It may not roll of the tongue as well as Fourth of July, but technically, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – e.g. independence – did not occur on this day in 1776, but two days earlier, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve formal independence. (Note that the American Revolutionary War had already begun over a year before we got around to formally declaring independence!)
A draft of the declaration had already been commissioned almost a month earlier: on June 11, the Committee of Five – comprised of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston – was appointed to get to work on such a document for a future vote. After discussing the general outline of the document, the Committee decided that Jefferson should write the first draft, which was subsequently amended in some parts by Adams and Franklin (the Committee, including Jefferson himself, had wanted Adams to write the draft, but the latter convinced them otherwise and promised to work closely with Jefferson).
To both announce and explain the reasoning for its decision, Congress had the Declaration of Independence finalized and signed on July 4. Since its vote for independence on July 2 occurred in private, the American people saw the day in which the public declaration was signed and finalized as the true day of independence. John Adams, who led the push for independence, preferred July 2, predicting that it would become a great holiday. Thinking that the official vote for independence would be commemorated, he did not foresee that Americans – including himself in the end – would instead celebrate the date that the announcement of that act was finalized.
The first official public reading of the Declaration was by militiaman John Nixon in the yard of Independence Hall, Philadelphia on July 8; public readings also took place on that day in Trenton, New Jersey, and Easton, Pennsylvania. A German translation of the Declaration was published in Philadelphia by July 9. George Washington was sent a copy on July 9 and instructed to read it to his troops in New York City, which he did in an effort to boost morale and recruitment.
Despite the claims of the Founding Fathers, many historians believe that the Declaration was actually signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776. Coincidentally, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – the only signers of the Declaration who would later serve as Presidents – died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.
Interestingly, the term “Declaration of Independence” is never actually used in the document; the top of the engrossed copy – carefully handwritten by clerk Timothy Matlack for Congress to sign – simply reads “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America”. This is the version on display in the National Archives. The original draft had begun with “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled”.