On Independence Day in 1776 John Adams wrote to his way Abigail that “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
He was right that Americans would continue to celebrate the anniversary of independence. What he did not know was the Americans would celebrate their nation’s birthday two days late each year. The United States declared independence on July 2, 1776.
The process began on June 7, 1776, when Richard Henry Lee, acting on instruction given to him by the Virginia Convention (the extra-legal body that provisionally governed Virginia until a formal government was created), introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia that stated “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.”
Several of the colonies’ delegations could not vote for independence until they received authorizations from back home. The vote on Lee’s Resolution was therefore put off for almost a month. The vote finally came on July 2.
Perhaps one could say that Richard Henry Lee was the author of the Declaration of Independence.
The July 4 mistake can be traced back to June 10, 1776. On that day, while voting to delay the vote on independence, the Continental Congress created a Committee of Five to draft a declaration explaining the colonies’ decision to declare independence, if Congress decided to do so. In other words, the Declaration of Independence was meant to be a press release.
Sitting on the committee were Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration. Adams was the most influential member of the group, however, for he had been the leader of the pro-independence faction in Congress. In fact Adams deserves much of the credit for the decision.
After declaring independence on July 2, Congress met on July 4 to go over the wording of the Committee’s declaration. After making some changes, most notably removing a clause that condemned the slave trade and blamed George III for it, the document was sent back to the Committee of Five so that a final copy could be written up and sent to a printer. Most members of Congress did not actually sing the Declaration of Independence until August 1776. A few did not sign until the fall because they had not been in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, the date on the Declaration of Independence was July 4. Because the Declaration was how people learned of the final break from Britain, they got used to celebrating on the 4th, and sadly the tradition stuck.
If Independence Day means more to you than barbecues and fireworks, take a moment TODAY and thank our founders for risking our lives to give us the greatest nation in the history of the world.
—Peter Sicher, Magazine Editor