This was written by Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post, July 3, 2011. I saved it for 2012.
Back by popular demand (well, I like them), here are the top five myths about Independence Day, adapted from George Mason University’s History News Network:
1. Independence was declared on the Fourth of July.
America’s independence from Great Britain was actually declared by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. That’s why John Adams thought July 2 was going to be the day future Americans celebrated.
On the night of July 2nd, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the statement: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”
So what happened on the Glorious Fourth?
The document justifying the act of Congress — you know it as Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence — was adopted on the Fourth, as is indicated on the document itself, which is, one supposes, the cause for all the confusion. As one scholar has observed, what has happened is that the document announcing the event has overshadowed the event itself.
When did Americans first celebrate independence? Congress waited until July 8, when Philadelphia threw a big party, including a parade and the firing of guns. The army under George Washington, then camped near New York City, heard the news July 9 and celebrated then. Georgia got the word Aug. 10. And when did the British in London finally get wind of the declaration? Aug. 30.
John Adams, writing a letter home to his beloved wife Abigail on July 3, predicted that from then on:
“the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”
A scholar coming across this document in the 19th century quietly “corrected” the document, with Adams predicting the festival would take place not on the second but the fourth.
2. The Declaration of Independence was signed July 4.
Hanging in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States is a vast canvas painting by John Trumbull depicting the signing of the Declaration.
Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote, years afterward, that the signing ceremony took place on July 4. When someone challenged Jefferson’s memory in the early 1800’s, Jefferson insisted he was right.
Really? As David McCullough remarks in his biography of John Adams, “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”
So when was it signed?
Most delegates signed the document on Aug. 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress; some waited even later to sign, and the names on the docment were made public only in January 1777.
Years later Jefferson offered details of the event — even “remembering” flies circling above the signers — but, since he was wrong about the date, he probably was about the flies, too.
The truth about the signing was established in 1884 when historian Mellon Chamberlain, researching the manuscript minutes of the journal of Congress, came upon the entry for Aug. 2 noting a signing ceremony.
As for Benjamin Franklin’s statement, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately” … well, there’s no proof he ever made it.
3. The Liberty Bell rang in American Independence.
The story goes like this: A boy with blond hair and blue eyes was posted next to Independence Hall to give a signal to an old man in the bell tower when independence was declared. When the signal was given, the Liberty Bell was rung.
Except for this: It never happened.
The story was concocted in the middle of the 19th century by writer George Lippard in a book intended for children. The book was aptly titled, “Legends of the American Revolution.” There was no pretense that the story was genuine.
The bell was not even named in honor of American independence. It received the moniker in the early 19th century when abolitionists used it as a symbol of the antislavery movement.
The famous crack? The bell cracked because it was badly designed.
The Liberty Bell can be viewed in all of its glory in Philadelphia, where it is displayed in a glass chamber in the appropriately named Liberty Bell Center on Market Street. Available are a video presentation and exhibits about the bell, “focusing on its origins and its modern day role as an international icon of freedom,” as the Web site about the center says.
4. Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag.
The story goes like this: George Washington himself asked Betsy to stitch the first flag. He wanted six point stars; Betsy told him that five point stars were easier to cut and stitch. The general relented.
Except that it is bogus
A few blocks away from the Liberty Bell is the Betsy Ross House. And every year crowds still come to gawk: behind a wall of Plexiglas, a Betsy Ross mannequin sits in a chair sewing the first flag.
But there is no proof Betsy lived here, as the Joint State Government Commission of Pennsylvania concluded in a study in 1949. And the flag story was made up in the 19th century by Betsy’s descendants.
The real Betsy Ross was an unheralded seamstress. Her bones, which had lain in a colonial graveyard for 150 years, were dug up so she could be buried again beneath a huge sarcophagus located on the grounds of the house she was never fortunate enough to have lived in.
Who sewed the first flag? No one knows. But we do know who designed it. It was Frances Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration.
Records show that in May 1780 he sent a bill to the Board of Admiralty for designing the “flag of the United States.” A small group of descendants works hard to keep his name alive.
Just down the street from Betsy’s house is Christ Church Burial Ground, where Benjamin Franklin is buried and Hopkinson is too, along with three other Declaration signers: Dr. Benjamin Rush, Joseph Hewes and George Ross.
5. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the Fourth of July.
Okay, so this really happened. But the well-known story isn’t all true.
On July 4, 1826, Adams, the second president, and Jefferson, the third president, both died, exactly 50 years after the adoption of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The country took it as a sign of American divinity.
But there is no proof to the long-told story that Adams, dying, uttered, “Jefferson survives,” which was said to be especially poignant, as Jefferson had died just hours before without Adams knowing it. Mark that as just another story we wished so hard were true we convinced ourselves it is.
By the way, James Monroe, our fifth president, died on July 4, 1831. And Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, was born on July 4, 1872.