U.S. Independence Celebrated on the Wrong Day?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 2, 2004
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 Adams—who played an active role in revising drafts of the declaration into its final form—Virginia 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.

Declaring Independence

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.

"Most people don't think about it too much," he said. "It's an occasion for cookouts and firecrackers, but at the time it was a big deal—breaking away from the British Empire and establishing independence."

The declaration sets forth a list of grievances with the King of England, George III, that justified a breaking of ties between the colonies and the mother country. At the time, the British Empire was all-powerful. A group of colonies breaking away was an unprecedented event, Wood said.

"Now Britain seems like small potatoes compared to the power of the U.S. The whole relationship has been reversed," he said.

The declaration was drafted by a committee of five appointed by the Continental Congress on June 11, 1776. Members included Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Jefferson of Virginia.

The committee selected Jefferson to draft the document, which members of the committee revised and then submitted to the Continental Congress on June 28. The Congress tabled it.

"After approving a resolution on Independence submitted by Richard Henry Lee on July 2, Congress took up the tabled draft declaration and, as a committee of the whole, edited it, then finally approved the version it had edited on July 4," Maier said.

Slavery Debate

According to Hoffman, the debate over Jefferson's original draft was heated.

"Jefferson's original draft included a strong condemnation of slavery and the slave trade," he said. "The southern delegation wouldn't go along with it, so Jefferson backed off and allowed it to be removed."

The removal of the antislavery language, according to Hoffman, left Jefferson feeling like the British had the moral high ground. The last royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, had offered freedom to any slaves who joined in the fight on the side of the king.

"Jefferson felt the rebels needed to justify the revolution on behalf of equality, and you can't have equality when you have a society based on slavery," Hoffman said. "Jefferson's inability to square that circle embedded the contradiction between slavery and freedom at the core of the founding of the United States."

Whether Jefferson felt he lost the moral high ground to the British or not, Maier said that today most Americans revere Jefferson as the father of independence itself and of the declaration.

"We forget the large number of people who were involved, not only the drafting committee and in Congress, but in the towns, counties, and state legislatures that also declared their support for independence, often explaining their reasons in the late spring and early summer of 1776," she said.

Although Fourth of July celebrations were standard fare throughout the 19th century, the day was not an official paid holiday for federal employees until 1941.

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