Colonists in British North America celebrated the king’s birthday with bells, bonfires, parades, and speeches. After 1776, similar events honored the birth of the United States. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival . . . with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
He was right—apart from the date. “July 2” wasn’t a slip on Adams’s part or a typo on mine. That’s the date the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence. In a secondary measure two days later, the Congress adopted a written justification for that vote. Copies were printed overnight and sent out July 5. The document wasn’t actually signed until August. What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is the vote to adopt a piece of writing created in a cumbersome group process.
Congress had appointed a five-man committee in June to draft a formal statement on the break from Britain: Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and two others. Jefferson wrote a first draft, the committee met to review it, and then Congress made change after change. I suspect many writers can sympathize with Jefferson’s frustration. Franklin told him, “I have made a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”
Whether all that revision improved or weakened it, the Declaration of Independence served its purpose and made a lasting mark. Philadelphia held its first annual Fourth of July celebration in 1777. George Washington marked the date in 1778 by giving his troops double rations of rum. John Adams refused to participate in Fourth of July events, however; he insisted the proper date to celebrate was July 2.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.