We celebrate it every year, the so-called “birth” of the United States of America… but have we got it wrong? Here are some basic ideas about July 4th that politically and colorfully blind historical facts call into question.
1) We declared our independence on July 2nd. That night, the headline article of the Pennsylvania Evening Post read: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.” Two days later, July 4th was when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
2) Though it is indeed true that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th 1826 (“precisely” fifty years after the signing of the Declaration), there is no evidence to suggest that Adams last words had anything to do with Jefferson surviving him. It’s a powerful tale of their rivalry, however, and accurately reflects Adams’ rancor toward Jefferson.
3) Both the John Trumbull painting in the Capitol Rotunda and Jefferson’s memoirs claim that all the delegates were present for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but this simply was not the case. A cleaned up copy of the Declaration was not produced until later in the month, to be signed by “most” of the delegates on August 2nd, though the copy we revere as “the” Declaration was not produced until much later, and the names on it were not made public until January of 1777.
4) The idea that the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall was rung when everyone had signed is a flat-out falsehood. The story of the little boy who ran around with news of the signing was trumped up by George Lippard in his children’s book, “Legends of the American Revolution.” The author never gave any indication that the story was true, but because generations were told this story it became a truth against the fact that it was a falsehood meant to entertain children. The Liberty Bell didn’t even get its name until the middle of the 19th century when Abolitionists named it in honor of their cause against slavery.
5) Betsy Ross is a prime example of the power of propaganda. There is no evidence to suggest that the mild-mannered seamstress ever lived in the Philadelphia house attributed to her ownership (as determined by the Joint State Government Commission of Pennsylvania in 1949) nor that she had anything to do with the first American flag. The story about the flag was designed by her descendants in the mid 19th century for personal gain. The tale was so successful that those descendants had Betsy exhumed and reburied under a shrine on a property she never lived at and dates to several years after the revolution was over. The flag was actually designed by Declaration signer Francis Hopkinson, whose 1780 bill to the Admiralty for his work on the flag resides in the National Archives (he asked for some cheap wine as payment… which was denied on the basis that his work was not the only work done on the flag). Hopkinson is buried at Christ Church in Philadelphia.
These stories give us fundamental truths that honor and exemplify our shared values as Americans, but we must always be mindful that fact and truth are not always the same thing. This simple principle protects us from propaganda and the abuse of history for personal gain… and is the real lesson of liberty and freedom we should be celebrating on the Fourth of July.
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