Going to high school in England in the 1970s, I read in my history textbook about The American War of Independence. It was dismissed in a few short paragraphs (along with much of U.S. history) as the rebellion of an unruly teenager, who didn’t deserve the attention of us Brits.
Ten years later, now a resident in the U.S., I was told all sorts of legends about July 4, 1776. But how many of them were true? Very few, as I discovered.
1. The Declaration of Independence Was Signed on July 4
Independence Day is celebrated two days too late. Actually, the Second Continental Congress voted on July 2, 1776 to declare independence, prompting John Adams to write to his wife Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.
2. Paul Revere Rode Alone
Patriot Paul Revere really did take to the road on the night of April 18, 1775, to alert the countryside that the British were coming. But while the image of an inspired, lone rider is appealing, it isn’t accurate. Revere was part of a highly effective early-warning system that involved many brave souls.
Responsibility for the creation of the Paul Revere legend rests with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who intended his famous 19th-century poem to stoke patriotism on the eve of the Civil War.
3. The Liberty Bell Rang In American Independence
No immediate announcement was made of the Second Continental Congress‘s vote for independence, and thus the bell could not have rung on July 4, 1776, at least not for any reason related to that vote.
The bell became famous after an 1847 short story by writer George Lippard described a boy with blond hair and blue eyes giving a signal to an aged bell-ringer on July 4, 1776, upon hearing that independence had been declared. Lippard’s book was entitled “Legends of the American Revolution.” There was no pretense that the story was true.
4. Patriots Flocked To Fight for Freedom
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, this was indeed true. But the initial fervor didn’t last. Once it became clear that the struggle for independence would be long and difficult, the enthusiasm of many of those fighting men began to wane, while their concerns for the well-being of their farms and other livelihoods grew.
In fact, as early as 1776, many colonies resorted to cash incentives, and states were drafting men by the end of 1778, according to historian John Ferling in a 2004 Smithsonian magazine article.
5. Americans United Against the British
Many Americans were brought together to fight the British, but not all. As many as 15 to 20 percent of all Americans were loyalists who supported the British crown, according to the U.K. National Army Museum. For these people, the Revolutionary War pitted Americans against Americans in large numbers. Others tried to stay out of the fight altogether.
Records from the period are sketchy at best, but experts believe that up to 50,000 Americans served as British soldiers or militia at one time or another during the war. Wars are just not that straightforward.
6. 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, despite the story that George Washington himself asked her to do so. The story of the famous seamstress didn’t circulate until it was raised by her grandson nearly a century after the fact.
It is not known who actually sewed the first flag, but it was designed by Francis 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.”
7. The Bald Eagle Can Pluck Out All Its Feathers, Shed Its Beak And Talons, And Then Grow New Ones
Not true! The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of America because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks, and also because it was then believed to exist only in America. But the eagle renewal legend is just that: a myth. Eagles cannot survive for any length of time without feathers, beak and talons.
The eagle with outspread wings is depicted on U.S. gold coins, silver dollars, half dollars and quarters, and is intended to represent freedom. Living as they do on the tops of lofty mountains, they seem to have unlimited freedom to sweep into the valleys below, or upward into the boundless spaces beyond.
Some Myths Are True
You may have learned that John Adams, the second president, and Thomas Jefferson, the third president, both died on July 4, 1826. This is correct. James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on July 4, in 1831. And Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, was born on July 4, 1872.
Happy July 4!
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