On the evening of July 2, 1776, John Adams retired to his quarters and reflected on the day’s events as he wrote a letter to his beloved wife, Abigail. In a delightfully murky fog brought on by Madeira, a type of wine fortified with Navy-strength rum (a favorite drink of Adams’), he felt as though he had inscribed his name on the pages of history. In a giddy state he wrote, “July 2 will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”

He had a good reason to make the claim. The day brought on an enthusiasm like that felt at the outset of a great adventure. The Declaration of Independence that he and four others — including the document’s chief author, Thomas Jefferson — had been toiling over for weeks was nearly ready, and earlier in the day the Continental Congress finally voted for a resolution of independence from Britain. Adams continued to write, “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” 

Did you forget to celebrate yesterday as Adams intended?

A document to be celebrated

“The actual first vote in favor of Independence took place on July 2,” said professor Richard Johnson, author of, “Adjustment to Empire: The New England Colonies,” and recently retired from the University of Washington.

Drafting of the Declaration of Independence began in mid-June 1776, yet the role Adams played in the writing of the document has been widely disputed – especially by Adams. At the time, people didn’t know that it was Jefferson who actually penned the most famous document in American history. What is known is that while Jefferson wrote it, he shared the draft with Benjamin Franklin and Adams for edits.

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Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776: Benjamin Franklin, (left), John Adams (middle), meeting at Thomas Jefferson’s (left) lodgings in Philadelphia to study a draft of the document. Painting by J.L.G. Ferris (1863-1930). (Photo by Getty Images).

“In later years, Adams believed that he had a much larger role in writing it,” added Johnson. The news about who authored the Declaration broke sometime in the 1790s, and from then on, Adams not only campaigned for president but also to have his name put right beside Jefferson’s on the byline.

“The vast majority of [the Declaration] was Jefferson’s work,” affirmed Johnson. “He was sort of stuck in a place in Philadelphia, away from his country, which was Virginia at the time, and he drafted something fairly lengthy, and it was edited and cut down by Congress. He was crass about edits.”

Editing always has, and always will be a contentious subject for a writer, and given that Adams was a part of that process, one can only speculate how those conversations went. Jefferson’s emotional appeal to King George was left out, along with a denunciation of slavery, as southern delegates did away with that too. Jefferson was annoyed and went so far as to send copies of his original version to friends so they could read how he really intended the document to read.

Adams played a larger role than credited

All of this points to the fact that Adams may have wished to downplay the importance of the Declaration, given that Jefferson got most, if not all of the credit.

“Adams was always very touchy about his role in the revolution,” Johnson said. “Washington got a lot of the credit for the Revolution, and Franklin smoked the ground with his lightning rod… and Adams felt that he needed more recognition for what he did.”

Adams will be forever remembered as a crucial “behind the scenes guy” in the War for Independence. He was an asset in Congress and understood the law better than Jefferson, but he wasn’t charismatic, nor was he a gifted writer.

His prediction of “Pomp and Parade,” is decidedly correct, however, incorrect about the celebrated date. Of course, the Fourth of July is celebrated now.

“[The Declaration of Independence] wasn’t fully ratified until the 4th of July, and the printed John Dunlap version had ‘July 4th’ on it,” Johnson said of the date change.

So, the reason Independence Day is celebrated on July 4th is that that is the day the Declaration of Independence was completed, a task of which Jefferson gets the lion’s share of the credit.

A draft of the Declaration of Independence. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

As for that famous painting of all the members of the Continental Congress gathered to sign the most important written document in the country’s history: It depicts an event that never happened. The document went unsigned for another month, and if one is celebrating Independence Day based on when the founding fathers signed the document, then most would likely celebrate Aug. 2.

“The Declaration wasn’t actually signed until Aug. 2,” concluded Johnson.

That’s the day when John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, inscribed his name in the middle of the document. Perhaps the U.S. would celebrate the ceremony that took place that day, except for the fact that all 56 signatures didn’t grace the document until sometime in 1777. The document made the rounds from north to south, with Thomas McKean of Delaware most likely as the final signatory.

So in case you’re wondering why you’re celebrating Independence on July 4, fear not. Despite the fact that the vote for Independence happened two days earlier, the actual signing happened a month later (and the first Independence Day was celebrated on July 8, 1776). So you can rest easy knowing that the Declaration was printed with July 4 on it, and that is why the US chose to celebrate on that date.

Happy Fourth of July, America!