On July 2, 1776, the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain when the Continental Congress finally approved (with twelve colonies voting yes and New York abstaining) this resolution:
Resolved, 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 connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
That evening, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed this notice: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
John Adams, in his July 3, 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail, wrote:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, 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? On that date, the Continental Congress approved and formally adopted the final revised draft of the Declaration of Independence. (Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence between June 11 and June 28, the document was read to Congress on June 28, and over the next few days it was debated and many changes were made.)
The earliest printed versions of the Declaration of Independence begin: “IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776. A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” The first was a broadside printed on July 5th by John Dunlap. On July 6, the Pennyslvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to publish the text of the Declaration. On July 19th, the Congress ordered that the Declaration be “fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, this large engrossed vellum copy of the Declaration of Independence, dated at the top July 4, 1776, was signed by many (but not all) of the delegates. This is the copy that resides at the National Archives.
Here are a few additional links for your reading pleasure:
- The National Archives online exhibition “The Declaration of Independence,” including the article “Declaration of Independence: A History”
- Library of Congress online exhibition “Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents”
- Pauline Maier’s 1997 article “Making Sense of the Fourth of July”
- Pauline Maier’s 1997 book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
- Marshall Smelser’s article “The Glorious Fourth– Or, Glorious Second? Or Eighth?,” in The History Teacher, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jan. 1970), pp. 25-30.
- Ann Marie Dube’s 1996 online book A Multitude of Amendments, Alterations and Additions: The Writing and Publicizing of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States, by the Associate Curator of Independence National Historical Park.
So join me in celebrating both momentous days– July 2nd (the anniversary of American independence) and July 4th (the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence).