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AP Photo
John Adams, second president of the U.S. from 1797 to 1801, is shown in this steel engraving.

John Adams didn’t have anything against the Fourth of July. He just thought it was two days too late.

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

So he had the right idea — just the wrong day.

Of course, you have to keep in mind that he wrote this letter to his beloved Abigail on July 3, 1776. Doubtless he was still feeling a bit of a rush from the miraculous events of the previous day, during which the Continental Congress voted unanimously (not counting New York’s abstention) for independence from Great Britain.

According to no less of an authority than Thomas Jefferson, the vote for independence was Adams’ baby. He worked tirelessly and tenaciously, putting down disagreement, dissent and even outright rebellion between the state representatives (not to mention the occasional petulant outburst from Ben Franklin, who kept muttering things like “a penny saved is a penny earned” and insisting that the turkey would be a better national symbol than the eagle).

It’s no wonder, then, that on July 3 Adams believed that July 2 would become America’s Independence Day, complete with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks and carnivals with marginally safe rides.

But then along came July 4, with its wondrously worded Declaration:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …”

Jefferson wrote those inspired words (not counting a little tinkering by the Congress). And the day they were finally approved — again unanimously (again with New York abstaining) — became the official Day of Independence for the United States of America.

Adams was apparently comfortable with the choice. I think he understood that the actual act of America’s independence from Great Britain was less important than the principles of freedom that drove the action — principles that were perfectly encapsulated within the words of the Declaration:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Governments, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

We don’t worry much about Great Britain these days unless there’s another royal baby on the way, so you won’t hear much anti-England rhetoric on Independence Day this year. Instead we celebrate America — the country and the concept — and those self-evident truths: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That is what countless brave patriots through the years have fought and died for. That is what drives to our shores those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That is what illuminates every firework shot into the summer sky on the Fourth of July. And that is the cause for which Adams, Jefferson and others pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

They believed it. They created it. And they lived it to the last day of their lives — which, for Adams and Jefferson, happened to be the exact same day in 1826: the Fourth of July.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr