July 2, 1776: The Lee Resolution
Americans were legally independent from Britain on July 2, 1776. Why? That's the day the Second Continental Congress approved Virginian Richard Henry Lee's resolution of independence. The Lee Resolution was proposed on June 7, but since we all know politicking takes some time (and independence was particularly serious business) a couple of weeks passed before the Continental Congress could make independence happen. Local Philadelphia papers ran the news ASAP, some announcements appearing as early as the same evening. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail the next day declaring that "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." [Read the entire letter.] So why do we celebrate on July 4?
July 4, 1776: Congress Approves the Declaration
The Declaration of Independence is a formal explanation of the Lee Resolution, the language of which the Second Continental Congress adopted on July 4. On June 11, a group called the Committee of Five began to draft the Declaration of Independence. News traveled somewhat slower in those internet-less days and the Continental Congress needed a publishable statement that clarified why they decided to break away from Britain. John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Roger Sherman (CT), Robert Livingston (NY) and Thomas Jefferson (VA) made up the Committee of Five -- but Jefferson tends to get the most credit because he wrote the first draft of the Declaration. Oh, and that famous painting by John Trumbull? That's not the signing of the Declaration, but the presentation of a draft to the Continental Congress on June 28. I bet you'll never think of a 2 dollar bill the same way again.
August 2, 1776: The Signing
People assume that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4 because the document is dated that day. Of course, it doesn't hurt that big shots like Franklin and Jefferson claimed it was signed then. But in the 1790s, Thomas McKean, who had the honor of being the last person to sign the Declaration, pointed out that some of the signers weren't even in Congress at the time. In 1821, Thomas Wait cleared things up a bit by publishing Secret Journals of the Acts and Proceedings of Congress, which revealed that signing occurred on August 2. Thanks to Wait and McKean, most historians believe that August hosted the big day, but it's important to remember that signing continued for some time afterwards. McKean may have signed as late as 1781!