Happy Independence Day!

[ Posted Monday, July 2nd, 2012 – 17:06 UTC ]

Happy Second of July, everyone! Happy Independence Day!

Now, you may be thinking: "Has Chris gone bonkers? Why is he jumping the gun, two days early?" The answers to these important queries are: No, Chris has not gone any more bonkers than usual; and, in fact, the rest of you are celebrating a fictitious event on a fictitious anniversary date. So there.

I quote from the illustrious John Adams, writing to his beloved wife Abigail on July 3, 1776:

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. 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 forevermore.

"But..." I hear you say, "...but July 4th is when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and that's what we commemorate." Well... no. Sorry.

There is a famous painting by John Trumbull, of course, which hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The image is (or should be) a familiar one to every American. It is even "on the money," on the (redesigned) back of the two dollar bill. However, this image does not even depict what most of us think it does. The event most of us assume it depicts never actually happened, and the closest thing to it which did happen took place almost a full month later, on August 2nd. That may seem contradictory, so allow me to explain.

What the painting actually depicts is a five-man committee presenting their draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress, on June 28th. The reason "it never happened" is that the group depicted in the painting were never actually all in the same room at the same time. Some of the people who were in the room didn't actually sign the Declaration (and were thus omitted from the painting), and some of the people who actually signed the document hadn't even been members of the Congress at the time (they became delegates later, for various reasons). Even in the painting, only 42 of the 56 eventual signers are pictured (Trumbull was unable to obtain likenesses of all of them when the painting was commissioned in 1817, so he just left some out).

The timeline for declaring independence is a convoluted one. After the draft document was submitted, Congress tinkered with the wording for over a week. On July 2nd, they moved forward when twelve of the thirteen colonies voted to declare their independence from Great Britain (to accept the document, in essence). New York abstained, and it wasn't until July 19th that all thirteen approved independence. On July 4th, the document's final language was sent to the printers -- two days after the most meaningful vote had been taken on the independence question.

The story gets even more convoluted at this point. August 2nd is the date that most of the men actually signed the document -- although many of them would not do so until months afterwards (one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, wouldn't actually sign the document until 1777). In the spring of 1777, the official public record of Congress was released, and (lo and behold!) it stated that July 4th was the date that the "Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States" was signed in Congress. This was, to be blunt, a blatant lie. New York wouldn't even vote for independence for another two weeks, so it is impossible that any sort of "Unanimous Declaration" happened on July 4th. To further muddy the waters, in the official record, the entries for July 19th (when New York finally did agree) and August 2nd (when the physical document was actually endorsed by most of the signers) were omitted. It wasn't until 1821, when the Secret Journals of Congress were published, that these entries were restored. On July 19th, the entry specifies that a formal copy of the Declaration of Independence be printed up to be "signed by every member of Congress." This signing took place on August 2nd, according to the true record of what happened in Congress (instead of the made-up version they published in the spring of 1777).

We all think we know what happened 236 years ago. We all picture Trumbull's painting as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, even though (1) it does not actually depict this event, (2) some people were present at the signing who are not in the painting, (3) the signing took place a month later, (4) the 56 signers were never actually in the same room at the same time, (5) even if they had been, only 42 of them are actually depicted, and, most importantly (6) Congress voted for independence on July 2nd, not July 4th, and New York didn't give its assent until July 19th.

Now, historical accuracy is a wonderful thing, but it leaves the open question: when should we celebrate our independence? June 28th? July 2nd? July 19th? August 2nd? Whenever the last guy finally got around to signing the document?

John Adams, obviously, believed that July 2nd was the date worth celebrating. But soon afterwards, the Congress itself would manufacture its own historical fiction and declare -- in the official public record -- that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. After all, this date is contained within the document itself. But this was nothing more than America's first "photo op," if you will (yet another historical contradiction, since photography wasn't even around back then). The whole story was a lie, but it was a lie America could agree upon and celebrate. Which we've been doing ever since, and which I will be doing in two days, along with everyone else.

But that doesn't stop me from also celebrating Independence Day today, as well. Because today -- July 2nd -- is when twelve of the thirteen colonies bravely gave their assent to separate America from Great Britain. This monumental event was the true point of no return for the colonies. By voting for their independence, they knew full well they were voting for a war which virtually everyone expected to be a lost cause. In today's terms, it would be the equivalent of Puerto Rico declaring war on the United States of America -- because so few people would bet on Puerto Rico to win such a military encounter.

In the early years of America's independence, the tradition was to drink thirteen separate toasts on Independence Day. That's a lot of drinking, it bears mentioning. I'm not sure emulating early Americans in this respect is such a good idea this July 4th, to put it another way. But since I doubt I'll last thirteen rounds two days from now, I hope you'll join me in raising at least one toast today, to commemorate Congress actually declaring America's independence from Great Britain, 236 years ago in Philadelphia. Because while the Fourth of July is indeed still celebrated with "pomp and parade... shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations" from one end of the continent to the other (and even far out into the Pacific, these days), I am one American who will also be celebrating the day John Adams (wrongly) assumed would be our national anniversary of independence. I invite you all to join me in doing so.

Happy Independence Day! Happy Second of July!


-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “Happy Independence Day!”

  1. [1] 
    Kevin wrote:

    Were you ever a teacher in an earlier era of Chrisdom? I quite enjoy these educational posts of your's :)

  2. [2] 
    Chris1962 wrote:

    HIGHLY enjoyable article, Chris. You're such a history wonk, God love ya.

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    Next thing you know, this site is going to be telling us that Christ wasn't born on December 25th, or that the founding fathers didn't put "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Where will the iconoclasm stop?

  4. [4] 
    LewDan wrote:

    ...Learn something new everyday!

    Didn't know much of this. Concise, informative, and entertaining. Kudos. Much appreciated.

  5. [5] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Chris, I realize I'm a bit late, but will add my 2ยข worth anyway . . . by explaining how you reminded me of a History teacher who wryly commented that much of what we assume to be historical "fact" isn't, and moreover, when you do dig underneath the old myths, the truth is often messier and more human ~ but actually more interesting ~ than those Grade School simplifications. ~ ~ ~ Hawkowl

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kevin -

    Nope, but I was raised by teachers.

    Chris1962 -

    Guilty as charged. Look for my real July 4th article, you'll probably like that one too.

    dsws -

    Heh. Now that was funny! Nice links, too...

    LewDan -

    I've learned a lot of early American history in the past year, this was just one amusing story along the way...

    HawkOwl -

    "History is written by the winners." That pretty much sums it up.

    To everyone: I highly recommend a book called "Lies My Teacher Taught Me" as it was one of the inspirations to look a little closer at our own history. It was written by a history professor who was annoyed at the pathetic version of history taught in K-12, and who pointed out that the insipid history textbooks we all were forced to read absolutely squeeze out any inkling of humanity and interesting storylines from what actually happened. His main theme: history is fascinating, has lots of bloody and brutal (as well as noble and inspiring) stories that are completely ignored by children's history books, in favor of pre-digested mush which is often wildly inaccurate.

    I've mined more columns out of that book than perhaps any other. Like the story of Helen Keller, to name but one. This is a great book, and it is a real eye-opener. It was written over a decade ago, and has actually had some profound influence on how the stories he chooses to highlight are portrayed in modern American history books. Anyone looking for a good read, find a copy in your local library.

    And happy (insert date) of July! Happy Independence Day everyone!


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:
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