Why do we celebrate Independence Day on the fourth day of July? Certainly one Founding Father, John Adams, didn’t pick that date.
In a letter sent by Adams from Philadelphia to his wife Abigail, dated July 3, 1776, Adams confidently predicted future generations would celebrate the anniversary of the independence for 13 British colonies from the authority of King George III on July second, not the fourth:
‘The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.”
So, OK then, why the second day? After all, he might just as easily have named May 15, 1776 as the official start of our country.
May 15 was the day the Second Continental Congress began debating the first resolution to dissolve the colonial governments, advising each colony to replace them with new governments, this time without anyone taking an oath of loyalty to The Crown, which, no doubt, would view such actions as treason.
The preamble to this resolution, written by Adams, drew a clear line of separation:
” … whereas it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies …”
Yet there was a big problem with the vote on this resolution that followed.
Only a majority of delegates from six colonies voted in favor of the resolution, while a majority of delegates from four others voted against it.
Plus, the delegates of New York and Maryland didn’t vote at all, having received explicit instructions from their respective leaders that under no circumstances were they to vote for anything that prevented their colonies from reconciling with the king.
The delegates of Pennsylvania also abstained from voting because of similar restraints.
As author William Hogeland wrote in his book “Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent” (Simon & Schuster, 2010):
“This was a crisis. Without all thirteen acting as one, the separate colonies were in jeopardy. If peace commissioners, or the British army, or both arrived now, America would lack a united front.”
And this was a very realistic fear. Thomas Jefferson soon began writing the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, and as he worked on it in the middle of June, the British were launching an invasion.
Alan Dershowitz writes in his book “America Declares Independence”(John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003):
While Jefferson was busily writing the words that would help define our new nation – if it were to prevail on the battlefield – George Washington was receiving word that a British fleet of 132 vessels had sailed from Canada and was expected to attack New York. Another 53 warships were approaching Charleston, South Carolina. The most powerful armada and the greatest army ever to reach this continent were poised to attack our cities and seaports.”
While the May 15 resolution essentially meant the beginning of the end for British authority over the colonies, Adams recognized that it was not a formal declaration of independence.
So a committee of five members was appointed to produce such a document: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston of New York.
After Jefferson wrote the first draft, he handed it over to the rest of the committee for further adjustments.
On June 28, the Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress but immediately shelved because Maryland and New York were still holding out on their support.
Instead, on the first day of July, Congress once again took up the previous resolution penned by Adams.
It should be noted that all the debates surrounding these documents were conducted in secret, behind closed and guarded doors, and were not even recorded by the secretary. What we know about them comes from notes in the Congressional Journal and later accounts by the participants.
Delegates from South Carolina, which had up to this point opposed the resolution, asked that the decision be put off until the next day, so they could rethink their position.
On the second of July, Congress received word from George Washington about the impending British invasion. This time, the resolution passed with a yes vote from a majority of delegates from 12 colonies.
A week later, New York allowed its delegates to add their approval.
On the third of July, the British landed on Staten Island. Congress asked Pennsylvania to send troops to reinforce militiamen already in the area, then turned its attention to the new declaration before it.
A Committee of the Whole spent that day and the next revising the document.
On the fourth of July, they announced that they had come to an agreement and presented the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress, which adopted it and ordered it to be printed, then sent it to several states and to the commanding officers of the Continental Army.
By formally announcing and justifying the end of British rule, that document, as letters from Congress’s president, John Hancock, explained, laid “the Ground & Foundation” of American self-government.
This had to be proclaimed not only to American militiamen but also throughout the country.
There is considerable controversy about exactly when it was signed, however, as Jefferson later claimed that all who were there that day signed it, except for one dissenter who stubbornly held out for reconciliation with the king.
The original published broadside, however, only appears with the signature of the Congress’s President John Hancock, according to “American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997):
“The Journals of the Second Continental Congress say only that on July 19, after New York’s approval became known, Congress resolved “that the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress,” and that on August 2 “the declaration of independence being engrossed and compared was signed,” although some members added their signatures at later times.”
And so, the historical record shows, there are several dates in 1776 that could have been contenders, including May 15, June 28, July 2, July 19 and even August 2.
Yet the Second Continental Congress approved the formal declaration on the Fourth of July, so it is likely for that reason that this date was chosen and celebrated a year later in Boston and Philadelphia, on July 4, 1777, regardless of Adams’ opinion.
In case anyone is interested, there were fireworks as part of the celebrations on that day in both those cities.