As you fire up your barbecue and get ready for the fireworks, consider this - July 4th is actually the wrong date to celebrate American Independence.
When the Second Continental Congress gathered to declare the country’s freedom from Great Britain, it did so on July 2nd, 1776, not July 4th. That's when the Congress members voted on a formal resolution announcing a separation from England.
The resolution was introduced by Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, and made it pretty clear what the “United Colonies,” as they called themselves, were intending to do:
“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.”
On July 2nd, this resolution was approved by 12 out of 13 colonies, with the NY delegation abstaining on a voting technicality. The New York Provincial Congress supported the independence formally a week later.
As the resolution passed, John Adams, one of the leaders of the American Revolution, in fact, was so convinced that July 2nd would go down in history as the day to celebrate that he wrote this ebullient letter to his wife Abigail on July 3rd:
“The most memorable Epocha, 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 solemnized with Pomp and Parade with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
He was certainly right about the sports, games, bonfires, and illuminations as parts of our July 4th traditions. And guns too, as far as some Americans are concerned.
So how did we get July 4th as the holiday? That’s when the finished version of the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia. It was a more formal document aimed at announcing the event to the world at large. It was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, a noted lawyer and Virginia planter (later to become our third President).
Interestingly (at least if you’re into such historical trivia), the Declaration was sent to a printer named John Dunlap, who printed about 200 copies of it, with John Hancock’s name printed at the bottom. Only 26 copies of that original print remain with us today.
In another fascinating tidbit, most of the members of the Continental Congress signed a version of the Declaration on August 2nd, 1776. So a famous painting by John Trumbull showing how the Declaration was signed by everyone on the 4th is also presenting an incorrect version of history.