In case you don’t recognize it, this room is the main assembly room of the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo is by Wikimedia user Rdsmith4). In this room, on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare the independence of the thirteen colonies–now called the United States of America–from Great Britain. Many people, including John Adams who was present, believe that July 2, not July 4, is America’s true Independence Day.
In fact, July 4 is less important than several other dates in American Revolution history. It is the date that appears on the official text of the Declaration, penned by Thomas Jefferson, and it’s certainly the date on which it was first read aloud in public–a significant act, to be sure. I won’t even go so far as to say July 4 is the day the text was adopted, because historically there is some question as to whether the Continental Congress was even in session on July 4. Jefferson, for example, does not mention being in session, or any votes or adoption, in his diary or notes. You’d think the act that he would go down for in history would warrant a mention as it happened!
No, the real act of independence was the vote on July 2. There was no Declaration yet (Jefferson spent the next two nights, July 2-3 and 3-4, writing it), but the vote had been taken on the second, not the fourth.
And forget any rubbish about the Declaration of Independence being “signed” on July 4. The actual document that appears in the National Archives was signed piecemeal over the course of the summer, with the final signatures being affixed in August. There was no climactic scene in this room where the Congress members lined up at a table and signed the thing all on one day. It didn’t happen.
In fact, you can make an argument that the adoption of the Declaration wasn’t even the real act of independence. By July 1776 the Revolutionary War had already been going on for 15 months. Most of the thirteen colonies, which were established by royal charters from Britain, had either already written new constitutions separating themselves from Britain, or were in the process of doing so. On May 15, well before July, the Continental Congress caught up to this development by passing a resolution recommending that all the states jettison their legal and constitutional connection to Great Britain. You could argue that that was the true “Declaration of Independence,” but of course it’s not as dramatic.
I have been in this room. It’s smaller than it looks in the photo. You can imagine what it looked and smelled like in the 18th century, in the middle of the summer in Philadelphia, where it’s hot and muggy, where people didn’t bathe very often and covered their body odor with cheap perfumes, and where boxes of sand were set out on the floor so the Congressional delegates could spit their tobacco into them. Oh, and there was a tannery not far from Independence Hall. You can bet that smelled good.