HAPPY SECOND of July! In deciding to jump the gun on the 205th celebration of the nation's birthday, we cite as authority none other than John Adams, whose virtues are extolled on the opposite page today. "The Second Day of July 1776 ," he predicted a day later, "will be . . . celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival." For John Adams assumed -- erroneously as it turned out -- that Americans would commemorate the Continental Congress' vote for independence, taken on July 2, and not the adoption two days later of the Declaration that justified the break with England.

But antiquarian niggling alone does not provoke this commentary. By tomorrow, many others will be getting an early start on the Independence Day celebration. The roads to Rehoboth and other holiday spots will be clogged with outbound Washingtonians, so when else if not today to nag you about driving carefully and using the fireworks cautiously?

As for the meaning of the glorious Second, it is worth recalling that when the Founders declared the United States independent, chronology was less important to them than consistency. The first public proclamation of the Declaration in Philadelphia came on July 8, and not until July 19 did Congress vote to have the document inscribed on parchment. Then, it took until Aug 2 for most of the "original" signers to affix their names to the parchment, with one even delaying until November, possibly a hedge until he had worked out the betting odds on successful insurrection.

The image of an immaculate parchment-signing that occurred precisely on July 4, in short, was a later invention that passed subsequently into American myth and memory, if only because it reinforced the desired impression of decisiveness among the Revolutionary leaders. Considering these early liberties taken for perfectly sensible reasons with the announcement of American freedom, we justify our premature wishes for the Fourth this year by an appeal to the Founders.

No rational commentary on American condidtions ever prepares us adequately for that flurry of superpatriotic pronouncement known as the Fourth of July oration. For many people, the awesome self-assurance displayed in such orations seems so out of step with daily reality that, in recent years, the genre itself has been discredited. What the skeptics fail to understand, however, is the degree to which in any given year such Independence Day speeches have reflected national anxieties as well as achievements. Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin once aptly described the Fourth as "a festival of justification" during which such optmistic and ebullient orations reaffirming the country's oldest purposes inevitably will display a "vagueness of line between fact and hope, between what had actually happened and what ought to have happened." How could it be otherwise, when only recently has the American Revolution's evolving and partially disbursed legacy been made more fully available to blacks and others who were unrepresented at Philadelphia in 1776?

Still, at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, there resides a patient confidence that the American yearning for political equality and self-government applies universally and, given time, will spread inexorably across the world. Thomas Jefferson wrote of these hopes often, the last time not long before his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of John Adams' death as well: "May [the Fourth of July] be to the world . . . (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains . . . and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."

The world is far more crowded than in Thomas Jefferson's day not only with tyrannies but, in most of them, with embattled believers in those "certain inalienable Rights" of the 1776 Declaration. For their sake, although we cannot avoid constant interplay with regimes that do not derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed," our annual "festival of justification" compels us to remember that -- above all else -- we are in the democracy business.