When John Adams penned a letter to future First Lady Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776, he guessed how future generations of Americans would celebrate Independence Day with remarkable accuracy: "solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
The only problem? Adams predicted the wrong date. He wrote to Abigail that "the second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America."
The future president's plans for big Second of July bashes sank into obscurity, but Adams might have been onto something—when Americans party like it's 1776 on the Fourth, we're actually celebrating independence two days late. Or maybe even a month too early, as the first signature on the Declaration of Independence didn't occur until August 2. (Thomas McKean, a delegate who at one point served as the President of the Continental Congress, is thought to be the last, signing the document as late as 1781.)
Adams wrote his letter on July 3, 1776, the day after the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. But the Continental Congress labored over revisions to Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration until the document was edited, approved, and ratified by the Continental Congress on the Fourth. On the Second, only the first paragraph was ready for print.
Congress issued the initial printing of the Declaration on the night of July 4, 1776, printed on about 200 broadsides. John Dunlap, an Irish immigrant, spent much of that night setting the type, correcting it, and printing the sheets. "We were all in haste," Adams said about the printing—punctuation varied from broadside to broadside, and some copies were folded before the ink dried properly.
The broadsides, dated July 4, 1776, were distributed to the soon-to-be states over the course of the two following days, widely publicizing the Fourth as the day the United States claimed independence. George Washington was one of the first to celebrate the Fourth in 1778, ordering an artillery salute from his soldiers and issuing his troops a double ration of rum (though probably not in that order).
It wasn't until 1870 that Congress declared the Fourth of July an unpaid holiday for federal employees. As Congress often does, they changed their mind in 1938, switching the Fourth to a paid federal holiday. As for Adams, he wouldn't live to see the Fourth as an official holiday: He died on July 4, 1826, two days after he thought (and hoped) Americans would ring in independence celebrations.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2021.