The Fourth of July is celebrated as the official birthday of the United States. According to John Adams — an authority on the matter — we have the date wrong. While adjusting your tricorn hat, consider some lesser-known history about that steamy July week in 1776.
It was in fact two days prior, July 2, that delegates to the Continental Congress first took the plunge. In the then-State House, the body “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.”
Adams believed it was this date that future Americans would mark with fireworks.
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” the Founding Father wrote to his wife, Abigail, the following day. “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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
So how did Philadelphians learn of the news? Dailies did not yet circulate. Lucky for readers of the thrice-weekly Pennsylvania Evening Post, the newspaper’s printing schedule allowed for a last-minute scoop the night of July 2: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
The Pennsylvania Gazette ran its headline the following morning. But that concerned the delegates’ resolution, not the Declaration of Independence — the document — itself. Which brings us to why we celebrate July 4.
It was on this day that members of the Continental Congress “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” formally adopting the now-hallowed text.
John Dunlap, the body’s official printer, received the document that evening with instructions to print 200 copies. These were earmarked primarily for governors (to be displayed at their state houses) and Continental Army officers (to be read aloud to soldiers in the field).
Printed news of the document emerged first in German. The Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote broke the story on July 5: “Yesterday the honorable Continental Congress declared the United Colonies free and independent states. The declaration is now in press in English; it is dated July 4, 1776, and will be published today or tomorrow.”
German speakers were also the first Philadelphians privy to the document’s full text. Printers Melchior Steiner and Charles Cist published it as a broadside on the morning of July 6, beating even John Dunlap’s own Pennsylvania Packet.
In a time of limited literacy, many of the city’s citizenry first heard the text of the Declaration on July 8. Heralded by the “old bell,” residents gathered in the State House Yard as Lt. Col. John Nixon delivered the document’s first public reading in “a voice clear and distinct enough to be heard in the garden of Mr. Norris’ house on the east side of Fifth Street.”
As to the crowd’s reaction to the news, consider newspaper reports of their actions that evening: “… our late King’s Coat of Arms was brought from the Hall in the State House, where the said King’s Courts were formerly held, and burnet amidst the acclamations of a crowd of spectators.”
But Nixon was not reading from the document now residing in the National Archives. The now-famous signatures adorning that parchment copy were not affixed until Aug. 2, perhaps another deserving date lost in the Fourth of July shuffle.
Vincent Fraley is the communications manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.