1. On July 4, 1776, the United States declared itself an independent nation.
This is almost true, but the timing is a tad off. According to the historical record, we should be celebrating Independence Day on July 2, the day Congress finally approved the motion made by Richard Henry Lee on June 7: “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.”i
The following day, July 3, John Adams wrote to his wife 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 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 illumination, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.ii
Adams certainly got the spirit right, even if the date he proffered turned out to be wrong. How was he to know that even the most patriotic Americans would fail to recognize the true anniversary of independence? On July 4, the second day after it declared the United States to be an independent nation, Congress approved a document that explained its reasons. As so often happens in history, representation of the event would have more staying power than the event itself.
2. Congress initiated the move toward independence.
Historian Pauline Maier uncovered 90 sets of instructions by state and local bodies, each telling its representatives in higher bodies (ultimately, the Continental Congress) to declare independence. Several of these documents, written in the three months preceding Congress’s vote for independence, listed the same complaints and expressed the same principles that the Congressional Declaration of Independence eventually did.iii
Earlier yet, on October 4, 1774, the town of Worcester instructed its delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress “to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix, a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.”iv This was indeed a declaration for independence. The new government would be formed without seeking the consent of existing British authorities, and since it would be based exclusively on the “suffrages of the people,” there could be no place for monarchical prerogatives, as there had been under British rule.
In 1774 the Continental Congress was not yet ready for such rash actions. Feverishly, the Massachusetts delegates in Philadelphia cautioned their constituents back home. “Absolute Independency … Startle[s] People here,” John Adams wrote to a friend. His colleagues in the Continental Congress, he said, were horrified by “the Proposal of Setting up a new Form of Government of our own.”v Samuel Adams, also a delegate to the Continental Congress, likewise warned the people of Massachusetts not to “set up another form of government” for fear of jeopardizing support from other colonies.vi Those congressional leaders, who allegedly drove the agenda, said that “Independency” should not come too soon. In fact, it would be 21 months before Congress caught up with the people of Worcester.
3. The Signing.
Those fifty-six valiant patriots whom future generations would celebrate as “The Signers” did not step forth, with great solemnity, and affix their signatures to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. In fact, fourteen of these celebrated heroes were not even present that day, including eight who were not yet members of Congress.vii
The alleged signing of the Declaration of Independence is a conscious fabrication of the Continental Congress. On July 4, twelve states (not thirteen) approved a declaration that explained Congress’s vote for independence two days earlier. That document was signed by only two men, President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson, as was the custom for congressional resolutions. Two weeks later, on July 19, New York cast the thirteenth vote for independence and Congress ordered that a fancy, “engrossed” copy be “signed by every member.”viii On August 2, Timothy Matlack presented this engrossed copy to Congress. Members who happened to be present that day signed it, even if they had not been party to the original act. Other delegates added their signatures as they arrived for work on succeeding days, and one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, did not do so until the following year.ix
In the spring of 1777, the committee that printed the official Congressional Journal inserted the later copy under its entry for July 4. The deceit is easy to detect. The engrossed copy – the nicely penned version we see and celebrate so often – is titled, “Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States,” even though the Congressional Journal reveals that only twelve states voted for independence on July 2 and approved the Declaration of July 4. Our nation, as one of its first official acts, pulled off a photo op, 18th Century style. To this day, even most textbooks mistake the embellished Declaration, signatures and all, for the real deal.x
4. “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor.”
This celebrated pledge of personal responsibility made for a stirring conclusion to the congressional Declaration of Independence, but it was not entirely original. In at least twenty of the ninety earlier declarations, delegates signed off by vowing to support independence with their “lives and fortunes.” Some of these added creative touches to the standard oath. Bostonians pledged “their lives and the remnants of their fortunes,” while patriots from Malden, Massachusetts, concluded: “Your constituents will support and defend the measure to the last drop of their blood, and the last farthing of their treasure.”xi True, delegates to the Continental Congress, gentlemen all, added some class with “our sacred honor,” but in the final analysis, loss of lives and fortunes would have been bad enough.
5. Thomas Jefferson found the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence “from deep inside himself.”xii
Not according to Jefferson. The “object of the Declaration of Independence,” he wrote, was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”xiii
Jefferson’s draft of the congressional Declaration of Independence was indeed a superb synthesis of this “American mind.” Had it been merely a reflection of one man’s unique genius, its historical import would have been far less. It expresses the mood and will of a nation, so yes, read it and celebrate it – but don’t forget to place it in its historical context.
The preamble to the congressional Declaration of Independence, we learn in school, was Jefferson’s clever adaptation of the “social contract” theory of government, commonly associated with the British philosopher John Locke. That it was, but the social contract theory was commonplace in Revolutionary Era rhetoric, and Jefferson was swimming in the mainstream, not setting the pace. Several of the local declarations offered succinct expressions of the social contract theory.
Consider the June 17 declaration from Frederick County, Maryland: “Resolved, unanimously, That all just and legal Government was instituted for the ease and convenience of the People, and that the People have the indubitable right to reform or abolish a Government which may appear to them insufficient for the exigency of their affairs.”xiv
Or George Mason’s draft to the Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which appeared in the Philadelphia papers at the very moment Jefferson started penning his draft: “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the people…. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community. … and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”xv Mason’s version is clumsy, unlike Jefferson’s in the preamble to the congressional declaration, but the words and concepts are all there. The social contract was a central component of British-American political heritage, a theory that had legitimated the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 and was ushered forth again for this one. Social Contract 101 was core curriculum for American patriots.
7. Jefferson’s ideal of equality.
What about that glorious opening to Jefferson’s preamble: “that all men are created equal”? Thomas Jefferson, we are told so often,inserted the concept “equality” with an eye to the future. While other Americans were talking about independence, Jefferson took things to the next level. He was ahead of his time. Even though one-sixth of the residents of the emerging United States were held in bondage, Jefferson gave the idea of equality prime billing as a promise, to by realized when the time was ripe.
But the ideal of “equality,” like the rest of the preamble, was not a Jefferson original.
“That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights… among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety,” George Mason wrote and Thomas Jefferson read.xvi Days or weeks later, Jefferson offered his own rendition, simplifying the prose: “[T]hat 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.”xvii
While Jefferson’s variant sounds straightforward, it actually created great confusion. What does “created equal” really mean? Years later, Stephen Douglas, when debating Abraham Lincoln, protested that Negroes were not the “equal” of whites, leading Lincoln to retreat by admitting they were “not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.”xviii Had Jefferson stayed with Mason’s phraseology, Lincoln could have cited the Declaration of Independence with greater authority and less apology. “Born equally free and independent” establishes clearly the nature of equality among men: it lies in their rights, not in their attributes, abilities, or achievements.
8. In the aftermath of July 4, states started writing new constitutions and forming new governments.
The sequence here is backward. On May 10, 1776, the Continental Congress unanimously passed a historic resolution: Assemblies or conventions within each colony should create new governments “where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs” currently existed. Since the colonial governments under British authority were essentially defunct by this time, Congress was giving colonies free reign to start anew.xix
Five days later, in Williamsburg, the Virginia Convention resolved to write a constitution for a new government, without even a nod to British authority. Thomas Jefferson, attending Congress in Philadelphia at the time, wished he were back home to help. “It is a work of the most interesting nature and such as every individual would wish to have his voice in,” he wrote. Virginia should recall its delegates to the Continental Congress, he suggested, so they could take part. This was self-serving, of course. He really did want to help write that constitution.xx
Virginians fully understood that this was a momentous occasion, and they celebrated in grand style. A crowd gathered outside the Capitol building in anticipation of the final vote, and when it came, some plucky fellows climbed the cupola to lower the British flag, then raised in its stead the Grand Union banner used by the Continental Army. Soldiers paraded and fired cannons, and festivities continued the following day: inebriation, raucous toasts, and fireworks – a regular Fourth of July in Virginia, seven weeks before the Fourth of July.xxi
9. The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence helped shape the fledgling nation.
In the first days of independence, Americans staged public readings of Congress’s Declaration to mark such a momentous occasion. But was it the explanation of independence or the mere fact of it they were celebrating? Not content with Congress’s verbal renderings, they freely offered their own. Toasts upon toasts were raised: “Perpetual itching without benefit of scratching, to the enemies of America” and “May the freedom and independency of America endure, till the sun grows dim with age, and this earth returns to chaos.”xxii
Through the rest of the war, even at Fourth of July celebrations, the Declaration itself was rarely quoted. On the first anniversary of independence in 1777, when William Gordon delivered the oration for the festivities in Boston, he used as his text the Old Testament. When David Ramsay delivered the oration in Charleston on the second anniversary, he used a phrase more common to the times: “life, liberty, and property,” not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as appeared in the Declaration of Independence.xxiii
In fact, during the Revolutionary Era, George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was copied or imitated far more often than the Declaration of Independence. None of the seven other states that drafted their own declarations of rights borrowed phrasing from the congressional Declaration, but Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire (in addition to Vermont, which was not yet a state) lifted exact portions of Mason’s text, including “all men are born equally free and independent.”xxiv
Surprisingly, the Declaration of Independence was not often cited during the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787 or in the subsequent debates over ratification. Notes from the Constitutional Convention make only two references to the Declaration, while the 85 essays in The Federalist contain but one.xxv Not until the early Nineteenth Century was the Declaration of Independence enshrined as scripture. Its ascendancy was triggered, initially, by political motivations. One of the two emerging political parties, the Republicans, seized the opportunity to promote its standard bearer, Thomas Jefferson, as the author of the nation’s founding document. That was the launch, and Congress’s Declaration of Independence has thrived ever since. Other documents were forgotten. Other patriots, authors of those documents, were forgotten. One document, and one man, would henceforth stand for the whole.
10. The Fourth of July has always brought Americans together.
Although this has often been true, there have been notable exceptions.
On July 4, 1788, while proponents of the new Constitution celebrated its recent ratification, opponents of the new rules staged separate demonstrations, toasting “the old Confederation” instead of the Constitution.xxvi Again in the late 1790s, the two emerging political parties, Federalists and Republicans, staged competing Fourth of July celebrations in the same cities.xxvii And in 1852, Frederick Douglass issued a direct challenge to the very meaning of independence. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he said. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.”xxviii
Tussling over the soul of the nation is not new, and the Fourth of July, while inspiring picnics and fireworks for the most part, still offers an occasion for political preaching.
Conclusion: Why does any of this matter?
Iconic events, like iconic heroes, can mask what should not be masked. The United States was born not in a moment but in an era. The process of independence took years, not minutes, and the actors were many, not few. It is this process and these patriots – all of them – that we should celebrate. I have no problem with celebrating independence on the Fourth of July or two days earlier or any other day, but let’s honor the folks who made it happen by telling their full story.
iv Franklin P. Rice, ed., Worcester Town Records (1784-1800) (Collections of Worcester Society of Antiquity, volume 8), 244. A scan of the document, with context, can be viewed on the documents page of my website: https://www.rayraphael.com/documents/decloration_independence.htm
v John Adams to Joseph Palmer, September 17, 1774, and John Adams to William Tudor, October 7, 1774, Robert J. Taylor, ed., Papers of John Adams, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1977-), 2:173 and 2:187-88.
vii Eight of these—Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, William Williams of Connecticut, Charles Carroll of Maryland, and Benjamin Rush, George Ross, James Smith, George Clymer, and George Taylor of Pennsylvania—had not yet become delegates. Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut had taken leave of Congress to assume command of his state’s militia, while Lewis Morris and Philip Livingston went home when the British threatened to invade New York. William Hooper of North Carolina, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and George Wythe of Virginia were helping their states constitute new governments. (John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 4:468; 11:146; 13:772; 15:903–04; 18:911–12; 19:73; 21:609; 23:514, 721; 24:93; Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Scribner’s, 1943], 4:235; 17:284; 18:325. Even today, all these names appear as signers of the Declaration of Independence in the July 4, 1776, entry of the Library of Congress’s Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, 5:515.
ix JCC 5:626. At least seven signers, and possibly several others, were not present on August 2: Matthew Thornton, Thomas McKean, Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Richard Henry Lee, and George Wythe. (John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence: Its History [New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1906], 210–219.)
x Charles Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 2 (1945): 246. Here are the original journal entries, not included in the first printed version: “July 19. 1776. Resolved That the Declaration passed on the fourth be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of ‘The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America’ and that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.—Aug. 2. 1776. The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” (Hazelton, Declaration of Independence, 204.) The original manuscript of the minutes, in the journals of the Continental Congress, was first consulted by Mellen Chamberlain in 1884. (Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” 245.) The printed version on the Journals of the Continental Congress that appears on the Library of Congress website, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford in 1906, reflects the original manuscript for July 19 and August 2, but the July 4 entry is still doctored by inserting the engrossed, signed copy, the “official” one the nation has celebrated since 1777.
xi Peter Force. ed., American Archives, Fourth Series: A Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America from the King’s Message to Parliament of Marcy 7/74, to the Declaration of Independence by the United States (New York: Johnson Reprint Company, 1972; first published 1833-1846), 6:557, 603. Internet access:
xiii Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899), 10:343. See also Jefferson to James Madison, August 30, 1823, ibid., 10:268. Even while supporting the promotion of relics he had used to draft the Declaration, Jefferson again insisted that his words were to be seen as no more than “the genuine effusion of the soul of our country.” (Jefferson to Dr. James Mease, September 26, 1825, ibid., 10:346.)
xiv Force. ed., American Archives 6:933. Internet: https://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/amarch/getdoc.pl?/var/lib/philologic/databases/amarch/.17205