When I first started working at the local chamber of commerce, my boss told me the most common question I’d get from people is “What day is the 4th of July?” It wasn’t that people couldn’t count, but they wanted to know whether the parade and fireworks were being held on July 4 or, like they were this year, on July 3.
Many places hold the festivities a day early so the main celebrations take place on a Saturday rather than a Sunday. And while it’s done for convenience, it may be more historically correct than celebrating on the 4th. We should actually be celebrating the 4th of July on July 2.
On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife that “yesterday, the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America.” He went to explain that the Continental Congress had passed a resolution that the “United Colonies” were henceforth “free and independent States.” Not one colony dissented from that vote, although New York delegates did abstain temporarily because of uncertainties about their constituents’ views.
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America” Adams pronounced.
But it wasn’t. Why? And what exactly is an epocha?
We’ll tackle the easy question first. An epocha is an ancient term for epoch, or notable time in life. By using the archaic form of the word, Adams may have been trying to underscore the enduring significance of the day.
That significance, however, did not seem to endure very long. Some, though not all, of the delegates signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, and that quickly became the day of celebration. One year later, Philadelphia hosted a grand observance with a parade of decorated ships, festive dinners, bells, and even fireworks. This despite the fact that the war was not going well and independence was far from a sure thing.
That first festivities apparently set the tone for future years. Although our nation officially declared itself independent on July 2 and most delegates probably did not sign the declaration until August 2, we look to July 4 as the day of explosive celebrations.
In his letter to Abigail, Adams revealed that his enthusiasm was tempered. “It may be the will of Heaven that American shall suffer calamities still more wasting and distresses yet more dreadful,” he wrote. Yet he envisioned the good that would come from the struggle. “It will inspire us with many virtues which we have not, and correct many errors, follies, and vices which threaten to disturb, dishonor and destroy us.”
Just like his prophecy about the 2nd of July, it seems like this prediction did not come to pass the way Adams envisioned. For every error, folly, and vice our nation has tried to correct, it seems that another springs into existence. The United States is less united now than at just about any point in our history. But I suppose we can take heart from the fact that our disagreements, as uncivil as they have become, at least show we still care. We are all still striving to make the United States better, even as we beat each other up about the right way to do it.
Happy Independence Day!
Much of the information in this article came from The Letters of John and Abigail Adams (I was working from the Penguin 2004 edition but most if not all of the surviving letters are available online from the Massachusetts Historical Society.)
If you’d like my perspective on the debates leading up to the vote for independence, you might enjoy my hisotorical novel Restitution.