July Fourth: Independence Day?

Many historians believe that the declaration was signed on 2 August, and not on 4 July, as is commonly believed.
Many historians believe that the declaration was signed on 2 August, and not on 4 July, as is commonly believed. / Mike Nelson / EFE
  • Historians have long disputed whether Congress signed the declaration on 4 July

American residents on the Costa del Sol, along with those in the rest of the world, will be remembering America's independence from the British Empire next week. The celebrations on the coast are a little less elaborate than those in the USA, although no less patriotic, but are they enjoying their independence on the correct date?

The first Independence Day celebration was carried out somewhat differently from the extravagant parties that take place around the world today. Following years of pent-up frustration, people took to the streets after George Washington read the document out loud in front of City Hall, despite the mounting tensions.

The declaration announced that the 13 American colonies, who at the time were at war with the United Kingdom, would regard themselves as independent states no longer under British rule. This was the first step toward forming the United States of America. Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence on 2 July 1776.

John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, suggested that Thomas Jefferson should compose the final document, which Congress approved on 4 July 1776.

John Adams, later to become the second president of America, actually believed that the celebrations should have taken place on 2 July, as he demonstrated in a letter he wrote at the time: "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."

John Trumball's iconic 1819 painting, Declaration of Independence, shows the committee of five presenting the first draught of the declaration to the Congress. The painting includes a few people who did not actually sign the declaration, while omitting 14 who did. There is even doubt that a large gathering ever took place, as it seems almost certain that all 56 signers were not present on that day.

Historians have long disputed whether members of Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on 4 July, even though John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (America's third president) claimed that it had. Many historians believe that the declaration was signed nearly a month after its adoption, on 2 August, and not on 4 July, as is commonly believed.

Coincidental deaths

However, 4 July would become even more symbolic for a few of the Founding Fathers. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the only two signers of the declaration who served as American presidents, died hours apart on 4 July 1826 - 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

The anniversary was certainly on Jefferson's mind during the final hours of his life. Knowing he was on his deathbed, Jefferson got up around 8pm, demanding to know, "Is it the fourth of July yet?" He lived just long enough to welcome the arrival of the 50th anniversary, dying at 12.50am. John Adams died of heart failure several hours later, but news of Jefferson's death never reached him.

America's fifth president, James Monroe, another Founding Father, also died on 4 July, in 1831.

The only president to have been born on Independence Day is Calvin Coolidge (1872), who succeeded to the presidency following the sudden death of W G Harding in 1923.

Indian monk and social reformer, Swami Vivekananda, was the author of an English-language poem called To the Fourth of July. He is said to have written his poem, described as a "passionate utterance of his powerful longing for freedom", on 4 July 1898. Coincidentally, the poet also died on 4 July, in 1902.