I love celebrating America’s birthday, but as a history teacher I’m also committed to illuminating the holiday for those who might want to think about it in a different but equally celebratory light.
So why do we skip two days?
I celebrate Independence Day not on July 4, as most Americans do, but two days earlier, commemorating when the Second Continental Congress approved a formal resolution declaring separation from England on July 2, 1776.
The resolution, now all but absent in popular public consciousness, was originally introduced by Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia delegate:
“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.”
Lee first introduced the resolution June 7, 1776, prompting Congress, four days later, to establish the Committee of Five — composed of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston — to draft what would turn into the Declaration of Independence, should the Virginian’s efforts prevail.
On July 2, 1776, Lee’s resolution was approved by 12 of the 13 colonies, with New York delegates abstaining over lack of formal instruction on how to vote. One week later, however, the New York Provincial Congress offered its support for independence.
Significantly, July 3, Adams mailed a letter home to his wife, Abigail, overjoyed with the development:
“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 commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. 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 more.”
Most of my high school students are stunned after reading this letter, with many wondering why they had been taught that the Declaration of Independence was actually signed on July 4.
Moreover, as Congress busied itself with reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence, Pennsylvania newspapers had “declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
The late Pauline Maier, among our nation’s most respected scholars of the early republic and its founding documents, captures my sentiments in her 1997 article for American Heritage, “Making Sense of the Fourth of July“:
“In fact, holding our great national festival on the Fourth makes no sense at all — unless we are actually celebrating not just independence but the Declaration of Independence,” she wrote.
I wish to make plain how much I revere the Declaration of Independence, the most elegant and profound document of our early republic — save, perhaps, for the United States Constitution, a legal document with its own special significance.
But what about that painting?
John Trumbull’s most famous painting, “Declaration of Independence,” only further confuses history. Placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1826, the iconic painting has come to represent the actual signing of the nation’s most precious founding document.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough explained in a 2003 address, “Trumbull said [the painting] was meant to represent July 4, 1776, and that’s the popular understanding. But the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4. The signing began on August 2, and continued through the year as absent delegates returned to Philadelphia. No formal signing ceremony ever took place.”
McCullough goes on to discuss other inaccuracies about the furniture and decor, before stating that “none of this really matters,” since the scene…
“proclaims that in Philadelphia in the year 1776 a momentous, high-minded statement of far-reaching consequence was committed to paper. It was not the decree of a king or a sultan or emperor or czar, or something enacted by a far-distant parliament. It was a declaration of political faith and brave intent freely arrived at by an American congress. And that was something entirely new under the sun.”
I understand McCullough’s ease in forgiving Trumbull’s mischaracterizations, which he has no trouble noting, and his appreciation of the painting’s larger message of the United States as being “something entirely new under the sun.”
Still, my students, as well as much of America, lack McCullough’s sophisticated pedigree. In 10 years of teaching, I’m astonished at how many people, students and adults alike, feel lied to or misled by Trumbull’s painting. This fall, one student even cried out, “Fake news!”
Trumbull was an artist, and I can’t fault him for taking poetic license, however liberally. I do take issue with Americans who regard Trumbull’s painting as literal truth. Our nation’s founding is spectacular enough without gilding.
What do you think? How do you celebrate Independence Day?
The PBS NewsHour’s Teachers’ Lounge blog, written by teachers or school-related staff, gives the public a glimpse into how current events affect life inside schools. Sign up for the PBS NewsHour Education mailer here.