In A Nutshell
Independence Day is well known to be the day that America declared their independence from Great Britain. But if that’s the definition of the holiday, it should actually be celebrated on July 2. That was the day that delegates from the colonies assembled in Philadelphia and voted a technically unanimous vote to declare themselves independent from the rule of Great Britain’s monarchy. We only use July 4 because that’s the date on the Declaration of Independence—and that wasn’t even actually signed until August 2.
The Whole Bushel
July 4 has long been known as the American Independence Day; it’s a day of parades, backyard barbecues, and fireworks. But actually, we’ve been technically celebrating our independence from Great Britain on the wrong day.
The only reason that we recognize July 4 as our Independence Day is because that is what’s written on the Declaration of Independence. Lofty credentials, for sure, but the document wasn’t even signed until August 2; in total, 56 Congressional delegates did sign the document, but not all of them even signed by the end of that month. It’s believed that the last person to sign—Thomas McKean of Delaware—didn’t even do so until sometime in 1777.
So that famous painting of delegates gathered in Philadelphia to sign Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on July 4? Never happened.
But it turns out that July 2 has a much better claim to being the actual Independence Day. It was then that the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to vote on whether or not an official movement of independence from Britain should be declared. The vote from the delegates was unanimous—but New York abstained, still unsure of whether or not the state’s constituents would want their delegates to approve or disapprove the motion.
And it was that day that the Pennsylvania Evening Post published news that America had declared itself free from British rule, and it was also that day that John Adams wrote would be one of the most memorable, important days in American history.
Independence Day was almost June 7; that was the first time the resolution was presented to Congress. It wasn’t even voted on, though, as it was very, very clear that South Carolina, New Jersey, New York (which later abstained), Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania itself weren’t going to be voting in favor of the declaration. The other delegates were certain that the holdout delegates and their respective states would eventually change their minds, so the vote was postponed a month.
The first Independence Day celebrations weren’t even until July 8, 1776. The city of Philadelphia organized parades and a firearms display, in true American fashion. And George Washington himself didn’t hear about the vote until July 9. And word didn’t even reach the British government until August 30.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was almost a year before to the day—July 5, 1775—that Congress was drafting, voting on and adopting quite a different proposal. The Olive Branch Petition was adopted on that day, an appeal to England’s King George III that addressed the colonists’ concerns. A carefully worded document, it made it clear that they were hoping for a reconciliation to avoid a complete break with England. It was evident that their discontent was not with the king himself, but the policies implemented by those beneath him. In fact, it ended with this: “That your Majesty may enjoy long and prosperous reign, and that your descendents may govern your Dominions with honour to themselves and happiness to their subjects, it is our sincere prayer.”