for any document

In business, documents are the backbone. From sales deals to employee offer letters, procurement orders to legal contracts, documents are essential to nearly every transaction and agreement. But documents have also been at the heart of significant political changes, social movements, and more.

Some of the most pivotal moments in our history have been recorded, endorsed, abolished, and commemorated in documents. Even as digital transformation continues and new technology changes the way we chronicle and consume information, documents will remain at the center of major decisions and events.

The Founding Fathers didn’t have the luxury of modern technology, digital tools, and seamless workflows to craft the Declaration of Independence — but they composed a transformational text that gave birth to American democracy anyway. Luckily, today, we can create digital documents far faster and easier. We can work remotely yet collaboratively, productively across different devices and intuitively use powerful integrations, with flexible and unlimited e-signature capabilities and best-in-class security and compliance features.

With Adobe Acrobat, we keep business moving and stay connected with our teams no matter where we’re working, with a full set of tools to create, convert, edit, export, sign, and share PDFs. And when we need to quickly and securely apply our John Hancock — er, e-signature — we have Acrobat Sign.