Independence Day? That was Monday | AspenTimes.com

Independence Day? That was Monday

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Detail of the Declaration of Independence

ASPEN – Aspen and the rest of the nation will celebrate Independence Day on Wednesday, but the hoopla is two days late. And it’s been that way since 1777.

“Why we Celebrate Independence Day on July 4. It Should Really Be July 2” was the title of an engaging, hourlong history lesson presented by billionaire financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein on Monday morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Rubenstein, co-founder of global private equity firm The Carlyle Group, was introduced as a festival “rock star” not just for his wealth of knowledge of global finance but for sharing his passion for U.S. history. Past years’ talks by the history buff have included “The Story of the Declaration of Independence,” “What Did the Emancipation Proclamation Actually Accomplish?” and a comparison of two memorable speeches – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech.

Citing survey results that indicate more U.S. high school students can name the Three Stooges than any of the Founding Fathers, Rubenstein has devoted some of his wealth to acquiring rare historical documents, starting with his 2007 purchase of the last privately owned copy of the Magna Carta, which he has lent for permanent display at the National Archives. He has since purchased and put on public display rare copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation in, he said, the hope that it will inspire more Americans to learn about their own history.

Still, few may realize the nation ought to celebrate Independence Day on July 2.

It was on that date in 1776 that delegates to the Second Continental Congress approved a resolution of independence from England, Rubenstein explained.

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John Adams, a member of the committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson did the actual work), wrote to his wife, Abigail: “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.”

After revising the wording of the Declaration, Congress adopted it on July 4.

Rubenstein offered a thorough, but whirlwind account of the drafting of the Declaration, the original copy of which apparently no longer exists, though Jefferson’s original draft does.

A few highlights from his talk:

• Jefferson originally wrote in the document’s preamble: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable …” Benjamin Franklin’s editing produced the well-known version: “We hold these truths to be self-evident …”

• The famous preamble to the Declaration was of little focus when it was written, though it’s the best-known language, and perhaps the most inspiring, within the document today.

“Today the preamble is considered the creed of America,” Rubenstein said. “Nobody has come up with something better than that preamble.”

• Congress revised about a quarter of the language within the Declaration. Jefferson was furious and refused for nine years to admit he’d written it. But he left explicit instructions for the epitaph on his gravestone, which identifies the statesman as “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.”

•There is no known copy of the resolution passed on July 2, 1776, if a written copy ever existed. The original manuscript of the Declaration as adopted by the Continental Congress is also lost. After its initial drafting and approval, printer John Dunlop was contracted to immediately publish the first copies of the Declaration for distribution. About 200 were printed and about 25 still exist, according to Rubenstein. A calligrapher was assigned to create the familiar copy that the congressional delegates could sign (they did so Aug. 2, 1776). It was in deteriorating shape by the 1820s when John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, urged the government to have a quality copy made. It took three years, and the process lifted most of the ink off the signed original, but 200 copies, known as the Stone copies (for engraver William Stone) were made. About 35 still exist. No one knows what happened to the original that Stone used for his work, according to Rubenstein.

• Though the Continental Congress carried no legal weight, its July 2, 1776 resolution is the action that signaled the colonies’ break with England. The Declaration of Independence was drafted to explain the action to the populace. Aside from the preamble, it enumerated the colonies’ beefs with King George III and what was proposed be done about them, Rubenstein explained.

“The Declaration of Independence is a propaganda document. It has no legal effect,” he said.

• It would take until the close of the Revolutionary War in 1783 for the United States to gain independence as a sovereign nation, but in July 1777, with the Continental Congress back in session, plans were made for July 2 celebration, replete with fireworks, according to Rubenstein. The day ran long, plans for the celebration were forgotten and everyone decided to celebrate on July 4 instead, he said.

We’ve been doing it ever since.

janet@aspentimes.com