History is such a confusing maze of characters and events that we cling to certain symbolic dates. The Fourth of July is one such date. Everybody knows that the Fourth of July commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Like so much of our historical knowledge, this is wrong. It is true that an unfortunate misunderstanding between Britain and her American colonies did blow up around that time. But the Declaration was not signed until July 19th.
This, of course, is mere historical pedantry. Who cares about the exact date? But it's a good example of the arbitrariness of history. As far as I can discover, the Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 2, which legally broke the tie to England right then. The proclamation on July 4, the public reading at Independence Hall on July 8, and the signing on July 19 were mere bureaucratic formalities. Some historians claim that the Declaration was not signed until August 3. In fact, the first Independence celebration, in 1777, was held on the appropriate date, July 2.
The third of July 1776 remains a mystery. What happened between the adoption and the proclamation? David McCullough’s splendid book 1776 is silent on this point. I made a guess that July 3, 1776, was a Sunday, which would explain why it is a blank date in the history books. But my guess was wrong – the third was a Wednesday, and so there was no excuse for Members of the Continental Congress to take a day off on the pretext of going to church.
What difference does it make? In terms of national history, not much. But for individuals where and when they were born may have momentous consequences. Choose the wrong country to be born in and your whole life may be turned upside down. Several of the signers of the Declaration of Independence narrowly escaped being English, and therefore, embarrassingly, on the wrong side. Choose the right birthday and you may get a big political advantage. President Calvin Coolidge was lucky enough to be able to claim the symbolic birth date, and he made the most of it. There's no song that proclaims: "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the Third (or perhaps the Nineteenth) of July." Folks who happened to be born on those dates have nothing to boast about. Just ask Tom Cruise, who starred in the Oliver Stone movie Born on the Fourth of July, but was himself born on the third of July.
Being one day late for the big event is even worse that being one day early. I can hear you ask: did any famous American have the lamentable bad taste to be born on the Fifth of July? Yes, one of our local heroes was born on the Fifth, in 1810: the impresario of the Greatest Show on Earth, P.T.Barnum. And there you have the ironies of history, summed up in three random birth dates: July 3, Tom Cruise; July 4, Calvin Coolidge; July 5, P.T.Barnum. I don't pretend to find any deep symbolism in this. I just thought that, today of all days, you'd like to know.
Copyright: David Bouchier