As the country celebrates its 245th birthday this Sunday, it may be a good time to address the misconception that July 4, 1776 was actually the birth of our nation.
We’ve all learned that the Declaration of Independence triggered the founding of the United States and we celebrate our Independence Day each year on the now-sacred date of July 4th.
We all know the story of the courageous colonists who declared their independence from the most powerful military of the time and defied the wishes of the English King by rejecting his sovereignty over the 13 colonies in the Americas.
But to call the Fourth of July the birth of a nation over-simplifies the much more complex process that saw a loose confederation of colonies battle their former patron and grow into the richest and most powerful nation in the world.
To put it in personal terms, if the Revolutionary War were a divorce, the Fourth of July would serve as the separation date; or even more accurately, the date when one partner announced their desire to end the union.
The Declaration of Independence itself wasn’t even the official action taken by the colonists to begin their separation from England. Two days earlier, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution of independence declaring that the colonies “ought to be, free and independent States”, that they were “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown”, and that “all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” The vote was 12-0 with no New York representative having been present.
In fact, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, explaining his excitement over the special date.
“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 commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. 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.”
The first copy of the Declaration was passed by the Congress on July 4th, that much is true, but the declaration was merely meant to be an explanation to the world as to why the colonies had decided to break away.
That copy, called “a Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America”, was signed by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and rushed to print that night. 200 copies were made, of which only 25 still exist. George Washington read a copy to his troops on July 8th.
The Declaration of Independence, including the one on display at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, wasn’t even signed until August 2nd when the signers first got together again.
At the time of the passage of the Declaration of Independence which we now hold up as our founding document, the population of the colonies was not even united in the decision to revolt. Historians estimate that the colonists were divided evenly between Patriots for revolt, Loyalists in favor of remaining with England, and a third who were indifferent.
And, at the time the signers affixed their now famous signatures to the parchment document, their mood was not that of celebration, but of fear.
Benjamin Rush, one of the signers and a leader in Philadelphia at the time, later wrote about how awful and silent the room was as each member was “called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress” to sign “what was believed … at that time to be our own death warrants.” The Patriots to the colonists were traitors to the British.
On the first anniversary of the Fourth of July, no celebrations, fireworks, or parades were held. In fact, some people didn’t even recall the date as an important one at all.
The ensuing War for Independence raged for seven years, with victories and losses on both sides, over 25,000 deaths, but eventually the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783 brought about the end of the war and what could be more correctly thought of as the birth of our country.
Between 1774 and 1789, various bodies governed the colonies, including the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress, and the Confederation Congress, with fourteen men having served as president of Congress between September 1774 and November 1788. No national leadership position existed comparable to what we now know as the office of the President.
Then, on September 17, 1787, the Confederation Congress approved the new Constitution of the United States. It took until June 21, 1788 to secure the minimum of nine states required to ratify it. Now we had a national governmental structure, a President, a bicameral Congress elected by each state, but still lacked important rights that would later be added by the Bill of Rights’ first ten amendments in 1792.
So, given all of these important and significant dates in American history that led to the country we celebrate today, which date should really be recognized as the “birth” of our nation.
July 2nd when they voted to split? July 4th when the declaration explaining the split was passed? August 2nd when the Declaration of Independence was actually signed? September 3rd when the Treaty of Paris ended the war for independence? September 17 when the Constitution was passed? June 21st when the Constitution was actually ratified?
Back to the divorce comparison, would someone claim they were divorced on the day one partner decided to split, the day that partner announced the split to the world, the day the other partner stopped fighting the split, or the day a final divorce decree was signed?
Maybe it doesn’t really matter because, in the end, we all celebrate the democratic republic we call home, with its long history of struggles and growth, its commitment to continue to be better, and the opportunities we all have to participate in shaping its future.
So happy Fourth of July, the day we have all decided is as good as any other to wave the flags, celebrate our country, and watch fireworks.
But we should also take just a moment to reflect what we can each do to make our country even better for ourselves, our neighbors, and the future generations to come so that we can all celebrate a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all.
Happy Independence Day!