independence day: why the fourth?though the fourth of july is almost iconic to americans, some claim the date itself is somewhat arbitrary. new englanders had been fighting britain since april 1775. the first motion in the continental congress for independence was made on 08 june. after hard debate, the congress voted unanimously (12-0), but secretly, for independence from the kingdom of great britain on 02 july. the congress reworked the text of the declaration until a little after eleven o'clock, 04 july, when thirteen colonies voted for adoption and released an unsigned copy to the printers. (new york abstained from both votes.) philadelphia celebrated the declaration with public readings and bonfires on 08 july. not until 02 august would a fair printing be signed by the members of the congress, but even that was kept secret to protect the members from british reprisal.
john adams, credited by thomas jefferson as the unofficial, tireless whip of the independence-minded, wrote his wife abigail on 03 july:
the second day of july, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.adams was off by two days, however. certainly, the vote on 02 july was the decisive act. but 04 july is the date on the declaration itself. jefferson's stirring prose, as edited by the congress, was first adopted by the vote of the 4th. it was also the first day philadelphians heard the official news of independence from the continental congress, as opposed to rumors in the street about secret votes.
note that despite the genesis of independence day, it is largely uncommon for americans to express anti-british sentiment on this day or to view it as a celebration of anti-colonialism. indeed, most americans today consider the united kingdom their greatest ally. rather than specifically as an opportunity to commemorate the end of british rule in the 18th century, contemporary americans generally perceive the holiday as a celebration of the USA. itself and the political values that motivated the united states declaration of independence, including explicit principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and implicit ones of democracy, liberty, freedom, and equality under the law.
happy birthday, america!