Today is America’s Independence Day. It celebrates the announcement of the Declaration of Independence, our formal statement to King George and Great Britain that we no longer were willing to retain our status as colonies.
There’s more than a little confusion about which event happened when regarding the Declaration of Independence, so here’s an historical timeline (note that not everyone agrees on this timeline, but it’s close):
JULY 2, 1776: John Adams, a leader for independence, gets the delegates to the first Continental Congress to unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft of the document as he was known to be the best writer of the group.
JULY 4, 1776: The Declaration of Independence is ratified. Thus July 4th became the U.S.’s official independence day, although John Adams argued it should be July 2nd, the day the document was ratified (rather than the 4th on which it was signed). But Adams argued about everything.
JULY 4, 1776 through August 2, 1776: Following its ratification on July 4th, the Continental Congress announced the Declaration of Independence. It is distributed and read across the colonies. The process of reading the Declaration — getting the word out — was not instant. In total, it took about a month. By which time a more attractive document displaying all the delegates’ signatures had been produced. In any case, whether or not the colonists had read or heard the document, everyone knew what was happening. Official word took longer than men on horseback going from town to town to tell their friends and family. And of course people talked in pubs. Like they do today, but without Twitter.
JANUARY 1777: The first printed versions of the Declaration of Independence for general distribution appear. By then, the colonies are fully engaged in war and everyone already knows about it.
Jefferson’s original draft, with changes by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as well as Jefferson’s notes of the changes made by Congress, can be viewed at the Library of Congress.
The most famous version of the Declaration, the hand-written signed document which is usually considered official, can be seen at the National Archives in Washington DC. This version was (mostly) signed on August 2, 1776.