The 4th of July: John Adams would Disagree

by Jen Roger, Executive Director, Museum of History, Benicia

The irony was palpable on July 4th, 1826; a day which bore witness to both the 50th anniversary of American Independence and the deaths of two of our country’s Founding Fathers and presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. By far one of our nation’s most famous signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, first vice-president of the United States, its second president, and undoubtedly the fledgling country’s most eloquent statesman, Adams, reportedly turned down invitations to appear on the 4th of July. John Adams disagreed with the July 4th date. It was not, after all, the date Congress voted to accept the Declaration, or even sign it.  

Failure was not an option…

…if independence from Great Britain was to be successful and if the nation that our Founding Fathers had conceived of was to endure. By July 1776, the American colonists were growing weary of the conflicting news coming from the Continental Army. Washington’s continentals were light and mobile compared to the British troops, and he was facing a far superior force, militarily. Washington had just come off a victory over General Thomas Gage, and later William Howe’s troops during the Siege of Boston, when the tenor coming from the Second Continental Congress began to change. The victory over the British in Boston, causing them to retreat to New York on March 17, 1776 — a day still celebrated as Evacuation Day — gave Adams the justification he needed to finally push Congress to the point of declaring independence. He was right. Washington’s victory provided the momentum needed to finally advance the cause of liberty in the halls of Congress and the courts of public opinion; a victory referred to as both physical and psychological.

By June 11, 1776, Congress was ready to take the next deliberate steps toward freedom from Great Britain.

They called for and formed the Committee of Five, composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. They were tasked with writing the document that would become the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was noted for his mastery of the written word and therefore selected by his committee to create the first draft of the Declaration. The 33-year-old from Virginia was the youngest member of Congress and lived alone in a three-story rented home in Philadelphia. The document he created largely changed the course of the world between June 11 and June 28, 1776. Adams and Franklin would later make 86 revisions to the document, and it would take two days of Congressional discussion to get it passed.

July 2, 1776

With the Declaration written and in hand, the Second Continental Congress officially declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776, with the passage of the Lee Resolution, named for Delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Formally known as The Resolution for Independence, Lee acted on instruction from Edmund Pendleton, president of the Fifth Virginia Convention, the patriot-driven legislature that met in Williamsburg, Virginia. The resolution itself had been first proposed by Lee on June 7th but had not been acted upon. Lee’s resolution delineated the formal separation of the Colonies from Great Britain, called for a formal confederation of the Colonies, and a plan for the formation of foreign alliances. With the adoption of the resolution on July 2nd, the Colonies officially declared their independence.               

Two days later…

…on July 4th, Congress, under the leadership of John Hancock, officially accepted the Declaration of Independence as prepared by the Committee of Five. The liberty bell rang from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, now called Independence Hall, in recognition of the adoption of the Declaration. Recognized by vote only, the document would not be officially signed by the Delegates until August 2nd, 1776.

The Declaration had passed and the fight for liberty seemed more real than in the months that led to the auspicious occasion. Within hours, 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence, known today as the Dunlap Broadsides, were ordered from printer John Dunlap. The broadsides were printed in haste and the 26 known to exist today all carry some printing defect from type and punctuation being incorrectly set to reversed watermarks. The Pennsylvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to print the Declaration in their July 6th edition, the same day that Washington ordered the reading of the Declaration to his troops who were amassing in New York City. He hoped that Jefferson’s inspired words would bolster morale and thereby harden their resolve to continue their fight for the cause of liberty. 

A full year would pass before anyone paid much attention to the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

So much so that the actual anniversary, July 2nd, was missed and supposedly only remembered on the 3rd. While there were declared celebrations on that first anniversary, the rift between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists kept the holiday at bay. It was not until after the War of 1812 that celebrations became commonplace. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday on June 28, 1870, which coincided with a groundswell of patriotism across the nation due to the centennial of the Revolution, and would reaffirm it as a paid holiday for federal employees in 1938. Today, the 4th of July is celebrated and embraced in a fashion that would have been utterly incomprehensible to John Adams, but how we celebrate the day fits with his desire to see July 2nd “Solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from End of This Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” – John Adams July 3, 1776