Leigh Prather/ShutterstockIt’s July 4th, 1776, in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Amidst a crowded room, the five men tasked with writing our nation’s founding document stand before a scroll-strewn desk, ready to turn in their homework. Portly John Adams rests one hand on his hip. Benjamin Franklin removes his bifocals. Thomas Jefferson hands the Declaration of Independence across the table to the president of Congress—John Hancock, whose eyes say Yes, I am ready to slap my John Hancock on this piece of parchment that will make America, America. It’s a powerful, patriotic moment, captured beautifully in John Trumbull’s epic painting, “Declaration of Independence.”
None of it ever happened.
“No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia,” writes historian David McCullough in his biography of John Adams. In fact, many historians believe that none of the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th; most of them (including John Hancock) didn’t get their quills on it until August 2nd, and at least one held out well into 1777. So, what’s so special about Fourth of July?
You could say it’s the day Congress “went public” with their Revolution. More accurately, it was just the day they approved of Thomas Jefferson & co.’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence after a frantic two days of writing and rewriting. That’s because two days earlier, on July 2, 1776, something unprecedented happened: America’s original 13 colonies officially passed a motion to separate from the English Empire.
Literally speaking, July 2nd is America’s true Independence Day.
While the tide of history has obviously decided otherwise, the Founding Fathers were instantly stoked to celebrate July 2nd as a national birthday party. Here’s what John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail on July 3rd: “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.” Then, perhaps craving a hot dog and a pint of lager, Adams described a prescient vision of what a typical Second of July celebration might look like: “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.”
Partial credit for nailing the exact nature of Independence Day—points deducted for being two days off.
So, what happened? How did July 4th supersede the arguably more significant July 2nd in our national consciousness? The simple answer is: that’s what it said on the birthday invitation. On the same night that Congress approved Jefferson’s Declaration, a Philadelphia printer named John Dunlap reproduced some 200 copies of the document. The first line of the broadside: “In Congress, July 4th, 1776…”
By 1777, the Fourth of July was celebrated with toasts, speeches, parades, feasts, and fireworks. It wouldn’t become an official government holiday until 1870 (and not a paid federal holiday until 1938), but by then John Adams wasn’t around to weigh in. He and Thomas Jefferson both died in 1826—on the Fourth of July.