Illustration courtesy Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Library of Congress
Updated 4th of July, 2012
Many time-honored patriotic tales turn out to be more fiction than fact. On the 4th of July—marked in 2012 by a continent-spanning Google doodle—here's a look at some memorable myths from the birth of the United States.
1. The Declaration of Independence Was Signed on July 4
Independence Day is celebrated two days too late. The Second Continental Congress voted for a Declaration of Independence on July 2, prompting John Adams to write his wife, "I am apt to believe that [July 2, 1776], will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival."
Adams correctly foresaw shows, games, sports, buns, bells, and bonfires—but he got the date wrong. The written document wasn't edited and approved until the Fourth of July, and that was the date printers affixed to "broadside" announcements sent out across the land. July 2 was soon forgotten.
In fact, no one actually signed the Declaration of Independence at any time during July 1776. Signing began on August 2, with John Hancock's famously bold scribble, and wasn't completed until late November.
2. Paul Revere Rode Solo
Patriot Paul Revere really did hit the road on the night of April 18, 1775, to alert the countryside that British troops were on the move. But the image of an inspired, lone rider isn't accurate. Revere was part of a low-tech—but highly effective—early-warning system.
The system did include lanterns at Boston's Old North Church, from whose steeple the church sexton, Robert Newman, held two lanterns as a signal that the British were coming. However Revere wasn't watching for them that night.
Revere and fellow rider William Dawes, who was sent by a different route, successfully reached Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that they'd likely be arrested. But Revere and Dawes were captured by the British with third rider Samuel Prescott soon afterward.
The liberties later taken with the Revere legend weren't mistakes but deliberate mythmaking by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who intended his famous 19th-century poem to stoke patriotism on the eve of the Civil War. The ride's real story is told at Paul Revere House, the Boston museum where Revere once lived and from which he left on that fateful night.
3. July 4, 1776, Party Cracked the Liberty Bell
U.S. independence surely prompted a party, but joyful patriots didn't ring the Liberty Bell until it cracked on July 4, 1776. In fact the State House Bell likely didn't ring at all that day. It probably did ring, along with the city's other bells, to herald the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, according to a history of the bell published by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
As for that crack, well, the bell had been poorly cast and cracked soon after its arrival in 1752. The bell was subsequently recast, and recracked, several times but was intact during the Revolutionary War.
Today's iconic crack actually appeared sometime during the 19th century, though the exact date is in dispute. It was also during this period that the bell became popularly known as the Liberty Bell—a term coined by abolitionists.
4. Patriots Flocked to Fight for Freedom
This enduring image is accurate—when describing the beginning of the Revolutionary War. But as it became clear that the struggle for independence would be long and difficult, the enthusiasm of many American men for fighting began to wane, while their concerns for the well-being of their farms and other livelihoods grew.
After initial enlistment rushes, many colonies resorted to cash incentives as early as 1776 and states were drafting men by the end of 1778, according to historian John Ferling in a 2004 Smithsonian magazine article.
5. The Declaration of Independence Holds Secret Messages
Some revolutionary myths are of modern origin. There's no invisible message or map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, as depicted in the film National Treasure. But the National Archives admits there is something written on the back of the priceless document.
A line on the bottom of the parchment reads "Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776." Why? The large document would have been rolled for travel and storage during the 18th century, so the reverse-side writing likely acted as a label to identify the document while it was rolled up.
6. John Adams Died Thinking of Thomas Jefferson
Incredibly both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did die on the Fourth of July, but there's no real evidence to suggest that Adams's final thoughts were with Jefferson or that he uttered "Jefferson survives" on his deathbed.
Even if he had, he'd have been wrong, as Jefferson beat him in death by several hours. The day does seem inauspicious for presidents, however. The less celebrated James Monroe also died on July 4, in 1831.
(Related: "Who Knew? U.S. Presidential Trivia.")
7. America United Against the British
The Revolutionary War also pitted Americans against Americans in large numbers. Perhaps 15 to 20 percent of all Americans were loyalists who supported the crown, according to the U.K. National Army Museum. Many others tried to stay out of the fight altogether.
Records from the period are sketchy at best, but an estimated 50,000 Americans served as British soldiers or militia at one time or another during the conflict, a significant force pitted against a Continental Army that may have included a hundred thousand regular soldiers over the course of the war.
8. Betsy Ross Made the First American Flag
There is no proof that Betsy Ross played any part in designing or sewing the American flag that made its debut in 1777. In fact, the story of the famous seamstress didn't circulate until it was raised by her grandson nearly a century after the fact, and the only evidence is testimony to this family tradition.
To be fair, there's also no conclusive evidence that Ross didn't sew the flag, and there are several reasons why she just might have done so. The Betsy Ross House on Philadelphia's Arch Street (where Ross may or may not have actually lived) tells the whole tale and leaves visitors to draw their own conclusions.
9. Native Americans Sided With the British
"(He) has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions."
The Declaration of Independence made this claim against King George III, and many Native Americans did eventually fight with the British. But many others sided with people in the colonies or simply tried to stay out of the European conflict altogether, according to Dartmouth College historian Colin Galloway, author of The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities.
Most New England Indians supported the Continentals, and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy was split by the conflict. Native "redcoats" fought not for love of King George but in hopes of saving their own homelands—which they thought would to be the spoils of the War for Independence.
Those who allied themselves with the British saw their lands lost in the Peace of Paris treaty, but Native Americans who supported Americans fared little better in the long run.
MORE FOURTH OF JULY FACTS
- Statue of Liberty Facts: Fourth of July Reopening and More
- Fourth of July Special: The Explosive History of Fireworks' "First Family"
- Fourth of July Videos: Exploding the Myths
- Fourth of July Food: Interactive Map of Regional U.S. Fare
- Great Places to Watch Fourth of July Fireworks
- Fourth of July Wallpaper
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