The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia for months debating whether or not to take this drastic step and the actual vote for independence occurred on July 2, 1776, The next day, John Adams wrote a letter to his beloved wife exuberantly reporting that history had been made the day before: “A Resolution was passed, without one dissenting Colony, that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” 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.
So what did happen on July 4, 1776?The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence when they were meeting in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. A committee (principally Thomas Jefferson) had been drafting a proposed document for weeks and after July 2nd, the Congress spent two more days revising the final draft until they all came to agreement on all of the edits and changes. Keep in mind that with quill pens, it was a tedious process to make edits and create a new edited version of any document. The Declaration of Independence agreed to on the Fourth was merely the thunderous aftermath, the sound following the fury.
July 4, 1776, became the date that was included on the Declaration of Independence, and the fancy handwritten copy that was signed in August (the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) It’s also the date that was printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original printed copies of the Declaration that were circulated throughout the new nation. So when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 was the date they remembered.
In contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th of each year, the anniversary of the date the Constitution was signed, not the anniversary of the date it was approved. If we’d followed this same approach for the Declaration of Independence we’d being celebrating Independence Day on August 2nd of each year, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed!
How did the Fourth of July become a national holiday in the United States?For the first 15 or 20 years after the Declaration was written, people didn’t celebrate it much on any date. It was too new and too much else was happening in the young nation. By the 1790s, a time of bitter partisan conflicts, the Declaration had become controversial. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the Declaration. But the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too French and too anti-British, which went against their current policies.
By 1817, John Adams complained in a letter that America seemed uninterested in its past. But that would soon change.
After the War of 1812, the Federalist party began to come apart and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top.
Coincidentally, the Fourth of July was momentous for other reasons. 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. Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1939 and 1941.
The most providential event of all, however, occurred on July 4, 1826, when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day. 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.