Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Say what?

I am indebted to the History News Network at George Mason University for the following information, which was first published on their website on June 30, 2001.

America’s independence was actually declared by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, not July 4. The night of the second the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the statement: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”

So what happened on the Glorious Fourth? The document justifying the act of Congress--you know it as Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence--was adopted on the fourth, as is indicated on the document itself, which is, one supposes, the cause for all the confusion. As one scholar has observed, what has happened is that the document announcing the event has overshadowed the event itself.

When did Americans first celebrate independence? Congress waited until July 8, when Philadelphia threw a big party, including a parade and the firing of guns. The army under George Washington, then camped near New York City, heard the news July 9 and celebrated then. Georgia got the word August 10. And when did the British in London finally get wind of the declaration? August 30.

John Adams, writing a letter home to his beloved wife Abigail the day after independence was declared (that is, July 3), predicted that from then on “the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” A scholar coming across this document in the nineteenth century quietly “corrected” the document, Adams predicting the festival would take place not on the second but the fourth.

Hanging in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States is a vast canvas painting by John Trumbull depicting the signing of the Declaration. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote, years afterward, that the signing ceremony took place on July 4. When someone challenged Jefferson’s memory in the early 1800’s Jefferson insisted he was right. The truth? As David McCullough remarks in his new biography of Adams, “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”

So when was it signed? Most delegates signed the document on August 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Several did not sign until later. And their names were not released to the public until later still, January 1777. The event was so uninspiring that nobody apparently bothered to write home about it. Years later Jefferson claimed to remember the event clearly, regaling visitors with tales of the flies circling overhead. But as he was wrong about the date, so perhaps he was wrong even about the flies.

The truth about the signing was not finally established until 1884 when historian Mellon Chamberlain, researching the manuscript minutes of the journal of Congress, came upon the entry for August 2 noting a signing ceremony.

(end of article)

Pondering whether an announcement of an event can overshadow the event itself brings to mind the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Maybe yes, maybe no, since any sound waves traveling through the air don’t encounter an ear to detect their presence, but there can be no dispute that the forest is changed and will never be the same as before. Something happened in the world on July 2, 1776, and while the sound waves may not have registered on public ears until July 4th, the world has never been the same.

[Update: In commenting on this post, Jeannelle from Iowa wrote something astounding: “Maybe God created humans so there would be receptors for His Word.” Now there’s a statement really worth pondering.]


  1. The history lesson was good, but I enjoyed your closing paragraph even more.

  2. I enjoyed the Independence Day history update. Happy Second of July just doesn't have quite the same ring to it, though.

    Maybe God created humans so there would be receptors for His Word.