Independence Day – Fourth of July?

The Fourth of July is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States of America. Celebration is the key word – dazzling fireworks erupting over cities and towns and families gathering at sun drenched BBQs and picnics on this best loved of public holidays. It has been officially commemorated since the 1780s and observed as a federal holiday since 1870. But are Americans celebrating on the wrong day?

On 2 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in closed session in Philadelphia, approved a resolution of independence. The United States were declared separate from Great Britain and the sovereignty of the ‘tyrannical’ George III was renounced. John Adams, a leading proponent of independence in the Congress, wrote full of emotion to his wife, Abigail:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Adams was right in predicting that the declaration of independence would be celebrated by future generations as a great festival. He foresaw the fireworks, shows, pomp and parades that would mark Independence Days over the coming centuries. But he did not predict the right day. Why is Independence Day celebrated on the Fourth of July rather than the date of the Congressional resolution?

There are a number of reasons. The resolution passed on the 2 July 1776 was made in a closed session of Congress from which the public were excluded. It decided on independence but left the final text of the declaration for debate and approval. The resolution was, however, unambiguous:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Thomas Jefferson’s draft Declaration of Independence was then subject to Congressional scrutiny and amendment. This was finally complete by 4 July 1776, when the text was approved and sent to the printers for publication.

Most of the public only learned of the Declaration on or after this date and the Declaration itself was dated 4 July 1776, so it is only natural that the fourth of July was considered to be the ‘true’ Independence Day. The fact of independence had, however, been publicised in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on 2 July 1776 when they published the statement: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”

As George Mason University’s History News Network puts it: “what has happened is that the document announcing the event has overshadowed the event itself.”

Another historical quirk is the debate over when the declaration was signed by all of the delegates of the Second Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin all agreed that the Declaration of Independence was signed by all the delegates on 4 July 1776. Corroboration by three of America’s leading founding fathers would normally provide sufficient evidence to establish historical fact. The national myth is further embellished in commemorative depictions, most notably John Trumbell’s painting in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building.

In the case of the Declaration, however, it seems that all three ‘misremembered’ the signing.  David McCullough’s excellent biography of John Adams notes that this artistic representation and the Founding Father’s memories are false: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”

Most delegates actually signed the Declaration a month later, on 2 August 1776. Some stragglers delayed signing until the end of the year. Their names were only made public in January 1777, the secrecy informed by the penalties for the treasonous act if their rebellion turned sour.

So does this mean I think Independence Day should be celebrated on the second of July? Or perhaps on the second of August, the date most Congressmen signed it? No. Whilst this post might highlight some of the historical quirks around the date of the resolution and the publication of the Declaration, the Fourth of July has assumed a significance of its own and, as a national day, it has few equals in the world.