We celebrate our American Independence Day, our birth as a nation, on the Fourth of July every year. That was the day when our representatives approved a relatively small document that told the world the reasons why we were declaring our Independence from our mother country. It put our claim of suffering tyranny under the British crown in writing for all to see. It was the first time that had ever taken place. No other colony, or set of colonies, had ever issued a proclamation to legitimize its claims of suffering oppression by a dictatorship or monarchy.
We think of July 4, 1776, as a day that represents the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation. But July 4, 1776, wasn't the day that the Continental Congress decided to declare independence - they did that on July 2, 1776.
It wasn’t the day we started the American Revolution either, as that had happened back in April 1775. And it wasn't the day Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. The day it was signed was August 2, 1776. The date on which the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain didn't happen until November 1776.
So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They'd been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitted on July 2nd and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.
Drafting the Declaration of Independence was not an easy job. Delegates from each of the Thirteen Colonies met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 to decide the case for liberty. The goal was to convince the States that the time had come for the United Colonies to declare their independence from Mother England.
It was an incredibly difficult time for the young United States. For more than a year, Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies had been at war over the issue of "taxation without representation." The Colonies believed that their rights were being impeded by the British, who were levying taxes upon them without their consent.
The conflict had quickly escalated into more of an issue than just taxation, however, and many of the Colonies had started to think that they were capable of governing themselves. They were persuaded that Parliament wasn't looking out for their interests, proven by the fact that the Colonies had not been allowed to represent themselves in the British Legislature despite their population.
As a result, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in June of 1776. Slightly more than a month later, the Declaration of Independence was proposed to the Colonies. John Hancock, the first signatory, was the only person to sign on July 4.
Many of the other delegates would place their names on the completed Document on August 2 of that same year. The last person to sign, the New Hampshire delegate Matthew Thornton, endorsed the document on November 4, 1776.
The Lee Resolution
The Lee Resolution, also known as the resolution of independence, was an act of the Second Continental Congress declaring the Thirteen Colonies independent of the British Empire. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia first proposed it on June 7, 1776. It is the earliest form and draft of the Declaration of Independence.
The text of the Resolution stated:
"Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right 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."
The Committee of Five
Early in the development, many delegates weren't yet allowed to vote for independence as the states had not yet authorized them to do so. In the meantime, a group of men was appointed to draft an official declaration, hoping that the states would soon be willing to back the document when it was sent to the crown in England.
On June 11, 1776, Congress appointed a "Committee of Five," consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut declaration.
This Declaration committee operated from June 11,1776, until July 5, 1776, when the Declaration was published. The Committee of Five first presented the document to Congress on June 28, 1776.
Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence
Originally, the delegates pushed for Richard Henry Lee, author of the Lee Resolution, to write the Declaration of Independence, not Jefferson. But, circumstances changed the course of history.
First, Lee was appointed to the Committee of Confederation to write the Articles of Confederation and thought that being part of both committees would be too great an effort. Second, his wife became gravely ill during the Philadelphia convention, forcing him to return home prematurely. So a young delegate from Virginia who had shown great promise was selected to take Lee's place. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and he would quickly become one of the most important individuals in the United States history.
What most people don't know is that, at first, Jefferson had no interest in penning the Declaration. He wanted John Adams to do it instead.
Adams writes in his account of the episode in a letter to Timothy Pickering, a politician from Massachusetts and a good friend of Adams:
"Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not,' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'"
And so, it was settled. Over the course of seventeen days, in between meetings and other governmental affairs, Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence under the advisement of the Committee. It was an act that secured Jefferson's name in history forever.
July 4, 1776, became the date that was included in the Declaration of Independence. The fancy handwritten copy signed in August, the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
It’s also the date printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original printed copies of the Declaration circulated throughout the new nation. That the reason why when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, was the date they remembered.
In contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th of each year, the anniversary of the date the Constitution was signed, not the anniversary of the date it was approved. If we’d followed this same approach for the Declaration of Independence, we’d been celebrating Independence Day on August 2nd of each year, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed!
How did the Fourth of July become a national holiday?
For the first 15 or 20 years after the Declaration was written, people didn’t celebrate it much on any date. It was too new, and too much else was happening in the young nation.
By the 1790s, a time of bitter partisan conflicts, the Declaration had become controversial. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the Declaration. But the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too French and too anti-British, which went against their current policies.
John Adams complained in a letter that America seemed uninterested in its past. But that would soon change. After the War of 1812, the Federalist party began to come apart, and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top.
The deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, may even have helped to promote the idea of July 4th as an important date to be celebrated.
Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on, and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1939 and 1941.
Fascinating Facts about the Declaration of Independence
There is something written on the back of the Declaration of Independence, but it isn't a secret map or code. Instead, a few handwritten words say, "Original Declaration of Independence/ dated 4th July 1776". No one knows who wrote this, but it was probably added as a label when the document was rolled up for storage many years ago.
Once the Declaration of Independence had been written and signed, printer John Dunlap was asked to make about 200 copies distributed throughout the colonies. Today, the “Dunlap Broadsides” are extremely rare and valuable.
In 1989, someone discovered a previously unknown Dunlap Broadside. It was sold for over $8 million in 2000. There are only 26 known surviving Dunlap Broadsides today.
Although Thomas Jefferson is often called the “author” of the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t the only person who contributed important ideas. As stated previously, Jefferson was a member of a five-person committee appointed by the Continental Congress to write the Declaration. The committee included Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
Robert Livingston, one of the members of the committee who wrote the Declaration of Independence, never signed it. He believed that it was too soon to declare independence and therefore refused to sign.
One of the most widely held misconceptions about the Declaration of Independence is that it was signed on July 4, 1776. In fact, independence was formally declared on July 2, 1776, a date that John Adams believed would be “the most memorable Epocha in the history of America.”
After Jefferson wrote his first draft of the Declaration, the other members of the Declaration committee and the Continental Congress made 86 changes to Jefferson’s draft, including shortening the overall length by more than a fourth.
When writing the first draft of the Declaration, Jefferson primarily drew upon two sources: his own draft of a preamble to the Virginia Constitution and George Mason’s draft of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. Jefferson was unhappy about some of the edits made to his original draft of the Declaration of Independence.
He had originally included language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade - even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner. This criticism of the slave trade was removed despite Jefferson’s objections.
On December 13, 1952, the Declaration of Independence - along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights - was formally delivered to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where it has remained since then.
The two youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence were both from South Carolina. Thomas Lynch, Jr. and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina were born in 1749 and were only 26 when they signed the Declaration. Most of the other signers were in their 40s and 50s. Not exactly what anyone can really call "old white men."
Philosopher John Locke’s ideas were an important influence on the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson restated Locke’s contract theory of government when he wrote in the Declaration that governments derived "their just Powers from the consent of the people."
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the vote to approve the Declaration of Independence.
Some of the most famous lines in the Declaration of Independence were inspired by Virginia’s Declaration of Rights by George Mason. Mason said: "all men are born equally free and independent."
Jefferson's Declaration of Independence said: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Mason listed man's "natural Rights" as "Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety." Jefferson listed man's "inalienable rights" as "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Nine of the signers of the Declaration died before the American Revolution ended in 1783.
In the summer of 1776, when the Declaration was signed, the nation's population is estimated to have been about 2.5 million. Today the population of the U.S. is more than 300 million.
The oldest signer of the Declaration was Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706 and was therefore already 70 at the time of the Declaration. Franklin went on to help negotiate the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778 and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.
The only signer of the Declaration of Independence to survive beyond the 50th anniversary of the signing was Charles Carroll of Maryland. Carroll died in 1832 when he was 95 years old.
The copy of the Declaration of Independence that is housed at the National Archives is not the draft that was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Instead, it is a formal copy that the Continental Congress hired someone to make for them after the text was approved on July 4th.
This formal copy was probably made by Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the Secretary of Congress. This copy was signed on August 2, 1776. The first public reading of the Declaration took place on July 8, 1776, in Philadelphia.
A fictional story written in the 1840s suggested that the bell now known as the Liberty Bell was rung that day to bring the people together. However, historians now doubt that this happened. The steeple that housed the bell was in horrible condition at the time, and the bell was probably unusable.
Although August 2, 1776, was the official signing ceremony's date, several people signed on later dates. Some of these late signers included Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton. No one who signed the Declaration of Independence was born in the United States of America. The reason? The United States didn't exist until after the Declaration was signed! And though that's the case, all but eight of the signers were born in colonies that would become the United States of America.
History has had a lot to do with the sanctity of July 4. On that day, the news of the Louisiana Purchase arrived in Washington, Henry David Thoreau arrived at Walden Pond, and President Abraham Lincoln learned of the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
However, the one incredible event that happened to ordain July 4 as something significant were the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, only hours apart from each other.
From April 19, 1775, until July 2, 1776, the war was being fought so the colonists could regain their rights as Englishmen that had been taken away by the British from 1763-1775. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved the resolution by Richard Henry Lee from Virginia 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 ......."
July 4 is the day that has been chosen as our "independence" day. So remember, it wasn't the day that it was signed by all. Instead, that was the day that the Second Continental Congress approved The Declaration of Independence.
The significant aspect of the Declaration of Independence is that it changed the American "rebellion" against Great Britain into a "revolution" for freedom and liberty!
My favorite quote from the Declaration of Independence:
"In every stage of these Oppressions, we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People."
The same rule applies today:
The person, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.