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ESSAY: Why July 4 is the remembered date for American Independence

By Eric Dick

Eric Dick
Courtesy photo
June 20, 2018
       We celebrate American Independence Day on the Fourth of July every year. We think of July 4, 1776, as a day that represents the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation.
       But July 4, 1776 wasn't the day that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence (that occurred July 2).
       It wasn't when we started the American Revolution (that happened in April 1775).
       And it wasn't when Thomas Jefferson submitted his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress (late June 1776). Nor was it when the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain (November 1776). Nor when the document was signed (Aug. 2, 1776).
       So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
       July 4, 1776 was when the Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence. Its members had been working on edits since Jefferson submitted his draft about a week earlier.
       The date of July 4, 1776 is printed atop the the handwritten Declaration of Independence. (That document on parchment, the one signed by the Continental Congress delegates Aug. 2, is now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.).
       July 4 was also the date on the Dunlap Broadsides - copies of the Declaration that Philadelphia printer John Dunlap produced that night by order of the Congress and which were circulated throughout the new nation. So when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 was the date they remembered.
       In contrast, we celebrate Constitution Day on Sept. 17 each year - the anniversary of when it was signed, not when it was approved. If we'd followed this same approach for the Declaration of Independence, we'd celebrate it on its signing date - Aug. 2!
       How did the Fourth of July become a national holiday?
       For the first 15 or 20 years after the Declaration was written, people didn't celebrate it much on any date. It was too new and too much else was happening in the young nation.
       By the 1790s, a time of bitter partisan conflicts, the Declaration had become controversial. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the
The original Declaration of Independence is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of National Archives (archives.org)
Declaration. But the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too French and too anti-British, which went against their current policies.
       By 1817, John Adams complained in a letter that America seemed uninterested in its past. But that would change. The Federalist Party had been coming apart since the War of 1812, and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top.
       The deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - both coincidentally on July 4, 1826 - may even have helped promote the idea of July 4 as an important date to be celebrated.
       Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost 100 years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday. It was part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1939 and 1941.

       Eric Dick is a lawyer and vice president of the Board of Trustees for Texas' Harris County Board of Education. His sixth great-grandfather, John Dick, fought in America's war for independence.

(Opinion: General)

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