Crafty Puzzles Blog

Was the 4th July really Independence Day?

#4thJuly or Not

While it is often said that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, this isn’t actually correct. In fact, nobody signed it on the 4th. This is contradictory to Thomas Jefferson’s, John Adams’, and Benjamin Franklin’s account of events. On top of their accounts, the public congressional record of events back their story. So how do we know it didn’t happen this way?

To begin with, the Secret Journals of Congress that were eventually made public in 1821 paint a different story. They contain an entry stating, on August 2nd: “The declaration of independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.”

Now if this was the only evidence, one might lean towards a typo in the journal and believing the aforementioned three individuals and public congressional record. However, one of the other signers of the declaration, Thomas McKean, denied the July 4th signing date and backed it up by illustrating a glaring flaw in Jefferson’s, Adams’, and Franklin’s argument- namely, that most of the signers were not members of congress on July 4th and thus wouldn’t have been there to sign it. As McKean said in 1796: “No person signed it on that day nor for many days after.”

Further evidence comes from the interesting fact that the parchment version of the Declaration of Independence that is on display and kept in the United States National Archives wasn’t actually written until July 19th; this being a copy of the approved text that was announced to the world on July 4th, with about 150-200 copies being made on paper and distributed on that date (26 of which are still around today, thus pre-dating what is now generally thought of by most as the “original”).

This little tidbit also came from the Secret Journals of Congress which has an entry on July 19th stating: “Resolved that the Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America’ & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.”

So, in the end, this signed document probably would have been copied by Timothy Matlack, Jefferson’s clerk, rather than penned by Jefferson himself, and certainly couldn’t have been signed on July 4th.

It’s also interesting to note that John Adams thought that July 2nd, not July 4th, would be celebrated in the future in the United States.  On July 3, 1776, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams noted:

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 why did he think July 2nd would be Independence Day and how did July 4th end up getting the nod instead?  Because July 2nd is when the Second Continental Congress voted to approved a resolution of independence. Although nobody voted on or signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th,  that was the date the Declaration was announced to the world, and why it was ultimately chosen as Independence Day.

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