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Significance of the date eclipses its accuracy

Today, we celebrate that glorious day in 1776 when the members of the Continental Congress unanimously approved and signed the Declaration of Independence, setting in motion a grand and audacious experiment in self-government.

At least, that's what generations of history books and teachers have told us.

If we wanted our celebrations to be historically accurate, the hoopla should have been held on Wednesday. It was on July 2, 1776, that the members of Congress, after weeks of fiery debate, voted and approved the Declaration. (Even then, it was not unanimous. New York's delegation abstained and two Pennsylvania representatives who opposed independence chose not to attend the session so that their delegation could vote 3-2 for the breakaway from Britain).

As for the official signing of the Declaration, that didn't happen until Aug. 2. In fact, New York's delegation didn't sign until 1781.

Most Americans who will be celebrating today, however, give scant thought to the details of the event, if they bother to think of the real meaning of Independence Day at all. Few will even remember to display the Stars and Stripes today.

There are some Americans, however, who may wish to learn more about those important events in our history, who would like immerse themselves not just in the actions but in the emotions of those thrilling, long-ago days. For them, there is David McCullough's brilliant and best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, John Adams. If you like your history to come alive, to have the characters live and breathe through the pages, spend some time this summer with this painstakingly researched book.

Take, for instance, the author's accounts of that first week of July, 1776.

After successfully leading the debate on independence on July 2, Adams was about as euphoric as this typically taciturn New Englander ever got. He fairly gushed in a letter to his beloved Abigail:

"The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . . It ought to be 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."

As for the Fourth of July, McCullough's research shows that it was a fairly quiet day. Congress discussed more fine points in the Declaration and a second vote was taken, with the results identical to those of July 2.

By 11 a.m., the members were heading out of the hall. Thomas Jefferson went shopping, buying ladies gloves at one shop and paying 3 pounds, 15 shillings for a new thermometer at John Parhawk's London Bookshop.

Adams, who kept a detailed record of all proceedings during that time, had nothing to say about the events of July 4th.

McCullough notes that in later years, the country and even Adams and Jefferson came to embrace the Fourth of July as the day the Declaration was officially approved. The two patriots, who for years oscillated between being close friends and bitter rivals, reconciled late in life and conducted a remarkable correspondence.

They also shared one final, almost unbelievable, Fourth of July occurrence.

On July 4, 1826, as the new nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration, both men were aged and in rapidly failing health. Adams, then 90, had been in and out of consciousness for several days. Told by his family members that it was July 4th, he said, "It is a great day. It is a good day."

His final words revealed the patriotism that was ever in his heart: "Thomas Jefferson survives!"

McCullough, quoting family diaries, writes that at 6:20 p.m., the moment of Adams' death, "a clap of thunder shook the house. Then the rain stopped and the sun broke through the low clouds."

Adams, though, had been wrong about his friend Jefferson, but just barely. Hundreds of miles away, Jefferson was on his own deathbed. At 83, he had been ill for a long time but had seemed determined to live long enough to greet another Fourth of July. He succeeded.

At 1 p.m. on July 4, 1826, while the bells in nearby Charlottesville, Va., began ringing in celebration of the nation's 50th birthday, Jefferson quietly passed away.

What does any of this mean today, as we head out to take advantage of a day off to attend cookouts, store sales and to watch colorful celebratory bombs bursting in air? Just this: Without the sacrifices and genius of these first Americans, the nation that we honor today would not exist.

All too often we take our freedoms for granted and fail to remember and credit those who came before us, those who blazed the trail we are fortunate to follow today. We must never forget their contributions.

Americans have the right today to be so cavalier about our history because of the noble work of those rebels who risked everything more than two centuries ago to secure our freedom. Like them, we should remember today to "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

_ Greg Hamilton is editor of editorials of the Times' Citrus County edition.