We could be celebrating independence on the wrong day

Ed and Loretta Rouda, with Torch, their miniature pinscher, on their porch on Bermuda Street in Frankford.

Some news as Philadelphia prepares for its raucous, red, white, and blue observance of Independence Day:

You're celebrating the wrong day, people!

July the Fourth should be July the Second - the day the Continental Congress voted for independence.

Or, at least, John Adams thought so. And he was there.

The next day - July 3, 1776 - he wrote a three-page letter to his wife, Abigail, rhapsodizing that July 2 would become the most exalted day in American history.

"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival," Adams wrote. "It 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."

Shews notwithstanding - it's an archaic word for shows - July 2 failed to stick.

July 8 didn't take, either, the day the declaration was first read to the public, outside the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall. The date of Aug. 2, when most of the delegates actually signed the declaration - at the risk of being hanged for treason - got no traction at all.

"We like to believe that the key events - voting for independence, adopting Jefferson's declaration, signing the parchment - all happened on one dramatic day, July 4, 1776," said professor Stuart Leibiger, an expert on the American Revolution who teaches history at La Salle University.

But the creation and signing of the declaration evolved during a succession of proximate events and dates in June, July and August - motions, votes, revisions, debates and approvals.

So, how did July 4 lay claim as the birth date of independence?

It was on that date that the Continental Congress approved and adopted the declaration, severing ties to Great Britain. Also that day Congress ordered the first copies printed. And there's that big, bold date on the document itself: In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

"It was that date, July 4, that the country recognized as the public's irreversible stand for independence," said Coxey Toogood, historian at Independence National Historical Park. "The Declaration offered the world a detailed justification for the declaration of independence made in Congress two days earlier."

Some public celebrations marked the July 4 date even while the revolution was being fought.

But generally, Leibiger said, the anniversary didn't get wide attention in the early years.

Only in the 19th century, when the last Revolutionary War statesmen and veterans were dying off, and the story of the revolution itself was becoming legend, did the anniversary begin to get its due.

"At that point," Leibiger said, "mythology compressed several days' events into one magical day, probably because that is the date that appears on the parchment."

That, he said, furthered a trend of giving credit to Jefferson, who drafted the declaration, as opposed to Adams, who led the floor fight for independence that culminated in the July 2 vote.

Both men helped cement July 4 as the official date during their final act on the public stage, when they died on the same day in 1826 - July 4.

jgammage@phillynews.com

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@JeffGammage