Myths About Independence Day Revealed

By: Val Thompson Email
By: Val Thompson Email

July 3, 2013

Historical experts say the celebration of American Independence on July 4 is a mistake.

"Continental Congress actually approved independence on July 2," said J. Jefferson Looney, an editor of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

The founding fathers, including John Adams, thought that the second of the month would go down in history as the day of celebration.

"He was right about the parades and fireworks," said Looney, "but wrong about the day."

July 4 was the day the Continental Congress approved the text of the Declaration of Independence. In essence, when Americans celebrate on the Fourth of July, they are celebrating the document, not the independence.

Looney says this mistake was made in the first year after independence was approved.

"In 1777, July second came and somebody realized on the second or maybe the third that they had forgotten to do anything to actually celebrate independence," he said. "So the next available day was the fourth."

There are other elements of the traditional independence story that are misleading, too.

The faded parchment of the Declaration of Independence, on display in the National Archives in Washington D.C., did not exist on July 4, 1776. It was written later in the month, and most of the signatures were not added until August 2.

"The signers were never all together at one point," said Looney.

Not all of the words on the declaration were written by Jefferson, either.

"We call him the Author of the Declaration of Independence, but it's probably more correct to call him the draftsman," said Looney.

Jefferson's draft was altered by other members on the committee, including Benjamin Franklin, who added the term "self-evident" to the famous phrase: "we hold these truths to be self-evident."

Congress also removed a long paragraph Jefferson included that accused King George III of saddling the United States with the slave trade.

However, most of the words that survived to the final draft of the declaration are Jefferson's. Looney says, it's very impressive that he was able to put it together so quickly.

"He probably only had a couple of days to work on it," Looney said.

Jefferson was not widely known as the writer of the declaration until a decade after it was published. Initially, Jefferson and the other signers had their identities hidden to protect them from British retaliation.

It wasn't until Jefferson began his run for the presidency that he publicized his authorship of the declaration, Looney says.

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