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Every year on July 4th Americans celebrate their independence. The fireworks, parades, and cookouts have been a tradition for over 200 years.
But why do we celebrate it on July 4th and did America really even become independent on July 4th, 1776? Have we been celebrating on the wrong date this entire time?
Learn more about the real date of American independence on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
For a nation to achieve independence is no small thing. In the 20th century, many former colonies achieved their independence through mostly peaceful means, with a definitive negotiated day where the hand-off occurred and when the country officially became independent.
For example, on August 15, 1947, India became independent. The process was arranged in advance. On August 14, 1947, at 11:59 pm the British flag was lowered, and at 12:01 am on August 15th, the Indian flag was raised, and just like that, India became independent. (By the way, I realize that is a gross simplification of the process of Indian independence and the partition of India and Pakistan, but I will leave that for another episode.)
When the United States became independent, colonies breaking away from their mother country wasn’t yet a thing. It was an extremely messy, drawn-out process that took years. There was no flag ceremony, and in fact, there wasn’t even a single governable colony involved: there were thirteen.
Because the process took so long, pinpointing a date for American independence isn’t a cut as cut and dry as it might be for other countries.
Also, declaring independence isn’t the same thing as actually being independent. If you doubt me, try declaring your house independent from the country you live in and tell me how that goes.
So, here are some of the possible dates for when could and should be celebrating American independence.
April 19, 1775 was the date when the whole process of independence got started. This was the date of the Shot Heard Around the World. On April 19th, British soldiers set out to confiscate weapons in Concord, Massachusetts, and the Americans fought back in the first battles of the Revolutionary War, the battles of Lexington and Concord. (to be honest, they were really more like skirmishes, but we’ll stick with the battle nomenclature for now)
This was the line in the sand from which there was no turning back. There had been protests like the Boston Tea Party before this point, but this was when the rubber hit the road, things got violent and blood was spilled.
The starting point of the whole process is as good a point as any if you wanted to pick a day to celebrate American independence.
In fact, this is a holiday in several states called Patriots’ Day. Massachusetts, Maine, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and North Dakota all have Patriots’ Day as an official holiday.
Up until July 2, 1776, the colonies were really just in rebellion. They wanted the British out, but they hadn’t explicitly stated a goal of becoming an independent country.
The formal vote for independence, also known as the Resolution of Independence, took place on July 2, 1776, and this was the date which most people at the time thought would be celebrated as the date of American independence.
In fact, John Adams wrote in his diary:
“The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
The funny thing is, he pretty much got everything right….except for the date.
The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported in their July 2, 1776 edition:
This day the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES.
So, the date the United States declared independence was really July 2.
So, what happened on July 4th which caused Americans to end up celebrating this day?
To understand why, you have to know the difference between the Resolution of Independence, and the Declaration of Independence.
On July 2nd the Continental Congresses voted to break the ties with Britain and to become independent. That was the formal vote called the Resolution of Independence.
However, they wanted something to explain to everyone why they did this. What they needed was a press release to lay out the arguments in favor of independence to the colonies and the rest of the world.
They convened a committee of five people to put together the document, with most of the writing done by Thomas Jefferson, and the final wording for the document was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4th.
The reason why this date became the date we celebrate is because when copies of the Declaration of Independence were sent out from the printers around colonies, July 4th was the date which was on the document, and that date was nothing more than the date the language of the document was approved.
The document was sent out to all the colonies where it was reprinted many times more and read out loud in public squared, and republished in almost every newspaper. The date that was attached to this document by which everyone got word of American’s Independence had July 4th on it.
In a very real sense, July 4th really just commemorates the date of the approval of the language of America’s first national press release.
July 4th celebrations began the very next year in 1777, and July 2nd never really took off as a holiday.
Upon approval of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, it was official. It wasn’t necessary for any of the delegates to sign their name to it, any more than it is necessary for members of congress to physically scribble their signature on every law they sign. Signing the document was more like publicly signing a petition.
The physical copy of the Declaration of Independence which most Americans are familiar with currently sits in the National Archives in Washington DC and has the signatures of 56 people on it.
There is a great deal of debate amongst historians as to when the document was signed. Thomas Jefferson and some others were adamant that he signed the document on July 4th. However, several of the signers were not in Philadelphia, and some had not even been members of the Continental Congress on July 4.
August 2, 1776, is the date on which most of the members of the Continental Congress signed the document, or at least the last of them did. Depending on how much weight you put to the signing, August 2nd could be considered the final date when independence was declared.
As I mentioned above, declaring independence is all well and good, but it doesn’t really mean anything if your land is occupied by enemy forces. At the time of the Resolution and Declaration of Independence, the British controlled the largest city in the country, New York, and large swaths of the United States.
They weren’t really independent yet.
If you read up on the subject of what makes a country a country, one of the themes which is always referenced is recognition by other countries.
Using this modern definition of recognition, the very first time a foreign power recognized an independent United States occurred on November 16, 1776, when the ship the Andrew Doria, flying under the Continental colors of the United States received a 13 gun salute from the Dutch island of Saint Eustatius in the Caribbean.
This became known as the “First Salute”, and you can find commemoration of it on the island today. In fact, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt made a brief visit to the island to recognize the event and the airport on St. Eustatius is named after him today.
The ship was there to pick up munitions for the war effort, and St. Eustatius provided about half of the munitions and almost all of the European communications with America during the Revolution. The British took this so seriously, that it was one of the causes of the 4th Anglo-Dutch war which started in 1780.
Having a garrison on a tiny island fire some guns is fine and dandy, but it isn’t really a formal recognition by an entire country.
That did however happen on December 20, 1777, when Sultan Mohammed III of Morocco placed the United States on a list of countries to whom its ports were open.
This eventually resulted in the Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship which was signed in 1786, a treaty which is still in effect today, making it the longest-standing treaty in American history.
Just like declaring independence, international recognition also doesn’t really mean much if your country is occupied.
The day that the Americans really became independent in a military sense was on October 19th, 1781 when the British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia.
At that point, the war was basically over.
Lord North had sailed down the coast to meet up with Cornwallis, but by the time he arrived, Cornwallis had already surrendered. When told of the news, Lord North said “Oh God, it’s all over”
Yorktown Victory Day is still celebrated on October 19 every year in the city of Yorktown, Virginia.
After the Battle of Yorktown, by March of 1882, the British Parliament had agreed to cease all hostilities.
Even though the conflict on the ground was over in 1881, and the British agreed to cease fighting in 1882, there were still loose ends to tie up, and with communications across the Atlantic taking months, the final bits of American independence took time.
The Treaty of Paris, where the British formally recognized American Independence was signed on September 3, 1783. The Continental Congress had previously agreed to the general terms of the treaty the previous April.
It was on this date that you could say that the Americans finally owned the deed to their house. There were no conflicting claims, they were no longer at war, and no one disputed their independence.
However, there was still one slight problem.
The British still had thousands of troops in New York.
The day the British finally left America was on November 25, 1883.
If there was a point in American history which is an analogy to the transition which India experienced in 1947, it would be this day.
At noon on November 25, 1883, in New York City, Sir Guy Carleton, the last British Commander in the former 13 British colonies, gave the order to evacuate. At the sound of the cannon, all the British flags were taken down, and American flags were raised.
When the last British flag was removed, George Washington and his troops entered the town in triumph, marching from the northern tip of Manhattan all the way down to what is today Battery Park.
Even though it isn’t really celebrated anymore, November 25 is still recognized as Evacuation Day in New York City every year.
Even though the war was won, the treaty was signed, and the British troops were gone, there was still one more thing that was needed to formally put a bow on the conflict.
If there is a final date we can absolutely, positively point to where we can definitively say the struggle for independence was over, it was January 14, 1784.
On this date, the Continental Congress assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, ratified the Treaty of Paris, which once and for all finally put an end to the American Revolution.
This day is still celebrated as Ratification Day in Maryland on January 14, every year.
So as you can see, nailing down one day for American independence really isn’t that easy, and there are several days which are still celebrated around the country which relate to American independence. Patriots’ Day, Evacuation Day, Yorktown Day, and Ratification Day all celebrate different aspects of the same thing: American Independence. A process which took almost 9 years from start to finish.