On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote two letters to his beloved Abigail exuberantly reporting that history had been made: One day earlier, the Continental Congress had voted to declare American independence from the British Empire. Henceforth, Adams predicted, July 2 would be celebrated by every generation with parades, speeches, songs and what he called “illuminations.” He got everything right, even the fireworks. But he got the date wrong.
Or perhaps we get the date wrong. The widespread assumption is that the Fourth of July is the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, the actual moment the founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the Great Question of Independence.
The popular musical “1776” dramatically depicts a signing ceremony on the Fourth. And the iconic painting “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, a version of which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, is often captioned “July 4, 1776.”
But neither the musical nor the caption is historically correct. Trumbull’s picture depicts the moment on June 28 when the committee that drafted the declaration presented its work to John Hancock, chair of the Continental Congress. The play’s signing ceremony is theatrically compelling, but it never happened.
There was no singular moment when all the delegates signed the document. Most put pen to parchment on Aug. 4. (It had taken some time for the final draft to be “engrossed” — formally hand-copied.) Some signatures were added as late as November.
So why do we celebrate the Fourth? Because that is the day the declaration was sent to the printer, who then put that date on the top of the document, copies of which were distributed throughout the colonies and beyond. It became the date that readers then, and Americans ever since, recognized as the anniversary of American independence, even though nothing of historical significance actually occurred on that day.
By all rights, Adams’ choice, July 2, makes more sense. That was the day independence was officially decided and declared: “A Resolution was passed,” John told Abigail, “without one dissenting Colony ‘that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States….’ ” The revolutionary lightning struck at that moment, and the publication of the Declaration of Independence two days later was merely the thunderous aftermath, the sound following the fury.
The next year, however, the Continental Congress decided to take a commemorative day off on the Fourth; over the next decade, cities, towns and states also marked that date. And once established, it gradually achieved a kind of historical significance of its own that seemed to confirm the wisdom of the choice.
On July 4, 1803, word arrived from Paris that the Louisiana Purchase had been signed by Napoleon, an event of enormous significance rendered almost providential because of the chronological coincidence. On July 4, 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army began its retreat from Gettysburg, which newspapers in the northern states reported as a sign from the heavens that the Confederate cause was now lost.
The most providential event of all, however, occurred on July 4, 1826. For on that day both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson went to the hereafter. Adam’s last words were,“Thomas Jefferson still lives,” although Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. Jefferson’s last words, muttered the preceding evening, were, “Is it the Fourth?”
Both founders seemed determined to die on schedule, thereby endorsing July 4 as the sanctioned anniversary for American independence. Even if the date had been wrong for 50 years, it has been right ever since.
Joseph J. Ellis is the author of “Revolutionary Summer” and “Founding Brothers” and many other books of American history.
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