Why? Because it was on July 2, 1776, that delegates at the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia officially separated the 13 American colonies from Britain by approving a motion for independence advanced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Twelve of the 13 colonies approved it (New York abstained, as its representatives did not have permission to vote for it at that time).
The next day, on July 3, Adams wrote a letter to his wife Abigail with this prediction:
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.
Later that day, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published this:
“This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
So why do we celebrate July 4 as Independence Day?
That’s when the actual Declaration of Independence — whose principal author was Thomas Jefferson — was adopted (although not signed) by members of the Continental Congress. Jefferson had been writing it, draft after draft. He was one of the Committee of Five the Continental Congress set up to draft a declaration, with the other four being Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.
It wasn’t until July 8 that the city of Philadelphia, where the Declaration was signed, held a parade and the firing of guns to mark the moment. And it wasn’t until July 9 that the Continental Army — which was under the leadership of General George Washington — got the news from Washington himself. Washington ordered soldiers — who were in New York City to defend it from the British — to gather in Lower Manhattan that evening and he read from a July 6 letter he had received from John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. A copy of the declaration was included. As for the British government in London, well, it didn’t know that the United States had declared independence until August.
Scholars don’t think the document was signed by any of the delegates of the Continental Congress on July 4. The huge canvas painting by John Trumbull hanging in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol depicting the signing of the Declaration is, it turns out, a work of imagination. In his biography of John Adams, historian David McCullough wrote: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”
It is now believed that most of the delegates signed it on Aug. 2. That’s when the assistant to the secretary of Congress, Timothy Matlack, produced a clean copy. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, signed first, right in the middle of the signature area. The last delegate to sign, according to the National Archives, is believed to be Thomas McKean of Delaware, some time in 1777.
As it turns out, a number of copies of the document were made at the time of adoption. According to the National Archives, there are 26 copies of what is known as “the Dunlap broadside” (21 owned by American institutions, two by British institutions, and three by individuals). These were printed on paper on the night of July 4 by printer John Dunlap from a document sent by the Continental Congress. The original was written on parchment.
In a twist of history, Adams died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson. It was the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.