John Adams, future President of the United States, was spot on. With others, he had been pushing the extra-legal Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. The day after Congress finally came around, he wrote giddily to his wife Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha 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 commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnised with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illumination, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.
Whether Adams was clairvoyant or just astute, he described at that moment how Americans would celebrate their independence day for the next 238 years and counting.
But wait! Why "the second day of July"? How could John's letter to Abigail, which celebrated independence, have been written on the third of July, one day before July Fourth, America's "Independence Day"?
The actual timeline is simple. On 2 July 1776, by a vote of twelve states to zero, with New York abstaining, Congress approved the resolution put forth by Richard Henry Lee on 7 July. "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." With this resolution, former colonists "absolved" themselves "from all allegiance to the British Crown," as Lee's motion stated.
Two days later, on 4 July, Congress endorsed a document, known ever since as the Declaration of Independence, which explained the reasons for its action. That document, essentially a press release to publicise its 2 July decision, was signed by two men, President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson, as was the custom for congressional resolutions. End of story.
This skeletal tale is too bland for such a momentous event, members of Congress contended. We need to juice it up for the big screen. Foreshadowing Hollywood, they decided to doctor history for the sake of drama. That is why Congress concocted America's first and most enduring photo op, 18th century style.
On 19 July, when New York finally made it unanimous by endorsing independence, Congress instructed Timothy Matlack, an expert draftsman, to prepare an "engrossed" copy of its 4 July public statement. This was to be "signed by every member," it said. So when Matlack presented his elegant copy to Congress on 2 August, delegates who happened to be present that day signed it, even if they had not been party to the original act. Other delegates added their signatures as they arrived for work on succeeding days, and one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, did not do so until the following year.
Then – and here's the clever part – the committee that printed the official Congressional Journal inserted the 2 August copy, with 56 signatures, in its entry for 4 July – literally rewriting history. This is the celebrated Declaration of Independence we see so often, altered and backdated for maximum effect.
The deceit is easy to detect. The engrossed copy, dated 4 July, 1776, is titled, "Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America," even though the Congressional Journal reveals that only twelve states voted for independence on 2 July and approved the Declaration of 4 July. Further, there is no way that fourteen of the celebrated "signers" stepped forth, with great solemnity, to affix their signatures to the Declaration of Independence on 4 July, 1776. They couldn't have done so because they were not present that day. Eight of these heroes, in fact, were not even members of Congress on 2 July and 4 July.
Facts notwithstanding, we Americans still love to tell the tale in our textbooks, popular histories, and across the Internet. The "Signing," our iconic founding moment, and the "Signers," our original patriots, hold a special place in our hearts.
As so often happens in history, representation of the event has had more staying power than the event itself. The Fourth of July signing of the Declaration of Independence, a conscious fabrication, will continue to signify the soul of the nation, no matter how often pesky historians point out that it just didn't happen.
Ray Raphael is author of the influential Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past. The tenth anniversary revised edition is being released today [4 July] by The New Press and you can find out more here.