for National Geographic News
On Sunday, the Fourth of July, millions of U.S. citizens will fire up the barbeque and shoot off fireworks in celebration of the Declaration of Independence, a now-sacred document that declares the independence of what were then 13 united colonies from England.
But the Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence on the second of July in 1776. No one signed it until August 2, and the last signatures didn't come until the end of November.
"The only thing that happened on the fourth was they approved the document," said Ronald Hoffman, director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Several members of the Congress who voted for independence never signed the document, and several members who signed the document, were absent when the vote was taken, Hoffman added.
John Adams, the second President of the United States, was in 1776 a delegate to the Continental Congress representing the colony of Massachusetts. He wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, that "the second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America."
Pauline Maier, a professor of U.S. history and authority on the American Revolution, said that "in 1777, Congress didn't think of recalling the event until it was too late to celebrate the second, and the fourth became standard."
And much to the chagrin of Adamswho played an active role in revising drafts of the declaration into its final formVirginia representative Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the original, took much of the credit as the sole author of the document.
"John Adams's claim to share in the glory of independence was well founded," Maier said. "He did far more than Jefferson to bring Congress to the point of approving separation from Britain."
Coincidentally, Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was approved.
Gordon Wood, a history professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said that today many U.S. citizens fail to understand the gravity of the Declaration of Independence.
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