This may be news to those of you not history majors (or my children, who had to listen to the story every year for the last quarter century) -- but, the Continental Congress did NOT declare independence on the Fourth of July.
That actually happened on July 2, 1776. (The vote was 12-0, with New York abstaining because its recently-dissolve assembly had not yet reorganized and had failed to provide instructions on the Independence question to the delegation.)
Months before, Richard Lee and John Adams had arrived at the Continental Congress prepared to argue for independence, fully aware that those sentiments may not be entirely embraced by the gathering.
In early June, Lee proposed a resolution severing colonial ties to the British:
"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 seconded the Lee Resolution.
Initial debate on the Resolution revealed a majority in favor, but a significant number of the colonies yet unsure or lacking appropriate instructions on independence. Congress was adjourned to allow time for the representatives to obtain instructions from their colonies, and also to give Lee, Adams, and the other independence supporters time to lobby their brethren.
In the meantime, in hopeful anticipation of the adoption of the Lee Resolution, a committee was conscripted to draft the argument for independence and the justification for what was, clearly, a treasonous and seditious act. In short, they were assigned to draft the new Union's first "Talking Points" memo.
Appointed were John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin, concerned that Adams had a little too much of the aggressive litigator in him, suggested that Jefferson put together a draft. Adams, nothing if not self-aware, readily agreed and lobbied the reluctant Jefferson to accept the role.
Jefferson, borrowing heavily from George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, produced a rough draft. He then presented it to Adams and Franklin, who made some changes to the document before it was sent to the committee, which approved it without further change.
On July 1, 1776, Congress reconvened as a "Committee of the Whole". On the First, Pennsylvania's John Dickinson argued against independence and John Adams gave a rebuttal. The vote of the "Committee" was 9-2-1-1 -- with Pennsylvania and S Carolina voting in the negative, New York abstaining due to lack of authority, and Delaware not participating at all because its two-member delegation (one delegate was ill and late-arriving) was split. The result was to refer out the Lee Resolution to the Congress, which reconvened as the Congress on July 2.
Overnight, great lobbying and cajoling occurred -- South Carolina's delegation was convinced to join the Independence vote; John Dickinson and Robert Morris of the Pennsylvania delegations were persuaded to abstain in the Pennsylvania caucus, allowing the delegation to vote in favor of Independence.
And, in a thrilling, late-inning development that makes Kirk Gibson's pale in comparison, an ill Ceasar Rodney charged on horseback, eighty miles through a thunderstorm, through the night of July 1, 1776, dramatically arriving in Philadelphia "in his boots and spurs" on July 2, just as the voting was beginning. He joined his Delaware delegation and cast its deciding vote to make the vote 12-0-1, with New York abstaining, and the Lee Resolution was adopted July 2, 1776.
It is thus on the Second of July, 1776 that the Colonies Declared themselves Free and Independent States -- the true birth day of our Union.
The next day, Adams famously wrote home how the date would be celebrated through history with picnics and fireworks:
The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . 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.
Immediately after declaring independence from England, the Congress took up Jefferson's Committee Report, which had been submitted in late June. They reviewed, debated, and revised it in sessions on July 2, 3 and 4. On the morning of the 4th, they adopted the Jefferson's Declaration of Independence as the official statement explaining the reasons for the action they had taken on July 2.
It was sent to the printer the following day and the first signatures were affixed in August, 1776, when most members of Congress were present to sign the document. But the final signature would not be set for over five years. (NO ONE signed it on July 4, BTW.)
So, you all go off and enjoy the Fourth. I'll start raising my glass(es) to Jefferson, Lee, Adams, Franklin and the rest of the gang today. (All this and more at the National Archives .)
(PS. On July 7, the NY Assembly voted to instruct the delegation to vote in favor of the Lee Resolution, making the vote for independence unanimous,)