The Fourth of July is actually the Second

July 01, 1994|By Thomas V. DiBacco

I HATE to be the one to break the news, but we're celebrating the anniversary of the nation's independence on the wrong date.

I'm serious.

America did not become an independent nation on July 4. The deed was done on July 2 -- 218 years ago tomorrow -- when the Continental Congress approved a resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States. . . ." The Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, but that was only a formality.

In fact, John Adams, who was privy to all these events, knew what he was talking about when he said that "the second Day of July will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Americans took time into their own hands.

festival." He thought it would be celebrated "with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations."

So what happened?

Succeeding generations of Americans took time into their own hands.

For this reason, we have all those silly Monday holidays, no matter that they rarely fall on the appropriate day. Some years we celebrate Columbus Day on Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 12. Actually, we should honor the discovery of America on Oct. 11, which was the date Columbus allegedly sighted the New World. But since his fleet at the time was 35 miles from terra firma, it was an unlikely sighting unless it turns out that the world is flat.

We honor George Washington's birthday on the third Monday in February, but even if we were to celebrate it on Feb. 22, it would still be wrong; he was born Feb. 11, which is too close to Lincoln's birthday, I guess, for some people.

But as for Independence Day, one notes that Americans have tinkered with time in more ways than one. July 2 was the really big day until about 1788, the year seven of the necessary nine states (including Maryland) ratified the Constitution.

Why the date was changed to July 4 is a mystery. Some suggest that the events of the Fourth provided a better photo opportunity, with members of the Continental Congress putting their signatures on the document. But in fact, the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on July 4; it was signed Aug. 2.

Writing on July 4, 1869, Charles Francis Adams, ignoring the words of his grandfather, John Adams, recognized the Fourth as the big day and went on to suggest a double anniversary, America's birthday and the Battle of Gettysburg of 1863:

"As upon this day 93 years ago this nation was brought into existence through the efforts of others, so, upon this day six years ago, I am disposed to believe, through our own efforts, it dramatically touched the climax of its great argument." Sorry, Charlie, but the Battle of Gettysburg was over by July 3, 1863.

Believe me, I've got no problems about a nation rewriting its history, even when it comes to Independence Day. But I think that historians who know better should be given the right to celebrate the holiday on July 2 -- except, of course, when it falls, as it does this year, on a Saturday.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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