Is the Fourth of July really the Second?
- On what date was the decision made to declare American independence?
The answer is not July 4, but July 2, 1776. This was when the truly decisive event occurred, the vote of the Second Continental Congress that America should separate itself from England. The vote was preceded by days of debate about a motion of June 7.
That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.
On July 2 this motion was adopted, with 12 colonies in favor, none against and one abstention (New York, which later added its affirmative vote).
July 2 “marked the great decision from which there was no turning back,” as one historian wrote.
- What happened July 4?
On July 4, Congress approved the final, revised text of the full document of the Declaration, which not only declared independence but gave philosophical and historical reasons for it. The Declaration was signed that day by President of the Congress John Hancock and Secretary of the Congress Charles Thomson. None of the other signatures were added until Aug. 2 or later.
The printer worked all that night to make copies for distribution. The published text bears the famous date of July 4 and began to be sent around America July 5.
- What about July 3?
July 3 marked a painful experience for Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal drafter. Having already made the great decision, the Congress sat down to edit, criticize and revise the draft which Jefferson had prepared. Anybody who has had a paper amended by a committee can especially sympathize with Jefferson each July 3.
- What is most of the Declaration about?
Much of the Declaration, about 55 percent of its text, is devoted to listing all the faults and misdeeds of King George III. This list is about three times as long as the most famous passage setting forth the truths held to be self-evident.
The Declaration has four basic parts:
- An introduction (“When in the course of human events”)
- A philosophical justification (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”)
- The list of King George’s misdeeds
- The concluding resolutions of independence, of which the heart is the original motion quoted above.
The third, longest part concludes that King George is “a prince whose character is marked by every act which may define a tyrant.”
- Does the Declaration discuss a new country?
This question is a little tricky, because it depends on the idea of “a” or one new country. The Declaration always refers to the 13 colonies in the plural. It says, “These United Colonies are Free and Independent States.”
The new states that set out to be free and independent immediately began working on how they would form a confederation or a union. This question was not settled until the implementation of the Constitution in 1789—or it might be argued, not until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.
- Did the Declaration begin the Revolutionary War?
No, the Declaration grew out of a war already begun more than a year before. The fighting at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, occurred April 19, 1775, or more than 14 months before the decision to declare independence.
- When did America achieve independence?
It is one thing to announce plans and another to carry them out. The Revolutionary War dragged on for years after the Declaration, with great difficulties and despair, as well as vision and courage. These years also included high inflation, caused by the Continental Congress printing paper money to finance the army.
Independence was finally achieved when Great Britain acknowledged it by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, seven years after the Declaration.
- How long has it been since you read the Declaration of Independence?
It is an excellent read, for its world-historical importance, dramatic setting, intellectual substance and eloquent language.