Happy Independence Day!

The second day of July, 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

John Adams

That the signing of the Declaration of independence is celebrated on 4 July is one of American history’s more singular mistakes. America did not declare independence on 4 July 1776. That had happened two days earlier, when the proposal was adopted. The proceedings on 4 July were a mere formality endorsing the form of words that were to be used to announce this breach. Most people had no doubt that 2 July was the day that would ring through the ages. … Still less was the Declaration signed on 4 July, except by the president of the proceedings, John Hancock, and the secretary, Charles Thomson. (Though John Hancock became immediately famous for his cockily outsize signature on the Declaration, the expression ‘Put your John Hancock here’ for a signature didn’t apparently occur to anyone until 1903.) It was not signed on 4 July because it had first to be transcribed on to parchment. The official signing didn’t begin until 2 August and wasn’t concluded until 1781 when Thomas McKean of Delaware, the last of the fifty-six signatories, finally put his name to it. Such was the fear of reprisal that the names of the signers were not released until January 1777, six months after the Declaration’s adoption.

Equally mistaken is the idea that the adoption of the Declaration of Independence was announced to a breathless Philadelphia on 4 July by the ringing of the Liberty Bell. For one thing, the Declaration was not read out in Philadelphia until 8 July, and there is no record of any bells being rung. Indeed, though the Liberty Bell was there, it was not so called until 1847 when the whole inspiring episode was recounted in a book titled Washington and His Generals, written by one George Lippard, whose previous literary efforts had been confined almost exclusively to producing mildly pornographic novels. He made the whole thing up.

John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, hastily ran off an apparently unknown number of copies. (Until recently only twenty-four were thought to have survived – two in private hands and the rest lodged with institutions. But in 1992 a shopper at a flea market in Philadelphia found a copy folded into the back of a picture frame, apparently as padding. It was estimated to be worth up to $3 million.) Dunlap’s version was dated 4 July and it was this, evidently, that persuaded the nation to make that the day of revelry. The next year, at any rate, the great event was being celebrated on the fourth, and so it has stayed ever since.

Bill Bryson “Made in America” (1994)

h/t to the Merbrat for the book recommendation. Very enjoyable.