A little off, thanks to the media | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Jul 07, 2017

Did you celebrate Independence Day on Tuesday? You might have done so on Sunday if the media hadn’t messed up.

When speaking about how the day of American independence would be remembered, Founding Father and future president John Adams said it would be “the most memorable epoch in the history of America … celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. 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.”

The kicker: He was talking about July 2.

The resolution of American independence was actually approved by Congress on July 2, not July 4, and the document was not signed by all of the Founding Fathers until August.

There were only two signatures on the first-published Declaration of Independence seen by soon-to-be-free Americans on July 5, 1776 – that of the president of Congress, John Hancock, and its secretary, Charles Thompson.

Newspaper announcements and public postings of the news took place on July 5 after Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin (my favorite of the “Committee of Five”) made last-minute edits on the evening of the 4th.

And who is to blame for our holiday being a little off? The media, of course.

In news stories, the media cited the published date of the Declaration of Independence, rather than the date it was approved.

As time went on, no one remembered the details of when it was signed or how, and the myth about a great group signing on the 4th of July was born. John Trumball’s famous painting is actually the depiction of the Declaration of Independence’s presentation to Congress on June 28, 1776.

The 4th of July was eventually recognized as our day of independence in 1870, going with the day of the myth.

But was this fake news? Or the staying power of a good plotline?

Interestingly, John Adams knew this misconception was coming, and he did not blame it on the media. He pointed to the “distinction between history as experienced and history as remembered” because it is shaped by a human need for events and heroes to fall into a simple dramatic story, and to take originally presented information and reduce it to a vivid narrative.

There were 56 men who participated in the original Congress that declared our independence, and thousands of people who fought daily to bring it to fruition. Each were risking their own lives.

John Hancock’s signature, for example, was signed twice as large as the rest because the British reward for his capture as a traitor was $500, and he signed that way as a challenge to keep the focus on himself and to dare them to “double the reward.”

The drafting of the Declaration of Independence and negotiation of the terminology took time and was not always pretty. That included the removal of the passage denouncing slavery and the slave trade to convince all 13 colonies to sign on.

So we legally declared our independence from Britain on July 2, 1776.

All of these years, we have been setting off fireworks, walking in and watching parades, grilling with friends and family, listening to music, and generally making a celebratory ruckus based on the date stamp of a printer.

The story behind our independence is so much more complex. There is a beautiful irony in that, especially these days.


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