It was oppressively hot that 4th of July 1776, when the Founding Fathers gathered in Independence Hall, Philadelphia.
The titans of the day, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock, Sam Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the two dozen other leading founders, finally voted unanimously to sever all ties with Great Britain, one by one filing up to sign the Declaration of Independence, written with divine inspiration by Jefferson himself. Bells rang, people rejoiced in the streets and the American republic was proclaimed.
Most of what we Americans “know” about the Fourth of July is wrong.
The fact that July 4th became the anniversary of American independence is a fluke of history, attributable to the methodical legalisms of the Second Continental Congress. The actual vote to declare independence had been taken on July 2, with 12 colonies voting in the affirmative and New York, who had no instructions from their assembly on the independence question, abstaining.
That vote on July 2nd was the critical vote, and it wouldn’t have been possible without three men who have largely been lost to history — Caesar Rodney, John Dickinson, and Robert Morris.
Rodney, of Delaware, had been absent in Congress on July 1, when the first vote was taken — a vote of 9-2-2, with South Carolina and Pennsylvania voting against independence, New York abstaining, and Delaware deadlocked internally with one delegate voting for, one against, and Rodney absent. Nobody knew where Rodney was on July 1st and while a rider had been dispatched to find him, no one knew when he would return. Thankfully, Rodney got the message and rode an incredible 80 miles in one night to arrive for the vote on July 2.
Dickinson and Morris, on the other hand, were more important absent than present. Two of the most ardent anti-independence delegates, both were members of the Pennsylvania delegation, and their votes tipped the scale for Pennsylvania, 4-3, against independence. Knowing they were in the minority, the two had the courage of their convictions and were unwilling to vote for independence but weren’t going to stand in the way of history. Morris would later sign the Declaration; Dickinson did not. They willingly absented themselves from Congress on the 2nd, allowing Pennsylvania to vote 3-2, led by Ben Franklin, for independence.
With Delaware and Pennsylvania flipping, South Carolina was left in the nay column, and the South Carolina delegation later switched in order to make the vote unanimous.
July 2nd was the big day. So big that Adams wrote later in a letter to Abigail that “[t]he 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 wrong.
July 3rd, the next day, was spent debating the text of the Declaration of Independence. The document, which was heavily influenced by George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for Virginia, was written primarily by Jefferson, but heavily altered by Congress. Congress deleted or altered over a quarter of the text. The document itself, according to Jefferson in a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, contained no new ideas. It was a synthesis of many of the leading thoughts on liberty and freedom, with influences dating as far back as the English Declaration of Rights in 1689.
July 4th was not a busy day in Congress. The real work had been completed on the 2nd of July, and the bulk of the changes to the document were completed on the 3rd. Business began on the 4th of July and concluded at 11 AM, when the vote was taken on the final draft of the Declaration. The vote was a mirror of that on July 2, and Congress ordered the document finalized and printed.
Only John Hancock, President of the Congress, and the Secretary, Charles Thomson, signed it.
David McCullough’s book, John Adams (where many of the facts I’ve written about came from), notes that the rest of the day was so innocuous, most members of Congress didn’t bother writing about it. Adams said nothing about the 4th. Jefferson’s diary notes that he took time off to shop for ladies’ gloves and a new thermometer, spending 3 pounds 15 shillings of money he didn’t have (Jefferson was a notorious spendthrift).
The first official news of the Declaration came on July 8th at noon, when the Declaration was read aloud from a Dunlap broadside edition in the State House Yard in Philadelphia. From there, the Declaration spread far and wide, being read on July 9th to Washington’s assembled troops in New York — Washington wasn’t there for the vote, nor did he sign the Declaration, having given up his seat in Congress to take command of the Continental Army in June of 1775.
Most of the other signatures were affixed in dribs and drabs over the next month. And the American “republic” wouldn’t officially be born until 1781 when the Articles of Confederation were ratified, even though they’d been in effect for all intents and purposes since November 1777.
It wasn’t even that hot that day – a summer storm had broken the heat wave on the 3rd.
Yet despite simply being the day that the text of the Declaration of Independence was finalized, the 4th of July has become the nation’s premiere secular holiday. It is the quintessential American holiday, celebrated with feasts and fireworks.
Americans, no matter where they are, from D.C. to Afghanistan, around the world and back, share in the Fourth. It is our annual celebration of freedom and a chance to enjoy the simple pleasures of living in the United States of America.
Like many other historical events, the Fourth has become shrouded in its own legendary history, made real to millions by movies like 1776 and through countless books and stories we’ve heard from childhood. Regardless of whether we get the history right, celebrating the annual founding of the world’s oldest democracy is as right as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.
Have a happy, safe and enjoyable 4th of July!
This article was first published July 3, 2011, at Bearing Drift.