Every year, Americans set aside July 4 to wave flags, march in parades, shoot fireworks and cook meat, all ostensibly to celebrate the collective rancor of a few men in frocks and wigs deciding that we were finished being British.
The timing is due to documentation. Atop the Declaration of Independence are the large words, “In Congress. July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” As if that were the date this deed was done.
In fact, it wasn’t, according to many historians. For the sake of accuracy, they say, we should break out the party favors and barbecue sauce two days earlier.
Why? Because the document itself is not the declaration but an announcement ― a press release, if you will ― of the declaration made July 2, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Lee Resolution, a proposal for independence from the British Empire advanced in June by Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia statesman.
A month of arguing in Congress followed Lee’s proposition. Some among the 56 delegates thought it too soft. Some, however, argued for immediate reconciliation with Great Britain to minimize the likely economic and social punishments expected from Parliament for colonials being petulant enough to fire guns at the king’s soldiers. Whole colonies were ready to bolt the alliance at the mere prospect of independence.
On July 2, 1776, however, the last reluctant colony, South Carolina, agreed to go along with the declaration. (New York abstained, as it awaited permission from the colony’s legislature to review and approve the declaration ― approval it received a week later.) On that day, the Second Continental Congress voted in favor of the resolution for independence.
Over the next day, the delegates haggled over remaining details in the resolution’s wording. On July 4, author Thomas Jefferson presented the revised wording in a final copy, which was approved without reservations.
But the debate over our independence date doesn’t end there for some historians. Because although the delegates agreed to independence on July 2, and ratified on July 4 the document announcing it, the signing ceremony, as it were, occurred on Aug. 2, and not all delegates signed then either. Only John Hancock, the Massachusetts delegate who presided over the Congress and whose signature is the largest, is presumed to have signed on July 4.
So, why do we celebrate our independence on July 4, instead of July 2?