It was on July 2, 1776, that delegates at the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia officially separated the 13 American colonies from Britain by approving a motion for independence advanced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Twelve of the 13 colonies approved it (New York abstained, as its representatives did not have permission to vote for it at that time).
Officially, the Continental Congress declared its freedom from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, when it voted to approve a resolution submitted by delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, declaring, as follows: “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.”
“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.”
Adams was responding to the Second Continental Congress having just approved a formal resolution by Richard Henry Lee declaring separation from England on July 2, 1776.
Lee’s Resolution, completely hidden in the shadow of the July 4th Declaration, reads: “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.”
When you consider that Congress approved breaking from the British Crown and the document Resolution signed on July 2nd, that in effect is arguably our official date of declaring our independence. – we just had not yet informed King George.
What’s the deal with fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July? One might assume that the answers include: Americans like loud booming noises and explosions are fun, or maybe this is another one of those rituals invented by the Pagans along with everything else. We actually celebrate America’s Independence Day with fireworks because John Adams thought it was a fun idea.
By 1775 when British Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in rebellion, Adams was fully committed to the cause for American Independence. He frequently wrote to his wife Abigail about his impatience with the sluggish pace at which his fellow representatives would move toward what he believed to be America’s inevitable departure from Great Britain.
When the vote for American Independence was finally unanimous, Adams put pen to paper. In a letter dated July 3d to his wife Abigail one day before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams mused that July 2nd should be recognized “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 wrong about the date though correct about the fireworks. And by 1777, when the United States celebrated its first birthday, Boston and Philadelphia, where Adams lived and worked, respectively, both lit up the night with fireworks displays.
With all sincere respect and reverence for our Declaration of Independence, it was not signed on July 4th. Signings began on August 2, 1776 and continued throughout the year as delegates returned to Philadelphia. There was no signing ceremony, though it is beautifully memorialized though a fiction in Trumbill’s painting.
Scholars don’t think the document was signed by any of the delegates of the Continental Congress on July 4. The huge canvas painting by John Trumbull hanging in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol depicting the signing of the Declaration is, it turns out, a work of imagination.
The late Pauline Maier, among our nation’s most respected scholars of the early republic and its founding documents, captures my sentiments in her 1997 article for American Heritage, “Making Sense of the Fourth of July“: “In fact, holding our great national festival on the Fourth makes no sense at all — unless we are actually celebrating not just independence but the Declaration of Independence,” she wrote.
John Trumbull’s most famous painting, “Declaration of Independence,” only further confuses history. Placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1826, the iconic painting has come to represent the actual signing of the nation’s most precious founding document.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough explained in a 2003 address, “Trumbull said [the painting] was meant to represent July 4, 1776, and that’s the popular understanding. But the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4. The signing began on August 2, and continued through the year as absent delegates retuned to Philadelphia. No formal signing ceremony ever took place.”
In total, 86 changes, big and small, were made _ 47 by a committee composed of Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, then 39 others by the Continental Congress, working over the document on July 2 and 3 and the morning of the Fourth, when it was adopted by unanimous vote.
By example, Jefferson used both “states” and “colonies”; the Continental Congress editing sided with “states.” A Jeffersonian paragraph denouncing the slave trade (but not slavery) was deleted. Also deleted was one grievance denouncing the British people for not coming to the aid of their American cousins.
Adams defended Jefferson’s work while Jefferson stood by, writing onto his draft the revisions approved by the Congress. By the time they got to the last paragraph, Jefferson had clearly become perturbed. Rather than writing and inserting the changes, he just wrote in the margin, “A different phraseology inserted.