Is the Fourth of July a belated birthday?

Posted: July 04, 2012

By Daniel Deagler

On the occasion of our nation's founding, John Adams, who was as responsible for it as any man, wrote that "The 2nd day of July 1776 will be 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 forevermore."

He got everything right but the date. It was, of course, the fourth day of July that turned out to be the definitive date in American history. Our national birthday is not really even called "Independence Day" so much as simply "the Fourth of July," words that flood our minds with memories of flags, marching bands, hot dogs, friends, family, and fireworks.

So why, then, did Adams believe it would be the second day of July that would be marked indelibly on our national calendar? Why do we celebrate the fourth instead, and what actually happened on that date?

So moved

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (a great uncle of Robert E. Lee) presented to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia the following resolution, which was seconded by Adams: "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."

Since the delegates of several of the colonies — including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey — were not authorized to vote for outright independence, debate on the resolution was postponed for three weeks to allow the case for independence to be made to the colonial legislatures.

On June 11, anticipating adoption of the Lee Resolution, the Congress appointed a Committee of Five (Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York) to draft an official declaration of the colonies' reasons for severing ties with Great Britain. (The famous painting The Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbell, depicts the committee presenting the draft to a seated John Hancock on June 28, 1776.) The declaration was then put aside while the Lee Resolution was debated.

The Lee Resolution was ultimately adopted on July 2, with the approval of 12 of the 13 colonies. (New York's delegates abstained, but the colony's legislature, which had been forced to evacuate New York City as British forces approached, would vote to join the others on July 9.)

Upon approval of the Lee Resolution — upon John Hancock's banging of the gavel and saying "so moved" — the Congress formally broke ties with Britain, and it could be argued that our nation came into existence at that moment. This was Adams' thinking when he predicted that July 2 would become Independence Day.

Not a word

The Congress then went on to debate the Committee of Five's formal reasons for declaring independence — titled "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America" — that day and the next, July 3. On the morning of Thursday, July 4, 1776, at 11 o'clock, debate on the declaration was closed and a vote was taken: 12 yeas, one abstention (New York again).

Only Hancock is thought to have signed the declaration on that first Fourth of July. Then he sent it to John Dunlap's print shop, at Second and Market Streets, to have 200 broadsides printed. According to the historian David McCullough, Adams, who was so effusive about the events of July 2, "recorded not a word of July 4." Jefferson shopped for ladies' gloves and a thermometer at John Sparhawk's Philadelphia store on that day.

What about the Liberty Bell? It may indeed have rung to "proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," but not until July 8, to summon the citizens of Philadelphia to hear Col. John Nixon read the declaration from the steps of the statehouse.

So is there any great difference in significance between July 2, when the Continental Congress decided to declare independence, and July 4, when it agreed on how to formally announce it?

July 2 was the what: The colonies broke free from Britain; it is the starting point. But every independent nation has a starting point. July 4, and the Declaration of Independence, marked the United States' unique why: not only to give territorial sovereignty to a particular group of people, but on the basis of an idea applicable to all people.

The Lee Resolution was a courageous act of legislation. But the Declaration of Independence divided civilization into a before and after with these words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The nation brought forth 236 years ago today in this city was founded on an idea. The what is important; the why is exceptional. So happy Fourth of July.

Daniel Deagler lives in Bucks County. He can be reached at danieldeagler@yahoo.com

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