Nothing Happened on the Fourth

Step away from the grill: Bestselling historian Joseph Ellis says we’re celebrating our nation’s independence on the wrong day. How history screwed up the date.

History is always messier than we remember. And when it comes to the date of the annual anniversary of American independence, the Fourth of July, nothing can be more disorienting than a faithful recovery of how, and when, history actually happened. As it turns out, nothing much happened on July 4, 1776.

The confusion starts with a painting done by John Trumbull entitled The Declaration of Independence. It depicts John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, plus two less-lustrous delegates in the Continental Congress, approaching the table where John Hancock is seated. Almost everyone assumes that it captures the magic moment on July 4 when the delegates signed the Declaration.

When the delegates concluded their debate on July 4, they then ordered the revised document sent to the printer. No one signed the Declaration that day.

But the day is actually June 28, and the scene recreates the moment when the committee charged with composing the Declaration presents its draft to the Continental Congress. Jefferson had written the first draft a week earlier, the committee had made a few minor revisions, and they were now showing the revised draft for the consideration of the Congress. The Fourth of July was almost a week away.

Then there is the equally confusing testimony of John Adams, delivered in a letter on July 3 to his beloved Abigail:

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 solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward forever more.

Adams got everything about the celebrations right—but he got the date wrong. He thought July 2 would be the national birthday because that was the day when the Continental Congress voted to endorse the resolution of the Virginia delegations, proposing the separation of the 13 colonies from the British Empire. Adams thought that was the decisive moment, and the subsequent debate over the language of the Declaration was a mere epilogue.

That debate on July 3-4 altered or deleted about 20 percent of Jefferson’s draft. When the delegates concluded their debate on July 4, they then ordered the revised document sent to the printer. No one signed the Declaration that day. Most delegates signed the parchment copy—the one currently on display behind bulletproof glass in the National Archives—on August 2. Stragglers were coming and going into the fall and winter, so some delegates did not sign until several months later.

Why, then, did July 4 become the preferred date for our annual celebration? Well, although nothing momentous occurred on that day, it was the day when the American public first learned about the Declaration. Copies began to appear in newspapers and go up on tavern walls, although in fact it took several weeks for the news to reach all precincts up and down the coast. The deeper truth is that the declaring of American independence was a drawn-out process without a clear-cut crescendo moment. July 4 was an arbitrary choice, but the new nation needed a birthday, and it made as much historical sense as several other alternatives.

This somewhat problematic resolution received a providential endorsement that clinched the case exactly 50 years later. For on July 4, 1826, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of one another. They were the two most influential figures in crafting and then defending the language of the Declaration, and in a scene that no novelist would dare to make up, they both died on schedule. Jefferson’s last recorded words were, “Is it the Fourth?”

Whatever lingering doubts remained about the appropriateness of the date dissolved right then. If it was good enough for Adams and Jefferson, it was good enough for America. It has remained so ever since.