No one seems to know how it happened, but for well over 200 years we have been celebrating our independence from Great Britain on the wrong day. American independence was declared on July 2, not July 4. Little of great importance took place on July 4, 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, except for approval of the wording of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress. In fact, the most significant event of that day might have been initiated not by the congress, but by a horde of giant horseflies that invaded Independence Hall.
Although British soldiers and local militias had been shooting at each other for more than a year, there was only guarded talk of outright independence from Great Britain when the congress met that fateful summer in 1776. Most colonial leaders still wanted equality with Englishmen, not seperation from them. Many in congress still sought a compromise solution.
It was June 7, 1776 when Richard Henry Lee of Virginia stood before the Continental Congress and called for a clean break with England. He insisted it was time for the colonies to become "free and independent states." Many of those present were sympathetic to those sentiments, but few were willing to take such drastic action. To vote yes would be an act of treason, punishable by death. So the assembly did what politicians traditionally do when faced with a tough decision: They tabled Lee's motion for additional study.
When the congress met again on July 2, there had been a marked change in attitude. Recent actions by the British had inflamed passions. Lee's motion for a declaration of independence was brought back before the assembly and this time passed without a single dissenting vote. That night, John Adams penned the following sentiments in a letter to his wife, Abigail, back in Boston:
The Second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the Great Anniversary Celebration.
On July 4, the Continental Congress met for only one item of business. Thomas Jefferson had written an official Declaration of Independence, and the delegates were there to debate its contents and approve the final wording. Jefferson's Declaration had been widely discussed prior to the meeting, and it seemed everyone had something to add or delete. As the session got underway, both the rhetoric and the temperature began to heat up inside Independence Hall. One congressman wanted to change the phrasing of a particular sentence. Another wanted to eliminate a direct reference to the King of England.
It was humid in Philadelphia that day, and as the delegates debated and mopped their brown, the windows of Independence Hall were opened to catch any breeze that might stir. Instead of a breeze, through the windows came an invasion of giant horseflies from a nearby stable. As the hungry horseflies descended on the founding fathers, debate ceased. A tormented delegate rose to suggest that Jefferson's declaration seemed suitable to him. Others in the assembly agreed. A motion of approval was made and quickly passed. The delegates just as quickly exited the building, swatting at horseflies.
Contrary to common belief, the Declaration of Independence was not even signed on July 4. The signing took place on August 18, 1776. Some members who could not attend on that date signed later. The final signature was not placed on the document until January 18, 1777. In the final analysis of the events of that summer, it can only be concluded that independence was declared on July 2 and the workding of the Declaration of Independence approved on July 4.
Although we managed to get the date wrong, July 4, 1776 remains an important day in American history, and every citizen should be grateful to the lowly horsefly for making it so. Had it not been for the intervention of horseflies at Independence Hall, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, universally recognized as one of the greatest documents ever written, might have been scrambled into semiliterate, political gibberish.
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to celebrate July 2 as Independence Day and reserve the Fourth of July to honor the horsefly for its contribution to preserving our nation's most cherished document.
"That's Not In My American History Book" by Thomas Ayers.