Moment of Independence:
Questioning July 4

4 July 2009

Happy Fourth of July! As every red-blooded schoolchild knows, this is Independence Day. This was the day we booted out the dastardly British and established the United States as a sovereign nation in the world sphere. Right? What's to question?

I've never understood the Fourth of July.

Maybe the day would harbor a special significance if I were Soviet, it being the date that Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918, symbolically ending a thousand years of Romanov autocracy once and for all.

It might mean something if I were an astronomer, it being the date of the supernova of 1054, the landing of Pathfinder on Mars in 1996, and the collision of the Deep Impact probe with a comet in 2005.

It might mean something if I were an abolitionist, celebrating the end of slavery in New York in 1826, finally pushing that peculiar institution south of the Mason-Dixon line.

It might mean something if I were an avid landscape artist, mourning the untimely death of the legendary Bob Ross in 1995.

It might also mean something if I were deeply into classic literature, this being the day that Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" was first published in 1865.

As it stands though, July 4 means less to me as an American than do significant other dates that we live though each year with hardly a notice. That July 4 has been declared unanimously as Independence Day seems strange to me. Historically, the Fourth of July was relevant to American independence from Great Britain, but it is perhaps a bit misinterpreted.

We regard July 4 as the day that the founding fathers, in all their awesome and inscrutable glory, signed a Declaration of Independence that immediately severed all ties with England and made the United States into a reality. This is, unfortunately, a highly stylized version of history, redeveloped from fact to promote a tidier and more patriotic image. History is never this clean and that often told story, of course, never happened.

What then does this do with the so-called Independence Day? I don't hold that day to be on July 4, as I will eventually explain. Perhaps it is a matter of opinion on what counts as the moment of independence, which could shift that celebration over a number of separate and disparate dates.

Thursday, July 4, 1776 was indeed the day the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. The problem here was that, despite its name, this wasn't the document in which independence was first proposed. The Lee Resolution, presented to the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, was the initial declaration of independent intent on the part of the Congress. Rushed back to Philadelphia by Congressman Richard Henry Lee, the Lee Resolution bore the direction of the Virginia Colony to propose a break with Great Britain and establish an independent nation with all ties to the British Empire severed. At this time Virginia was regaled with a higher sense of superiority than the other colonies held. When Virginia spoke the other colonies tended to listen. On top of that, the First Families of Virginia (FFV) -- to which the Lee family belonged -- gave the document an even higher level of elitist importance than it might have otherwise held. A resolution bearing not only Virginia's approval but also FFV support gained top credence. These added up to make June 7's Lee Resolution the first written declaration of independence to be agreed upon by the Continental Congress.
"Resolved, 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, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

"That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

"That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation."
- Lee Resolution, June 7, 1776
The Lee Resolution was a catalyst. The written Declaration that we all know about came into being when the Committee of Five, consisting of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, was formed for the purpose of putting the Congress' intentions into words for popular consumption. The written declaration was intended, per Jefferson:
"[T]o place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we were compelled to take."
Over the course of the next seventeen days the Declaration Committee drafted their document. Jefferson alone did not write the whole of it. Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston all chimed in and contributed though Jefferson, with his panache for eloquent verbiage, assembled the ideas into the finalized text. The Declaration was presented to Congress on June 28 and put before that august body on July 1, to be argued over for three days. In the meanwhile the Lee Resolution was officially adopted on July 2 by twelve of the thirteen colonies, the missing vote being due to New York's persistent abstentions from any and all ballots put forth from Congressional President John Hancock's bench. Two days later on July 4 Congress, with New York casting an opinion for the first time, voted unanimously to approve the Declaration, though it was not signed.

Nobody signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Not by Hancock with his large, central signature. Not by any of the Committee of Five. Not by a single Congressman. Before a single quill was set to parchment the document was sent off to the printers for publication. Select state committees and military commanders received copies sent out on July 5. There was no one single copy of the Declaration to be made and the version that was signed by the Congressmen and now resides in the National Archives was not ordered until July 19.

Congress did not actually sign the Declaration until August 2 and, even then, it was not the entire Congress. John Trumbull's famous painting of the Declaration's signing is a grossly inaccurate representation and signatures from absent Congressmen continued to filter in as late as November. Thomas McKean of Delaware did not even sign the document until 1781, five years after its approval! Despite McKean's absence, the very final edition of the signed Declaration was not presented to the public until January 18, 1777.

Clip from John Adams miniseries, Episode 7: Peacefield

Therein are a number of potential dates, each of which is part in parcel of the whole story of independence. July 4 was only the date the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was voted upon by Congress. Do we count this as the moment of independence? If you consider that as the criteria for independence, then the Lee Resolution's June 7 presentation or July 2 adoption ought to have a greater bearing due to its chronological precedence. John Adams, for example, personally favored July 2 and the adoption of the Lee Resolution as the moment to celebrate, writing:
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival ... It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever."
Between July 2 and July 4 I favor the former date, given that the Lee Resolution was the document that set off the whole chain of events that followed. Don't be quick to too settle for either though. I would even be weary of adopting the August 2 signing, as this act was done quietly for fear of English retribution to their act of treason against the crown. The best dates I can offer for independence, if we are to cling only to the Declaration of Independence as an immediate and singular quantifier of the moment to celebrate, would be the January 18, 1777 date -- six and a half months later -- when the signed document was released to the public and, in turn, the English. This would have been the first time most people actually saw not only the document but also the individual names of those who signed. That would have been the moment that independence was declared to the world at large.

However, I'm not even satisfied with that. Whether you side with July 4, 1776 or January 17, 1777, there was still no independence for the colonies. Either of those dates could have signified moments of great motivation, but the truth of the situation did not warrant resolved jubilation. Neither July 5, 1776 nor January 18, 1777 saw the United States suddenly blossom from a vanquished British Empire. The war, which had begun on April 19, 1775, would continue to rage ever onward for an additional five years past the Declaration until General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781 after the Battle of Yorktown. This ended the land war but a number of naval skirmishes continued while Great Britain and the united Thirteen Colonies negotiated a peace treaty to end the war. The Treaty of Paris was signed September 3, 1783 by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay (representing the United States) and David Hartley (representing King George III and Great Britain). The treaty states, in part:
"His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof."
The great question that I hoped to ask with this essay was at what point did American independence take hold? Did independence rely solely on an idea or was it something more bureaucratic? The nation was not suddenly made independent of Great Britain simply by approving or signing either the Lee Resolution or the Declaration of Independence. The United States did not emerge only because a Declaration was approved in July 1776 (indeed, the name "United States" was not officially adopted until September 9, 1776). The Declaration itself provided nothing more than a legal framework for the new-country-to-be that was pushing more and more of its soldiers against the persistent Redcoat menace. It was a war of attrition that ultimately did the job, the British resolve to maintain control over its far-flung colony no longer a viable option for the limited pocketbooks of King and Empire. The surrender of Cornwallis marked the end of major fighting on October 19, 1781, though minor rows still cropped up until the peace treaty. Did independence have to wait for King George to finally recognize it, to withdraw his remaining troops, and to abolish ties to the former colonies?

I personally favor this last situation, where independence did not occur until Hartley, acting on behalf of the king, signed over the deed to America on September 3, 1783. For me, September 3 is Independence Day in the United States. September 3 was that elusive moment of independence when Great Britain severed its connections once and for all (at least until aggressions reared up again in 1812) and the fully independent United States was recognized by other nations.

I offer this essay not to smash all of the fine and pretty traditions that make up our lives. I offer it not because I hate America and everything related to it. I offer this essay because everything should be considered. Everything should be questioned. Don't just roll with Independence Day simply because the calendar says that it is Independence Day. This is indeed an important day in this nation. It should be celebrated. Likewise, its citizens should be aware of just what they are celebrating and when.

Of course, none of the alternate dates -- aside from the Lee Resolution's June 7 presentation or the August 2 signing -- happen to fall during the fine summer weather that these latitudes benefit from. A September 3 Independence Day might not make so great a summer party and the October and January dates would probably preclude swimming and cookouts.

In the end, feel free to celebrate Independence Day when you feel is proper given the historical context. Enjoy your Fourth of July, be safe, and put in a kind thought for the fifty-six Continental Congressmen who faced the noose for their coordinated act of treason. It was a risky move but it paid off in the end for swimming and burgers in the middle of summer. Or September.


Engaged 8 September 2009 | Updated 8 September 2009