–June 7, 1776: Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee presents resolution of independence to the Second Continental Congress.
–June 11: Committee of five appointed to draft a declaration explaining America’s right to secede: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson.
The others drop out in the following order: Sherman, Livingston, Franklin, and Adams. Jefferson signs and undertakes to write the document, “consulting neither book nor pamphlet.” (Showoff!)
–June 28: Committee presents Jefferson’s draft to the Continental Congress.
–July 2: Congress passes resolution of independence – the die is cast.
–July 4: After two days of intense debate, Congress adopts a chastened (TJ said mutilated) version of Jefferson’s declaration of independence.
–August 2: There was never a formal signing ceremony. The document certainly wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July. Once the engraved copy had been prepared, most delegates signed on or around August 2, 1776.
The great John Adams, who played a much more significant role in the American Revolution than did Jefferson, developed both a short-term and later a long-term reaction to the events of the first week of July 1776. In the moment, overwhelmed with pride and revolutionary excitement, Adams wrote a letter to his “dearest friend” Abigail, his wife, on July 3. The great letter contains the following exuberant paragraph:
“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 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.”
Well, sir, you were half right. At the instant when this was all unfolding, Adams rightly predicted the ways in which the American people would come to celebrate the birth of their republic. But he was off by two days on the celebration date.
Much later, when Jefferson’s fame and popularity had soared beyond that of many of the other figures of the Revolution, including Adams, Adams attempted to restore the balance in his own favor. He made it clear that he could have written the Declaration of Independence if he had wanted to but that, in an act of selfless nobility, he handed the assignment off to young Jefferson. He suggested in letters that there was nothing original in Jefferson’s document; in fact, Jefferson had merely copied from a range of state and local declarations to produce his synthesis. And, when he was truly upset with his former “protege,” the earthy Adams raged, “You have run away with” the Revolution.
All that historians can conclude is this. Jefferson had nothing to do with America’s preference for the fourth of July over the second of July–unless you credit what even Adams called Jefferson’s “peculiar felicity for expression” for lifting what might have been a routine state paper into global immortality. Jefferson did not seek to write the Declaration of Independence. In fact, he tried to talk his way out of the assignment. The simple fact is that on the Fourth of July 1776, one of the handful of most important documents in the history of the world was adopted by a group of principled intellectuals from Britain’s colonies in North America. If you start to make a list of the most important and influential documents ever written–the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Rights–there can be no list that does not place Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in the top ten, indeed top five.
Why? Because Jefferson had spent a lifetime to hard reading and composing lucid prose in order to be ready when the moment came. As a young man he read 12-15 hours a day. Doesn’t leave much time for firecrackers. Jefferson had a genius for piercing through the immediate to the universal significance of things. The Revolution wasn’t finally about Britain. It was about the aspirations of humankind. Jefferson was a humanist in the profoundest sense of the term.
The irony is that Jefferson would probably have been happy to steer fireworks, parades, and bratwurst to the Second of July, and devote the Fourth of July to seminars on liberty, a thoughtful toast with a fine glass of Bordeaux, a rigorous checklist survey of how well human liberty is doing against the forces of creeping bureaucracy, regulation, taxation, and big government.
He never did figure out how to fire off a Roman candle.
So today, July 2, 2017, I lift my glass to irascible, contentious, prickly, earthy, vain, self-pitying, and unbearably honest and virtuous John Adams. Let the parades begin.
It may be worth noting that in 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day–on the FOURTH OF JULY.
Checkmate, Mr. Adams.