The 4th of July is truly the most American of holidays because it exists as a result of unfinished government business. The Second Continental Congress officially declared the independence of the original 13 colonies from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. Congress spent the next two days debating the language of the Declaration of Independence before approving the final draft on July 4, 1776. Most of Congress never signed it until Aug. 2, and nowhere in the document does it ever mention a “declaration of independence.”
Oh, and the Declaration was written a year after the start of the Revolutionary War.
The committee in charge of drafting the Declaration wanted John Adams to write it, but he wanted Thomas Jefferson to create the first draft. The title of the finished document was “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.” The rest of Congress decided this was a bit “wordy.” They also removed Jefferson’s claim that Britain had forced America to accept slavery — they didn’t want to upset certain people (white people, mostly).
The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence contains some of the most significant language ever captured in writing: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness … .” It also required no fewer than three amendments to our Constitution to eventually fix the lie: the 13th abolished slavery, the 15th prohibited the denial of voting rights based on color, and 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.
As John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail after Congress formally declared its independence that day, “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 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.”
He was close, of course. July 4 is a time when all Americans get together to drink too much and watch the Mets lose in the late innings due to a lousy bullpen. It’s a time for amateurs to burn hamburgers atop ponds of lighter fluid and old newspaper. It’s a time when people experiment with fireworks, a time someone rushes Uncle Fred to the emergency room with Aunt Mary keeping the top of his index finger on ice in a plastic bag. It’s a time to wait for hours at the beach for the fireworks to start only to see your kids playing on their tablets during the finale.
It’s a time to celebrate what makes us uniquely American, and nowhere is this more obvious than in our government’s struggles to do the right thing. Our origin story is emblematic of how we might stumble along the way, but we’ll eventually get it right.
In short: America declared something before we really knew exactly what we were declaring but long after the point at which it should have been declared. Afterward, we fought over the language we used to declare it, then approved it, but waited a month until we signed it into existence. In the end, we signed it retroactively. Along the way, we changed the world forever.
You can’t get any more American than that.
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