Certain dates serve as signposts in the maze of history. The Fourth of July is one such date. Everybody knows that the Fourth of July commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Like so much of our historical knowledge, this is wrong. The draft of the Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 2, which legally broke the tie to England right then. John Adams, the second President, declared that: “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable date in the history of America.”
The proclamation on July 4, the public reading at Independence Hall on July 8, and the real signing by all the delegates on August 2 were mere bureaucratic formalities. In fact, the first Independence celebration, in 1777, was held on the appropriate date, July 2. Congress later changed the date to the Fourth, for reasons that are obscure, but that may have had something to do with long weekends.
I was curious to know what happened on the Third of July in 1776, between the adoption and the proclamation. Here we come up against a little-noticed problem of history, which is that we are rarely told the day of the week when important events occurred. But a little research shows that July 3, 1776 was a Wednesday, one of those lazy midweek days when nothing ever gets done. The historians say that the 3rd was devoted to discussion and revision, and you can guess how that went in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia in July, without air conditioning. The delegates probably headed down to Atlantic City for a day at the beach.
On July 4th 1776 nothing much happened either, except a proclamation of what everybody knew already, followed by a public reading four days later. The signing by all the delegates was delayed until August 2nd.
Such trivial things have momentous consequences. Those who were lucky enough to be able to claim the symbolic birth date, such as President Calvin Coolidge, made the most of it. But there’s no song that proclaims: “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the Second of July (or perhaps the second of August.”) Folks who happened to be born on those dates have nothing to boast about. Just ask Tom Cruise, who starred in the Oliver Stone movie “Born on the Fourth of July,” and was in fact born on the third of July.
Being one day late for the big event is even worse that being one day early. I can hear you asking: did any famous American have the lamentable bad taste to be born on the Fifth of July? Yes, one of our local heroes was born on the Fifth, in 1810: the impresario of the Greatest Show on Earth, P.T.Barnum. And there you have the ironies of history, summed up in three random birth dates: July 3, Tom Cruise; July 4, Calvin Coolidge; July 5, P.T.Barnum. I don’t pretend to find any deep symbolism in this. I just thought that, on this day of all days, you’d like to know.