By Jim Worsham
Today—July 2—was supposed to have been the big day of celebrations, with parades, bells, fireworks, festivals and all that kind of stuff—at least that’s how John Adams envisioned it.
After all, on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress ended its debate and approved the resolution proposed on June 7 by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and seconded by Adams:
Resolved: 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.
The newspapers of the day treated the action as the colonies’ definitive word on the break with Great Britain. And in Adams’s mind, approval of the resolution was worth celebrating, year after year. He was so excited, he wrote one of his many letters to his wife, Abigail, back home in Massachusetts:
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.
Alas, it was not to be. But Adams was close.
Adams had been appointed to the Committee of Five to write a document—a declaration—that told the world why the colonies cut ties with Britain. Thomas Jefferson had been working on a draft, which he gave to Adams and Benjamin Franklin for their review. Then he incorporated their changes into the draft, and submitted that draft to Congress. The delegates debated it, took out passages critical of the English people and of slavery, and adopted it—on July 4, the day that, every year, we celebrate our independence.
The Declaration of Independence was not signed by any of the delegates until early August, after being engrossed on parchment by Timothy Matlack, a Philadelphia beer bottler who had fine penmanship. Most delegates gathered to sign the parchment copy on August 10, but a few others signed it later. Eventually, 56 delegates would put their names on it.
This is the copy that is on permanent display in the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, DC. It can be viewed on July 2 or July 4 or any day of the year except Thanksgiving Day and December 25.