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. Not everyone agrees on this exact timeline, but it’s close for most purposes.
JULY 2, 1776: John Adams, a leader for independence, gets the delegates to the first Continental Congress to unanimously ratify the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft document because in a rare moment of general consensus, the delegates agreed that Jefferson was the best writer.
JULY 4, 1776: The Declaration of Independence is signed. July 4th becomes 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 that was Adams — arguing about everything.
JULY 4, 1776 through August 2, 1776: Following its signing 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 official word out — took about a month.
By August, 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 officially read, everyone knew about it. The “official word” took a month to distribute, but men on horseback going from town to town told their friends and family and the word was quickly spread. People talked in pubs like and over the pasture fence, as they do today. But without Twitter or cell phones.
JANUARY 1777: The first printed versions of the Declaration of Independence are distributed to the general public. The colonies are fully engaged in rebellion against England.
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.
You can see the most famous version of the Declaration, the hand-written signed document, at the National Archives in Washington DC.