The Fourth of July party pooper strikes again

At least this year, the party pooper (me) waited till after the party was over.

I love the Fourth of July. Fireworks bring out the kid in me. I’m also pro-Independence. And I hold it to be a self-evident truth that Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration is brilliant.

But as a purely historical matter, the precise importance of the events of July 4, 1776, in the achievement of American Independence is overstated.

For the record: July 4 was not the day the Continental Congress voted to become independent, nor was it the day the signers signed the declaration.

On July 2, the rebel Congress adopted a resolution, sponsored by Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee stating:

“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 connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

If you felt like it, you could call that resolution the declaration of independence. (Richard Henry Lee seldom gets the credit he deserves for his role.)
Long before that day, the Congress had created a committee (Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams) to write a statement explaining the new nation’s reasons for breaking with Britain. Jefferson had long since submitted his draft, and the Congress had spent many days editing the document, phrase by phrase, leaving Jefferson in torment. In journalism, I can tell you, the phrase “editing by committee” is used as a synonym for disaster.

The day after the Lee resolution passed (that’s July 3, if you’re following the math here) John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “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.”

Missed it by two days, Mr. Adams.

So what happened on July 4 that outranked the passage of Lee’s resolution? If, like many people, you think that’s the day the Declaration was signed, sorry, that’s not it either.

Most delegates signed on Aug. 2, when a fresh copy, with all the changes to Thomas Jefferson’s draft, was available. Other delegates signed it later.

So did anything consequential happen on the famous Fourth?

Yes, definitely, although it’s hard to see how this outranks the event of July 2. On July 4, the Congress stopped torturing young Thomas Jefferson’s draft and approved its language (in much-revised form). (Of course, it was because of all those changes that the Declaration had to be sent out for a fresh copy, which is why the signing was delayed.)

Happy Seventh of July.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Alec Beck on 07/07/2008 - 02:55 pm.

    Hey Eric – a question (not meant to be confrontational). The preamble was certainly brilliant, and reflected Jefferson’s somewhat unsophisticated, but very heartfelt libertarian (as we would now call them) beliefs. The preamble is very much based on natural law, which at its heart is skeptical of government. You’re on record as being pretty much a man of the left, meaning you believe in the power of government. Assuming you don’t disbelieve my comments above, how do you reconcile your admiration for Jefferson’s writings with your belief in more government involvement/control of our lives? Maybe you slipped up and meant to say Hamilton? 🙂

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 07/07/2008 - 10:19 am.

    True, true, and true.

    Still, no matter how long it takes to compose, when I hit the “Post it!” button is the date of time of my issuing a statement. And July 4th, being the date when all editing was done and the document was issued for copying would be my choice of the date of issuance.

    So I’ll stick happily with July 4 as the proper celebration date.

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