The 4th of July has been celebrated with great fanfare since the very beginning. John Adams, who many consider the father of American Independence, wrote to his wife Abigail, just after voting on the document, that the day:
“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 forever more.”
He was right about illuminations and guns. But he was wrong about the date. He thought that American Independence Day would be celebrated July 2, the date that Congress approved the resolution that the colonies should be free and independent from Britain.
There are lots of facts about Independence Day that most Americans don’t know. Here are a few of them.
July 4 wasn’t the day the colonies declared their independence from Britain. The 2nd Continental Congress officially voted to declare independence from Britain on July 2, with the ratification of the Lee Resolution. It took two days to craft a final document with language they could approve—the resolution that became the Declaration of Independence. Even then, the signing ceremony was held not on July 4, but August 2, though John Hancock did put his John Hancock on the original document on July 4.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t write it. Timothy Matlack did. Well, not really. Though plenty of Americans have the image in their heads of old Tom sitting at a table, quill in hand, scrawling out the calligraphy that we see today in the National Archives. Actually, Jefferson was part of a five man committee who drafted the Declaration, Jefferson providing the first draft with input from the others, mainly Adams and Franklin. After the resolution had been passed, revised, approved, and printed, Congress commissioned an “engrossed” version that was likely carefully handwritten by clerk Timothy Matlack.
Adams got Jefferson drunk to accept the task. This may be apocryphal, but there is at least an account of Adams giving him some drinks after Jefferson expressed reservation about his ability to craft such an important document.
Two major edits made the document timeless. Like any essay, the Declaration went through many drafts. Earlier declarations contained the phrase “life, liberty, and property,” since, at the time, rights were only held by property-owning white men. Jefferson appears to have changed “property” to “the pursuit of happiness” which led to a revolutionary definition of citizenship. Ben Franklin appears to get the credit for the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” changing the original “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” This seems in keeping with Franklin’s more secular view of the world than many of the other founders.
One major edit still has repercussions today. Jefferson’s original draft contained a condemnation of the slave trade, but this section was removed as too incendiary for the South. Jefferson’s draft was focused more on the complaint that Britain was offering slaves freedom to foment insurrection against the colonies, but leaving slavery out of the Declaration was an omission that would cause harm for generations, even down to today.
Who wrote it didn’t matter at first. After the Declaration was passed, authorship of the document wasn’t considered terribly important. There was a war to fight, and the arrival of the 1787 Constitution, with its own rich and powerful language, was considered far more important. But during the election of 1800, Jefferson’s supporters made a point of lauding him for crafting the founding document of American freedom. By then, political parties were forming and Adams, now a rival, took exception to Jefferson claiming all the credit. Alas, like many elements of American history, the legend took hold and became more powerful than the more complicated truth.
Abraham Lincoln revered The Declaration of Independence. It took a failed Congressman from Illinois to grasp the true power of the Declaration and hold its key phrase “all men are created equal” to its logical meaning. Until Lincoln, The Constitution was held as the essential American document. Lincoln understood the power and clarity of the earlier document as a motivating force to win the war against slavery. In a speech in Peoria in 1854, Lincoln said:
“Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a “sacred right of self-government”. … Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. … Let us repurify it. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it.”
The 4th of July, like most elements of American history, continues to evolve in meaning. The date didn’t become an official holiday until 1941, and even now, amid protests, the document the day celebrates continues to evolve as the nation it founded continues to seek to become a more perfect union.