It happened today - July 4, 2015

Declaration of Independence On this date in 1776 the American colonies did not declare their independence. It actually happened on July 2. But it came to be celebrated on the 4th and rightly so.

On July 3rd, John Adams, later Washington’s Vice President then President in his own right, wrote to his beloved wife Abigail that “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” But never mind. The 4th it is, as it was in their minds.

It was on the 2nd that Congress approved Independence. But it was on the 4th that Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and it quickly became the de facto date of Independence and, of course, the official holiday. And I think it underlines the nature of cultural memory that quibbling is not merely pointless in practice but in theory in the face of such commemorations.

Why was the key date the 4th even in the minds of the Founders, those who were there at the time, when Independence was actually declared on the 2nd? Because it was on the 4th that the explanation for Independence was declared. And while the American Revolution was, clearly and explicitly, a vindication of ancient British liberties, it was also a singularly articulate expression of how those ancient rights were universal and timeless truths, a City on a Hill whose light was offered to the entire world.

In fact there’s a preposterous story about the Founders and July 4 that shows how deeply it penetrated the national consciousness within living memory of the original event. And when I say preposterous I mean not in the sense of being silly or untrue but in the sense of being too remarkable to have been invented. Following independence, the turmoil of the 1780s and the successful writing and ratification of the Constitution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became not merely political rivals but bitter enemies.

Adams and his followers suspected Jefferson and his supporters of being Jacobins, partisans of the French Revolution, dangerous intolerant shallow fanatics. For their part, the Jeffersonian party thought Adams and his high federalists were crypto-monarchists, enemies of the American Revolution, dangerous intolerant plutocratic elitists.

When Jefferson won the 1800 election, which would not have happened had the slave states not been overrepresented in the Electoral College, and swept Adams’ Federalists from power forever, Adams himself sourly left Washington before his hated rival was even inaugurated.

After Jefferson too had left the White House, the two men were persuaded to correspond and try to bridge the gulf that had opened between them. And successfully; a letter from Adams on Jan. 1 1812 led to a fond 14-year correspondence that only ended when both men died just hours apart on, of all dates, the 4th of July, 1826, by common consent the 50th anniversary of “Independence”.

The two men never really changed. In 1816 Jefferson would admit that Adams had been right about the French Revolution. But asked for a public statement as the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, Jefferson provided a characteristically windy and utopianism declaration about Independence being “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves” and so on.

The austere Adams simply said “‘I will give you ‘Independence forever!’” Asked if he had anything to add, he replied “Not a word.” Actually he did have something more to say. His final words from his deathbed on July 4, 1826 were “Jefferson still survives.” In fact he did not; he had died five hours earlier. Clearly both had been hanging on by force of will to see the anniversary and clearly both considered it the anniversary.

If the author of the Declaration and one of the greatest figures in the struggle for independence and the nation’s second president could settle on the 4th, it’s the real date no matter what quibblers may say.