On this day in 1776, the Continental Congress declared America’s independence! Did you know that this vote actually occurred on July 2, not July 4?
“That these United Colonies are,” congressional delegates resolved, “and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown . . . .”
There would be no more attempts to reconcile with Great Britain.
John Adams was elated, and he thought that July 2 would be celebrated as a memorable day in American history. He wrote Abigail: “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.”
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, did it? Instead, Americans have chosen to celebrate July 4 as our Independence Day. On that day, Congress finally approved a formal, written Declaration of Independence.
That Declaration was written by a committee of five men: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The five-man committee, in turn, had appointed a subcommittee—Jefferson and Adams—to come up with the initial draft.
Or, at least, that’s how Adams remembered it.
In 1822, Adams wrote a letter, explaining how Jefferson became the primary author of such an important document. His letter contains a blow-by-blow of a conversation that he remembered between the two men:
“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught. I said, ‘l will not.’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’”
In the same letter, Adams discussed the reasons that Jefferson, then relatively unknown, was appointed to the committee of five in the first place: “[Mr. Jefferson] brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent at composition. . . . Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit and decisive upon Committees . . . that he soon seized upon my heart, and upon this occasion I gave him my vote and did all in my power to procure the votes of others.”
Jefferson heard Adams’ rendition of events and didn’t quite agree!
The Committee, Jefferson wrote James Madison, “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee, I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and mr. Adams requesting their corrections; because they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit . . . .”
So who was right? One historian suspects that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“It could well be,” Pauline Maier concludes, “that the exchange Adams recalled between himself and Jefferson occurred as the committee debated who should be given responsibility for producing a draft—not later, within a sub-committee of two members.”
The story of our Declaration of Independence will continue in a few days. Until then, Happy 2nd of July!
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David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas (2004)
David McCullough, John Adams (2001)
Jessie Kratz, National Archives, Making it Official: The Day the Declaration of Independence was Signed (Aug. 2, 2016)
Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (2013)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (July 2, 1776)
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams (July 3, 1776)
Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering (Aug. 6, 1822)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998 edition)