On The Shelf

By Paul Guffin

July 4 is this coming Sunday. As we probably all know,
the United States did not invent July 4. The credit for our
current July 4 might be given to Pope Gregory XIII, who
introduced a “new” calendar in October, 1582, as a
modification of the Julian calendar. Or, perhaps, it might be
given to Julius Caesar who, in 46 BCE, modified the Roman
calendar. Or, again perhaps, it might be given to those who
created the Roman calendar. Whoever deserves the credit
for July 4, it is certainly not the United States.

However, on July 4 each year, the United States does hold
a celebration—and the credit for that can certainly be given
to … a group of British citizens. Those citizens of Great
Britain had gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, shortly
after the beginning of a war between England and her
colonies in North America. This was the Second Continental
Congress, convened on May 10, 1775. It functioned as a de
facto national government at the outset of what was later
called the Revolutionary War, by raising armies, directing
strategy, appointing diplomats, and writing petitions. All of
the thirteen colonies were represented by July of 1776.

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the
Lee Resolution, which Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had
proposed on June 7. The resolution was the assertion that the
colonies were free and independent states, with no allegiance
to the British Crown. It read:

“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right
ought to be, free and independent States, that they are
absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and
that all political connection between them and the State
of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
That it is expedient forthwith to take the effectual
measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted
to the respective Colonies for their consideration and

Thus, the legal separation of the colonies from Great
Britain occurred on July 2, 1776. After voting for
independence, the Continental Congress turned its attention
to a Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining
this decision, which had been prepared by a Committee of
Five (John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of
Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert
Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut),
with Jefferson as its principal author. The Continental
Congress debated and revised the wording of the Declaration
to remove its vigorous denunciation of the slave trade, and
finally approved the document on July 4. (It is debated as to
whether the document was signed on that date or later.)

Thus, it is the adoption of the Declaration of Independence
document, not the vote for independence, that we now
celebrate on July 4. However, much like Lincoln’s later
emancipation of slaves, which was officially proclaimed by
the president on September 22, 1862, but did not really
become effective until the end of the Civil War (April 9,
1865) and beyond (June 19, 1865), so the independence
from Great Britain, though asserted on July 2, 1776, did not
become reality until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on
September 3, 1783.

And, it took even longer for Independence Day to become
the holiday as we know it today. Although celebrations of
independence occurred in many places over the years, it was
not until 1870 that the U.S. Congress made it an unpaid
holiday for federal employees. And, several more years
would pass until 1938, when Congress changed Independence
Day to a paid federal holiday. And, unlike some of our
federal holidays, Independence Day is celebrated on July 4,
on whatever day of the week the 4th might happen to fall.

A few books at the Downieville Library for your
Independence reading:

Revolutionary Mothers, by Carol Berkin
The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton
Writings, by Thomas Jefferson
The American Revolution, by Library of America
Writings, by James Madison
The Old Revolutionaries, by Pauline Maier
1776, by David McCullough
Collected Writings, by Thomas Paine

Leave a Reply