Written chiefly by Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Continental Congress, this Declaration of Independence was adopted on 4 July 1776. Every year, Americans celebrate the birth of their nation with a national holiday filled with barbecues, fireworks, parades and tons and tons of food.
But should they be celebrating on a different day? Here are five facts about Independence Day, and the men who signed it…
1) ADAMS’ PREDICTION
The 56 members of the Continental Congress voted on whether to declare independence two days earlier, on 2 July. The unanimous result led to the American colonies announcing they were now free states. A powerful member of the Congress, John Adams, was certain that 2 July would be the day remembered, saying in a letter to his wife, Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” He continues to say:
“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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
2) USE THE FOURTH
If 2 July was when the vote was held, why is the fourth remembered today? After the vote, the wording of the Declaration was debated until it was finally approved and adopted on 4 July. But in contrast to John Trumbull’s iconic painting, the document was not immediately signed by all members. In fact, only two men actually signed it on 4 July: John Hancock and Charles Thompson.
3) THE KING IS DEAD
Today, Fourth of July celebrations are elaborate and explosive, with massive fireworks displays and huge communal gatherings. Early celebrations were very different, however, with some Americans marking the split from Britain by holding mock funerals for King George III – an act sure to have got them arrested for treason before independence.
4) END OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
In 1826, only two of the 56 still lived: Adams and Jefferson. In an act of extraordinary coincidence, the two men – who had both served as president – passed away on 4 July, 50 years to the day after the Declaration’s adoption.
5) WHAT A TURKEY!
Another signatory, Benjamin Franklin, was a hugely influential figure, but when the bald eagle was chosen as the symbol of the country, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. In a letter to his daughter, written in 1784, he asserts the bald eagle, “is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly… he is a rank coward.” His choice was the turkey – a “much more respectable bird” in his opinion. Of the turkey, he says: “He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”