Not long after the 13 American colonies officially declared their independence from Great Britain, John Adams wrote about the action in a letter to his wife, Abigail, noting, “the most memorable epoch in the history of America” would be remembered and honored through the ages. 

John Adams (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” he penned. “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.” 

Adams was confident in how history would ultimately judge and celebrate the red-letter day of America’s declaration of independence – July 2, 1776. 

Wait. What? 

Not July 4? 

What’s going on here? 

Have we been celebrating the wrong day for 245 years? 

Well, yes – and no. 

It is a fact that the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia on a warm Tuesday, July 2, approved a resolution of dissolution offered by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee: 

2nd Continental Congress (Historical Society of Pennsylvania – Public Domain)

“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 connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” 

And with that, the united colonies broke away from England. 

On July 2, 1776. 

That’s the moment John Adams was writing about to his wife. 

A total of 47 words that are, really, far from ringing, passionate, inspiring or memorable. 

But let’s go back to the Continental Congress meeting on July 2. 

After passing the resolution, the Continental Congress then decided to meet on July 3 as a committee of the whole to discuss a declaration on independence written earlier by Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson. 

Back in June, while discussing a possible break from England, lawmakers felt they would need a document to share with the world that would formally outline why independence was necessary. 

A committee was formed to draft such a declaration, and the writing duties fell to Jefferson. He completed his initial draft in 17 days and delivered it to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.

On July 3, delegates argued throughout the day over the wording of Jefferson’s initial draft. With numerous changes having been made, the delegates adjourned to take up the document the next day. 

On July 4, the delegates reviewed and agreed to a final, revised version.

It was then ordered that, “copies of the declaration be sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops; that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.”

Printed, or “engrossed” versions of the Declaration of Independence were created on the night of July 4 and delivered to Congress on July 5. One of the engrossed versions was signed by the delegates on August 2, and that is the version on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

At the top of the Declaration, the date of congressional approval of the final document is written in large characters: July 4, 1776. 

It is this version of the Declaration, reprinted countless times in countless publications over the past two centuries, that has become the reference document and date for American Independence.

July 2 was about the formal act of independence, taken by the Continental Congress.

July 4 was about the why’s of independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and shared with the world.

We’re celebrating the adoption of the document which put into eloquent phrasing and political philosophy the short, curt declaration of independence issued by the Continental Congress two days earlier. 

Which is why we celebrate July 2 on July 4.

That we celebrate independence two days after it was actually declared may have annoyed John Adams during his lifetime, but the overall meaning and importance of the celebration is really timeless.