For more than two hundred years Americans have been celebrating the anniversary of our independence on the wrong day.
Our story begins on Friday, June 7, 1776, when Richard Henry Lee, acting on instructions given to him by the Virginia Convention (the extra-legal body that governed Virginia on a provisional basis until a more formal system could be put into place), introduced a resolution to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia:
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
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
Lee’s motion was seconded by John Adams, the leader of those in Congress who had been pushing for independence. Perhaps aware of just how momentous such a step would be, the delegates postponed debate on the subject until the next morning.
On June 8, after an all-day discussion, Congress adjourned, unable to reach consensus. That night, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wrote to John Jay of New York that “the sensible part of the House opposed the Motion.” Thinking perhaps of John Adams, Rutledge added that “a Man must have the Impudence of a New Englander to propose in our present disjointed state any Treaty…to a Nation now at peace. No reason could be assigned for pressing into this Measure, but the reason of every Madman…”
When Congress reconvened on Monday, June 10, the delegates agreed to Rutledge’s suggestion that consideration of Lee’s independence resolution be postponed for three weeks.
When debate resumed on July 1, 1776, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania rose to speak. Secure in the courage of his convictions, Dickinson declared “My Conduct, this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great…now too diminish’d Popularity…But thinking as I do on the subject of Debate, Silence would be guilt.” He then implored his colleagues to pull back from the brink, arguing that declaring independence from Britain before securing a foreign alliance would be to “brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper.”
John Adams later wrote that Dickinson “conducted the debate not only with great ingenuity and eloquence, but with equal politeness and candor.” When the Pennsylvanian completed his remarks, the room fell silent. Adams hesitated, hoping “that some one less obnoxious than myself, who had been all along for a year before, and still was, represented and believed to be the author all the mischief” would rise to answer Dickinson.
But no one did, so Adams took up the gauntlet himself. The fiery lawyer from Braintree began his remarks by admitting that for the first time in his life he “wished for the talents and eloquence of the ancient orators of Greece and Rome,” for he was “very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more importance to his country and to the world.”
He needn’t have worried. Thomas Jefferson later wrote that Adams spoke “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.” As Adams was finishing his speech, three late-arriving delegates from New Jersey entered the chamber. They requested that Adams repeat his arguments. Good-naturedly replying that he was not “an actor” performing “for the entertainment of the audience” Adams nonetheless agreed to repeat the speech “in as concise a manner as I could.” Adams’s encore performance was as effective as his debut. Indeed, Richard Stockton, one of the latecomers from New Jersey told his son that “The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency is Mr. John Adams of Boston. I call him the Atlas of American Independence.”
After several more hours of debate, the time had come for the Continental Congress to vote on whether “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”
When the votes were tallied the result was clear: Congress was still divided. While Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Rhode Island all voted in the affirmative, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against independence and New York abstained. Delaware’s delegation, with independence supporting Caesar Rodney absent, found itself divided between one supporter and one opponent of Lee’s resolution. While a clear majority backed independence, many felt that a show of unity was required before such a momentous step could be safely taken.
As the question of America’s very existence hung in the balance, a surprising figure stepped forward to save the day. South Carolina’s Edmund Rutledge, who only weeks earlier had railed against the “impudence” of New Englanders such as Adams, requested that the final vote “might be put off to the next day, as he believed his colleagues, though they disapproved of the resolution, would then join it for the sake of unanimity.” Adams and the other supporters of independence readily agreed.
The next morning, as the delegates reconvened they noticed that two seats were empty. Understanding the need for an appearance of harmony in Congress’s decision but unwilling to vote contrary to their principles, John Dickinson and his fellow Pennsylvanian Robert Morris had chosen to remove themselves from the day’s proceedings. Their absence meant that a majority of Pennsylvania’s delegation now backed independence.
To add to the drama, Caesar Rodney had arrived after an all-night ride to break the impasse in Delaware’s delegation. And true to his word, Rutledge had convinced South Carolina’s delegation to change its vote.
Although New York’s delegation again abstained (the New York Convention voted to back independence on July 9), when the final vote on the Lee Resolution was taken on July 2, 1776, none of the former colonies stood opposed. Thus the die was cast.
The next day a jubilant Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that:
“The Second 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 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 other from this Time forward forever more.”
So why is that we celebrate the Fourth of July as Independence Day?
On June 10, when the Congress decided to postpone further debate on Lee’s resolution, the delegates also voted “in the mean while, that no time be lost, in case the Congress agree thereto, that a committee be appointed to” draft a document explaining why the colonies had decided to declare their independence. A day later five individuals were appointed to serve on that committee: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Only thirty-three years old, Jefferson already enjoyed a reputation as a strong writer. Thus the task of preparing the first draft of what we now know of as the Declaration of Independence fell to him.
On July 4, 1776, two days after declaring independence, Congress met to approve the final wording of the document justifying the break with Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was then sent to a printer so that it could be disseminated to the American people.
On July 19, Congress resolved that the Declaration “be fairly engrossed on parchment,” so that it could “be signed by every member of Congress.” The signing itself did not take place on a single day. Although the majority of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence added their names to the document on August 2, 1776, not everyone was present. Indeed, at least one signer did not get a chance to add his name until early in 1777.
With all that said, there is still reason to celebrate on the Fourth of July. The United States of America became an independent nation on July 2, 1776. The United States became the first independent nation in world history conceived upon the principles of liberty and equality on July 4, 1776.
– P. Sicher