Bench Memos

Yes, It’s Really Our Birthday

Over at The Corner, Jonah points us to a piece by historian Joseph Ellis at The Daily Beast about what really happened on July 4, 1776.  The short version is, “nothing much,” says Ellis–from which Jonah concludes that Ellis is arguing that we celebrate the wrong day. 

I’m afraid Jonah is the victim of the Beast’s editors.  Unfortunately so is Ellis, whose piece was given this header:

Why the Fourth Is a Fraud

By Joseph Ellis

Step away from the grill: Bestselling historian Joseph Ellis says we’re celebrating our nation’s independence on the wrong day.  How history screwed up the date.

But this is not at all a fair rendition of the observations Ellis makes in the article.  He points out that the committee that composed the Declaration presented its draft on June 28; that July 2 was the day the Continental Congress resolved to declare independence; and that on July 3 and 4 the Congress completed revisions to the Declaration.  Ellis writes:

When the delegates concluded their debate on July 4, they then ordered the revised document sent to the printer. No one signed the Declaration that day. . . .

Why, then, did July 4 become the preferred date for our annual celebration? Well, although nothing momentous occurred on that day, it was the day when the American public first learned about the Declaration. Copies began to appear in newspapers and go up on tavern walls, although in fact it took several weeks for the news to reach all precincts up and down the coast. The deeper truth is that the declaring of American independence was a drawn-out process without a clear-cut crescendo moment. July 4 was an arbitrary choice, but the new nation needed a birthday, and it made as much historical sense as several other alternatives.

Too many historians have a slavish devotion to the premature exclamation of John Adams to his wife Abigail that July 2 would be forever remembered as the great day.  Ellis, to his credit, argues that July 4 “made as much historical sense” as any other day–thus contradicting the Beast’s editors.  But he is wrong to say “nothing momentous occurred” on the Fourth.  By his own account, the delegates to Congress concluded all revisions to the Declaration on July 4 and sent the finished document to the printer. 

When a deed is done in words, the proper date for remembering the deed is when the words took their final form.  And for the Americans who declared their independence and brought forth a new nation, that date was the Fourth of July.  The printer himself got it right, and gave posterity the date we celebrate.  Have a look at the earliest copies bearing the signatures of the delegates.  Although the signatures came later, the printer used large type at the top of the page reading thus:

                               In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776

The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America

“Nothing momentous occurred”?  Nah, only the birth of a nation.  Have no fear; you’re not late to the party.  Today is the great day, and always has been.