We’ve just finished the week of Independence Day, and all of the fireworks are over (I think!).
Why do we celebrate our national day on July 4? The common answer is that the Declaration of Independence was signed on that day. The real answer involves twists and turns in one of the most underappreciated and interesting parts of our history.
As is well known, the American Revolution began before the Declaration of Independence. The Revolutionary War had been raging since 1775, which was followed quickly by the establishment of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
We often talk about the "Thirteen Colonies," but they weren’t necessarily a solid group of 13. They had their own ideas and policies. Georgia didn’t even attend the opening sessions of the Continental Congress. (And the Articles of Confederation, passed in 1777, explicitly authorized Canada to join without needing anyone else’s approval.)
The Congress was a relatively weak body, and mostly managed the war until June 1776, when a resolution was made to declare independence. Congress then formed the Committee of Five, most prominently including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson drafted the initial Declaration of Independence over the course of 17 days, presenting it to the Congress on June 28, 1776. Congress finished up its work of cobbling together a coalition of states for independence, and on July 2, voted to declare independence. Congress then considered Jefferson’s masterpiece draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Despite Jefferson’s objections, they savaged the document, removing two major passages. One passage attacked the people of England, based on what Jefferson called “the pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with.” The other passage attacked slavery, deleted “in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia.”
It must be remembered that the southern states were not as enthusiastic about the Revolution as the northern colonies; they never racked up big war debts, and no major campaigns took place in the South until 1778. It was a real possibility that the Southern colonies would join up with Britain, or at least stay on the sidelines, if the issue of slavery was pressed too hard. So the declaration omitted this.
This compromise was a moral failing. It was also a hard decision made by real people, in war, faced with life-or-death choices.
On a lighter note, these changes were the only significant ones made to the declaration. Some in Congress wanted to make more, but they were stopped for a curious reason. Congress was meeting in private, in a badly ventilated hall in Philadelphia, in July, with the doors and windows closed. The gnats, heat, and fighting were unbearable. Eventually, one delegate proposed that the draft as it then stood be approved, basically to get the ordeal over with. On July 4, it was duly approved and sent to the printer.
John Adams famously wrote his wife predicting that July 2 would “be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival ... with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations.”
He was off by two days, largely because all the printed copies had July 4 on them. By 1777, Americans were celebrating July 4 rather than July 2. Adams can be forgiven -- this was the first national day in the world not based on a religious or monarchy-related holiday.
It came as a result of flawed people toiling away in the Philadelphia summer who managed to produce what is possibly the greatest statement of principles in history. That is worth celebrating, correct day or not.