On July 3, 1776, John Adams, a member of the Continental Congress and future President of the now seemingly independent United States of America, wrote to his wife Abigail back in Massachusetts stating, "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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."
While Adams prophetically described how American Independence Day celebrations would play out for future generations, it was the date that he fell a bit short on.
Today, most Americans do not even know the day we voted ourselves an independent nation was July 2, 1776, when Congress adopted Richard Henry Lee's (VA) independence resolution which had been introduced on June 7 and stated, "Resolved, 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. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation."
It was not July 4.
Adams had seconded the Lee Resolution, and its nearly unanimous adoption (New York abstained from the vote) on July 2 meant the work Adams had labored on to see the colonies strike out on their own, severing ties with the old world and seeking a path of self-determination in the New World, had been accomplished. The colonies were now "free and independent states." There was only the the not inconsequential matter of winning that independence.
But that wasn't the day we would celebrate. The day after Adams wrote his wife, one more piece of business was to be completed, the adoption of the report of the Declaration Committee.
Of course Adams was on that committee. So was Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and, a 33 year old from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson.
While the five member committee had the task of writing out the reasons that compelled the colonies to separation, the actual work fell on the young Jefferson, who was widely regarded as the best writer among them.
It was the adoption of that committee's report on July 4, 1776, their "Declaration of Independence," that is now celebrated.
The reason gets down to simple politics. July 2 and July 4 were both celebrated in the early Republic, with your day of celebration depending on if you were a Federalist or a Democratic-Republican. When Federalist John Adams became President after the Federalist-leaning George Washington, July 2 was the day of focus.
In the 1800 election, Adams and his Federalist Party suffered massive electoral loses and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans came into power, shifting the focus on July 4, the day Jefferson's Declaration was adopted.
This rivalry is even noted in the painting above. If you look closely at the work by John Trumbull, a Democratic-Republican and fan of Jefferson, he painted Jefferson's foot standing on John Adams's as they stand before the newly adopted Declaration.
By 1812, the Federalist Party was all but extinct and July 4 was firmly cemented into American culture as our day of independence. As the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence approached, Jefferson and Adams had been both invited to attend the celebration in Washington, D.C., Adams was 90 and Jefferson was 83. Both confirmed their attendance, but neither would make it. Both Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. Adams's last words were of his former rival and, through correspondence in their waning years, his friend, Thomas Jefferson.
"Thomas Jefferson survives."
Thomas Jefferson had not. Jefferson had died a few hours before.
In the end though, maybe it's more fitting we celebrate the document that outlines the "why" and not the procedural mechanism that was the vote for independence two days before.
The Declaration of Independence is so much more than just a list of justifications for separation. It was Jefferson's eloquence that insured that. The words harked back to those of John Locke and other writers of the Enlightenment, but combines their philosophy into a creed, a mission statement for a new nation...not one bound together by ethnicity, religious sect, language, or geography, but one that is bound by a philosophy... we hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men driving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.
For 244 years this July 4 (or 2nd), we have welcomed anyone to the shores of this nation who holds fast to those ideas. If you believe as we do, as our national creed inspires, then you are offered a place at our nation's table, regardless of where you came from. It has helped to make us the wealthiest, the most generous, and most inspiring to opportunity nation in history. We all can imagine our own version of the American Dream, a dream that has as its root the words, "All men are created equal."
However, as the 50th anniversary celebration neared, John Adams issued a warning to his fellow citizens,
"My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind."
It's as the story goes, that when Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman stopped him and asked, "Mr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?" To which Franklin was said to have replied, "A Republic...if you can keep it."
July 4 reminds us that we must constantly work to keep our Republic. We fight against forces that Adams feared would shape our political institutions away from the ideals of the founding, away from the self-evident truths that the Creator has given, to those shaped, and warped, by the human mind towards a want and lust for human power.
Just as John Adams wrote his wife that long ago July 3, if we do not work to secure the blessings of liberty for our future, then we too should rue it, but with the faithful dedication of my fellow Americans, I trust in God We shall not.
Yours in the 244th year of our Freedom,