Happy Independence Day! (But Are We 2 Days Late?)


The argument for celebrating "July 4th" on July 2nd


A few months ago, I was a guest (a plus one of someone invited) at an impressive evening thrown by the Washington National Opera to thank key board members, volunteers and significant donors.  The dinner was held in the room pf the National Archives that holds original copies of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.  As I sipped my red wine, the guards in front of the nation's founding documents glared a bit. 

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Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival --

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This is sort of like eating foie gras in the same room with the Mona Lisa.  Not many people can arrange a dinner in a room holding priceless documents of such national and global consequence. 

Then it all became clear.  Our two hosts for the evening were chocolate empire heiress Jackie Mars and Carlyle Group co-founder and the Indiana Jones of rare document collecting David Rubenstein.

Rubenstein wasn't at our dinner he had arranged next to "When in the course of human events..." and all that.  Ironically, he chimed in to welcome all of us via video from London (capital of the folks from whom we were declaring ourselves independent) where he was on global roadshow for the Carlyle Group's recent IPO.  But Rubenstein, a billionaire many times over, has made it a mission to pursue and purchase on the private market some of the nation's most important documents and then make them available to the public.

Recently, Rubenstein bought an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which formally abolished slavery -- and put them on display at the New-York Historical Society.  He also owns a copy of the Magna Carta, from the year 1297 and carrying the Seal of King Edward I, which he has loaned the National Archives.  And on a long list of other patriotic philanthropy, Rubenstein is donating millions to repair the Washington Monument after the damage done from last year's earthquake.    

Of course, David Rubenstein could easily get the National Archives space for the Washington Opera.  Easy only for him -- not for anyone else.

At this year's Aspen Ideas Festival, organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Rubenstein gave a talk on why America's Independence Day really should be July 2nd and not July 4th.  I had a conflict and could not attend -- but as he raced off to his private plane yesterday, I asked him to give me the really short version (fuller take here in this well-done piece by Aspen Times writer Janet Urquart).

Basically, the vote of independence by the Continental Congress was on July 2nd -- recorded on July 4th and actually signed on August 2nd, 1776.  The real act happened this past Monday 236 years ago. 

John Adams wrote to his wife 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.

Only problem, according to Rubenstein, is that when they began to celebrate the date the following year -- they forgot to do so on July 2nd and hurried the celebration to occur on July 4th.   That then became the fixed date.

So to all, happy Independence Day -- and a salute to the day it happened and when we finally got around to the party!

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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