There are five documents that are revered in American history in association with the American Revolution: The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Treaty of Versailles (with France 6 February 1778), the Preliminary Articles of Peace (with Great Britain (signed in London 30 November 1782)) and the Peace of Paris (3 September 1783). All these documents conclude with the signatures of the contributors, providing a snapshot of the delegates who would be immortalized as well.
The Declaration of Independence, approved on 4 July 1776, would be signed by 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress. On June 11 a committee of five had been appointed to provide a draft document: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Jefferson would provide the first draft and the committee then met to make editorial revisions. The final wording of the document would await open debate by the Second Continental Congress, with elimination of perhaps 25% of the committee’s final draft. Among the editorial changes, Franklin famously overstruck Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable . . .” and suggested, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” Franklin had met on two occasions with the great philosopher of the British Enlightenment, David Hume, and had argued the issues of freedom intensively for years with the greatest political minds of London, Edinburgh, and the American colonies. In the end his correction would prevail and provide a vexation for the United States over the ensuing three generations. And Franklin would be one of the delegates to affix his signature.
The Treaty of Versailles was the culmination of negotiations between Franklin and the court of Louis XVI, negotiated through Vergennes, the minister to the colonies. Franklin had been advised that not one monarch in Europe would come to the American side of the conflict until the Americans had demonstrated to the world that they were capable of fighting successfully for their independence through a show of force on the battlefield. The Continental Army was finally able to demonstrate their ability at Saratoga, New York in October, 1777, defeating the army of General John Burgoyne. When news of this victory arrived in Europe there ensued a flurry of activity between Passy and Versailles, as Franklin, now taking the offensive as well at the negotiating table, dictated terms to Vergennes. The result would be signed officially by the French representatives and by the American French ministry of Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and yes, Benjamin Franklin.
The preliminary treaty with Great Britain of 1782 was negotiated in large part by Franklin himself, as he awaited the arrival of John Adams and the convalescence of John Jay. The document was signed by the British representative Richard Oswald, and the American delegation of Franklin, Adams, Jay, and Henry Laurens. Laurens was a late arrival, and his major contribution to the document was Article 7, which guaranteed that the British withdrawal of naval and military forces from North America would not include confiscation of slave property from the American colonies. Laurens and Oswald had been business partners 20 years previously and had made their fortune from human trafficking in West Africa. Laurens, representing the American southern colonies in the negotiations, was determined to achieve the return of over 1000 fugitive Black African slaves from the colonies who had joined with the British military through a promise of manumission when the British successfully suppressed the Revolution. With this treaty, there would be no manumission, and these people would be returned to the American authorities. Of note, the secretary for the American delegation was William Temple Franklin; the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, his signature is also appended.
The Peace of Paris was signed in Paris on 3 September 1783 by the United States, France, Spain, and the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) along with Great Britain. Each of the allies of the United States would sign a separate treaty but all treaties were, by previous agreement among the allies, signed simultaneously to avoid negotiations of “a separate peace” by any one country with Great Britain. The American peace delegation consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. Henry Laurens was absent at this point, having hurried back to South Carolina after the death of his son John Laurens in one of the final skirmishes of the war, ten months after Yorktown. The three remaining American delegates, along with British negotiator David Hartley, appended their names at the bottom of the document, which also gave the United States the Northwest Territory (now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan).
The “Miracle in Philadelphia,” the United States Constitution, was the culmination of a long summer of serious and continuous negotiations among thirty-nine delegates from twelve different American states (no longer “colonies”, the one state that declined to participate was Rhode Island). On 17 September 1787 James Wilson rose to read a summation written by Benjamin Franklin carefully worded to encourage the unanimous signing of the document. At the conclusion of Wilson’s reading, Franklin slowly rose with quill in hand and walked to the desk of the presiding chairman, George Washington, to append his name to the document. This simple act was followed by the immediate rising of the delegation to join in the unanimous signing.
So in the end, there was but one person in history who signed all five documents that comprise the American Revolutionary experience, and that was of course Benjamin Franklin. And this was no coincidence, and no accident of history. This was quite deliberate, and Franklin made it happen.