Every year we celebrate America’s birthday on July 4, with parades, cookouts, parties, ballgames and fireworks.
That’s what John Adams predicted would happen way back in 1776, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that future generations of Americans would celebrate Independence Day “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.”
Then I learned that John Adams’ letter was dated July 3, 1776, and the day for national celebration he referred to was July 2. So I wondered why we celebrate on July 4. Here’s what I found:
On July 2, 1776, a brief but momentous resolution declaring independence from Great Britain was approved by the delegations of 12 of the 13 colonies represented in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The New York delegation, awaiting instructions, had to abstain at that time. (New York joined the vote for independence on July 9.)
On July 4, the more comprehensive Declaration of Independence that we’re familiar with, which was drafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson, was adopted by representatives of the same 12 colonies. It was dated July 4, 1776, and signed by John Hancock, as president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress, and sent to a printer.
About 200 copies of the dated document were printed and distributed throughout the newly declared states. So it’s easy to see how July 4 became the widely accepted day for celebrating our independence.
On July 19, Congress directed that the Declaration should be “engrossed” (written with a particular style of lettering) on parchment; and when engrossed, it should be signed by the members of Congress. With New York joining the vote for independence, the title of the document was changed to read: “In Congress, July 4, 1776 … the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” (That’s not a typo. The engrosser did not capitalize “united.”)
When it came to the signing of the Declaration by the members of the Continental Congress, I always pictured them as portrayed in John Trumbull’s famous painting, gathered together in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, to sign on the same day. However, written accounts indicate that the signing was more gradual and spread out.
By Aug. 6, 1776, most of the 56 delegates whose names are on the document had signed, but at least six signatures were added later. One individual, Thomas McKean of Delaware, did not sign until 1781, although he claimed he had signed earlier.
Two other delegates from Delaware signed the July 4 Declaration. One was George Reed, who had voted against declaring independence on July 2 because he thought it was a premature step, but then accepted the will of the majority. The other delegate was Caesar Rodney, who reportedly rode all night from Dover to Philadelphia on July 1 to vote for independence on July 2 and ensure a 2-1 vote in favor for Delaware.
The signed Declaration of Independence is now preserved and protected in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Tracking those historical events in the summer of 1776 helps us understand why the Declaration of Independence is considered “America’s birth certificate” and why July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day. But most meaningful are the principles, faith, commitment and courage embodied in the language of the Declaration, words that continue to inspire today.
On July 4 this year, as in previous years, some newspapers will print the entire Declaration of Independence, as a patriotic public service … a reminder for all readers. Our attention is always drawn to that powerful moral statement in the opening passage:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [and]
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Having read and heard this passage many times, we know the words almost by heart, or most of them, and how smoothly they flow. But imagine the emotional impact when they were first read or heard in 1776. They have the ring of truth and had to sound… well, revolutionary.
And we will read again the words of faith and commitment at the end:
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiances to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Those closing words remind us of the enormous personal risks faced by everyone who voted for independence and signed the Declaration, not just for themselves but for their families as well. Think about it. They were clearly fomenting rebellion against King George III and facing the military power of Great Britain. Definitely a dangerous decision in 1776.
Yet, despite the life-threatening risks, they boldly defied tyranny, proclaimed our God-given rights and the right of the colonies to be free and independent states. Courageous and confident, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”
So, while we enjoy the parade, cookouts and fireworks on July 4, we should pause for a moment to remember those patriots in 1776, with gratitude for their faith, resolve and courage. They gave us the gift we cherish and celebrate every July 4, a free and independent United States of America.
Happy Independence Day!
By Jerry Hardiman
Special to the Coastal Point