This day “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,” said John Adams to wife, Abigail, in July 1776.
Most Americans are familiar with the celebrations John Adams describes in his letter to his wife, but most do not realize that Adams envisioned July 2, 1776, as the day Americans would mark independence from Great Britain. Why? Because on that date, the Continental Congress met inside Independence Hall and resolved that “these United Colonies… are absolved from all allegiance to the British , and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
Of course, we all know that Americans now celebrate July 4th, the day the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. Many Americans might also be surprised to learn that the famous signed parchment copy of the Declaration wasn’t signed by most of the founders until August 2, 1776.
July 8, 1776 also plays a special role in our history. On that day, Colonel John Nixon of Philadelphia read a printed Declaration of Independence to the public for the first time on what is now called Independence Square.
Independence National Historical Park is fortunate to have one of these first printed copies on display in the Great Essentials Exhibit, which also houses rare printings of the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. We commemorate July 8 each year with a re-enactment of Col. Nixon’s reading.
Independence National Historical Park hosts millions of visitors every year who have come to reflect on what freedom means to them. Sites like the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall and the President’s House Site offer authentic places for learning and patriotic feelings. Our nation wasn’t born perfect. The words of the declaration – “that all men are created equal” – didn’t apply to many citizens of 18th and 19th century America. In fact, the push for equality extended through the 20th century and continues today. The former enslaved African-American and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, said in a speech in 1852, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?”
On this Independence Day, as the United States of America celebrates its 236th birthday, let us all reflect on why we celebrate the Fourth of July and continue to work for liberty and justice for all.
Cynthia MacLeod is the Superintendent of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.
Editor's note: This story first ran on July 4, 2011.
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