Is July 4 really "Independence Day"?
Depending on your point of view, the date that the United States declared independence is something of a moving target. Several events before July 4, 1776, could be rightly labeled “independence day” because of their significance during the course of debate in the Continental Congress about the subject. As scholars point out, July 4 is the date that Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, not the day independence was declared.
Richard Henry Lee (portrait by Charles Wilson Peale)
For example, on June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution stating, “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.” Although the Congress voted on June 10 to table discussion of the Lee resolution for nearly three weeks, the question of independence was now official business. Considering the outcome, some historians have argued that the June 7 resolution is really the first assertion of the act of independence that followed.
John Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1798)
However, John Adams always thought otherwise. Although he had seconded the Lee resolution, he regarded a May 15 resolution that he introduced the first real call for independence because it authorized the colonies to organize individual state governments – an undeniable break from the British empire. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Adams wrote:
Great Britain has at last driven America to the last step, a complete separation from her; a total absolute independence, not only of her Parliament, but of her crown, for such is the amount of the resolve of the 15th… There is something very unnatural and odious in a government a thousand leagues off. A whole government of our own choice, managed by persons whom we love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it, for which men will fight.
Of course, Adams proceeded to serve on the five-member committee that drafted and presented the Declaration of Independence to the Congress. However, the issue that came first was a congressional vote for independence prompted by the Lee resolution. Adams and other proponents of independency spent considerable time marshalling votes for unanimous state support for independence. The vote itself came on July 2, with 12 states voting for independence and New York abstaining, although a week later New York joined its sister states with a “yes” vote after receiving permission from the state assembly. Thus, July 2 could be considered the date for a national statement independence based on the reasons summarized in the Declaration.
When Adams wrote about the monumental events of July 2, he gave his wife the following account:
… The Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.
But the Day is past. 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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
So, according to John Adams we should be shooting off fireworks, firing up the barbecue, and toasting the United States on July 2.
I am not proposing a change to the calendar of federal holidays – that would be petty for reasons both practical and historical. However, it is worth noting that the multiple times independence was “declared” reflects the dilemma of people in the 18th century dealing with a very human problem: How do individuals attempting not only a political revolution but a revolution in thought move toward their goal in a sound and successful manner? We have the luxury of more than 200 years of hindsight to examine independence. They faced the shock of a new day as independent citizens of the United States with no idea how the “Days Transaction” would fare. History is rarely a story of events seamlessly moving forward with guaranteed outcomes. If we celebrate anything on any day, it should be the success of independence and the nation it created, a nation of unalienable rights, “the last, best hope of earth.”
Detail of the Lincoln "fair copy" of the Gettysburg Address showing the words "all men are created equal."