Happy Independence Day: What Really Happened On July 4, 1776? Not Much, Actually

Happy Fourth of July! As Americans prepare for a day of parades, barbecues, fireworks, and all-around celebrating our independence, you may wonder what actually happened on the day we hold so dear in our collective American psyche: July 4, 1776. What you may not know is that Thursday, July 4, 1776 was actually pretty uneventful.

As the Washington Post reported in 2014, by some measures America’s true Independence Day should be celebrated on either May 12 or May 15. That was what John Adams, who would later go on to serve as the second president of the United States, believed, according to historian Joseph J. Ellis.

It was on May 12 that the Continental Congress approved a resolution, which would be dated May 15, that the thirteen colonies should abolish their colonial constitutions and establish their own constitutions. Adams would go on to later declare the later adoption of the formal, written Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, a “ceremonial afterthought,” according to Ellis.

Nevertheless, Adams’ fondness for the May 12/15, 1776, resolution was relegated to the footnotes of American history.

Over the next six weeks, a five-man committee composed of Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman, hammered out what would become the official Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was actually the third choice for the job of putting pen to paper; Franklin and Adams both refused it.

By the third week of June, 1776, Jefferson had finished the final draft of the Declaration, with edits by Franklin and the other members of the committee, and submitted it to Congress. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress officially voted to declare independence — absent Jefferson’s written declaration.

Adams, once again placing himself on the wrong side of history, famously wrote to his wife, Abigail Adams, that July 2 would be hailed as America’s birthday.

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

So what happened on July 4, 1776? Congress merely approved Jefferson’s Declaration — by some measures, a procedural move that dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on a series of events that had been taking place over the course of several weeks prior. The document was then sent to Philadelphia printer John Dunlap, who is believed to have produced about 200 copies.

It wasn’t until July 8 that regular Americans celebrated the fact that their government had declared them independent. Philadelphia threw a huge party that night, complete with parades and celebratory gunfire. Georgia, meanwhile, collectively went about its own business; word of the colony’s newly-declared independence didn’t even reach them until August 10.

And as for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, famously commemorated in the John Trumbull painting that hangs in the Capitol Rotunda: that didn’t happen until August 2, and even then, not all of the signatories whose names appear on the document were there. Some waited until even later to sign; after all, there were business to manage, crops to tend, and a war was waging.

As is often the case, history doesn’t always present us with a clean narrative that can be easily taught to schoolchildren and then celebrated centuries later. Sometimes, you just have to choose a date that works best for you and go from there (which is why we celebrate Christmas on December 25 even though Jesus of Nazareth almost certainly wasn’t born on that date). And for Americans, July 4, 1776, is the date on the Declaration of Independence, so that’s the date we celebrate, even though what happened that day was only one step in a series of events that took place over the course of several weeks before and after.

Happy Independence Day!

[Photo by Engraving Hulton Archive/Getty Images]