Is July Fourth the wrong day to celebrate?

By Chuck Springston
Continental Congress actually voted for independence on July 2.
Continental Congress actually voted for independence on July 2.
When the Continental Congress voted for independence from Britain on July 2, 1776, John Adams said the day would be forever remembered with “a great anniversary festival.” So why do we celebrate Independence Day on July 4, not on July 2?

    The answer: Poor party planning.
    Apparently, no one thought about a first anniversary celebration in 1777 until it was too late to do it on July 2. Here is how it happened:
    May 10, 1775. The Second Continental Congress holds its first meeting.
    June 7, 1776. Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee offers a resolution declaring “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."
    June 8. Congress begins debating Lee’s resolution, but some delegates want to delay a vote until they can discuss the issue with leaders in their colonies and learn whether France or Spain might support the revolution.
    June 10. Congress decides to postpone further debate on Lee’s resolution until July 1, hoping that by then the supporters can get every colony behind it. To make sure “in the mean while, that no time be lost, in case the Congress agree” to the Lee resolution, a committee is appointed to prepare a declaration related to the resolution, states the June 10 entry in the Journals of the Continental Congress.
    June 11. Congress appoints five members to prepare the declaration. They are Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York.
    June 12-27. Jefferson writes the first version of the declaration, offers it to Adams and Franklin for their comments and then shows the revised document to the other two committee members.
    June 28. The declaration committee presents Congress with a draft declaration for consideration. The matter is tabled pending a vote on the Lee resolution.
    July 1. Congress renews its debate on Lee’s resolution.
    July 2. Congress approves the resolution with 12 colonies voting for independence. New York’s delegation, which had not received instructions on how to vote, abstained. (On July 9, New York made it unanimous.) Congress then turns its attention to the declaration committee’s document and begins making changes in the wording.
    July 3. Debate on the declaration continues.
    Also on that day, Adams writes to his wife, Abigail (spelling and punctuation modernized):
    “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 the other from this time forward forever more.”
    July 4.After additional debate and revisions, Congress approves the Declaration of Independence, which explains the reasons for the July 2 vote on independence and expresses the ideals of the revolution for the whole world to see.

    Fast-forward to July 1777. Just a year after Adams had predicted that July 2 would be the big anniversary bash, he excitedly writes to his 11-year-old daughter Abigail “Nabby” Adams about the first anniversary celebration—a celebration that happened on a different day. He wrote on July 5, 1777, “Yesterday, being the anniversary of American Independence, was celebrated here with a festivity and ceremony becoming the occasion.”
    He describes some of the festivities in Philadelphia: Navy ships on the river with sailors arranged in a way that made “a striking appearance,” the firing of 13 guns from each armed ship, “a vast concourse of people, all shouting and huzzaing,” some “fine music”  from a Hes­sian band captured at Trenton, New Jersey, in December 1776 after Gen. George Washington crossed the Delaware River, a parade of troops on foot and horses down Philadelphia’s streets, bells ringing all day, candles lighting up the night in windows all over the city, bonfires and fireworks.
    It was a was a joyful occasion for all, Adams said, “considering the lateness of the design and the suddenness of the execution.”
    As happens with busy people, the anniversary sort of snuck up on members of the Continental Congress. The idea for a celebration “was not conceived, until the second of this month, and it was not mentioned until the third,” Adams explained to his daughter. “It was too late to have a sermon, as everyone wished, so this must be deferred another year.”
    The earliest Congress could cobble together a celebration would be July 4. Thus, the Fourth of July custom “began almost by accident,” wrote Pauline Maier in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence  (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Indeed, Adams said in his letter that some of the soldiers in the parade were “accidentally” in Philadelphia on their way to other places.
    However, the success of the event, Maier notes, prompted Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Evening Post to write this account of the event in its July 5 edition: “Thus may the fourth of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more.”
    The “fatal displacement [of July 2] had taken place, by an oversight,” Garry Wills wrote in Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Vintage Books, 1979). “The second of July would never be celebrated as Adams expected during the heat of the events in 1776.” 



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