Five Myths About American Independence Day

Declaration of Independence

This week, on the fourth of the month, we celebrate the United States’ Independence from Great Britain. But, as with much of history, there is a difference between truth and tradition. Here are a few.

  1. The Declaration of Independence Was Signed on July 4, 1776
    No lesser personages than Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were responsible for perpetuating this misunderstanding. Each during their lifetimes swore that the Declaration was signed on the fourth. But examination of the original records showed this to not be true. It was in 1884 that Mellen Chamberlain, Librarian of the Boston Public Library, examined the records (including the original manuscript journals of Congress) that showed an intentional effort to mislead people, including the distinguished men named above who were probably mislead in their memories by what had been published after the fact by others. In truth, the Congress declared freedom and approved the Declaration on July 2. But it was not signed for quite some time afterwards. In fact, the engrossed copy (which is the one currently housed at the National Archives in Washington) contains the signatures of men who were not members of the Congress on the fourth of July, thus showing that it is imposible.   You can read more about this story in “Fourth of July Myths” by Charles Warren, published in The William and Mary Quarterly in 1930.

  2. The Liberty Bell Cracked When it Rang on July 4, 1776
    As noted above, since the declaration was not signed on the 4th, it could not have cracked as a result. In fact, there is no mention at all of bells being rung in conjunction with activities of the Congress. It was not for another sixty years that the bell, which hung in the state house, was called the Liberty Bell. The term came from the anti-slavery movement and the freedom of slaves. In fact, it is believed that he bell did not crack until sometime in the 19th century, well after the Revolution. For more information about the bell, see part two of the Warren article cited above.
  3. John Hancock’s Signature on the Declaration
    There has long been an old folks’ tale that John Hancock signed his name extra large so that King George would not miss seeing it. For the first six months after the Declaration, the public knew only the signatures of John Hancock, as president of the Congress, and Charles Thomas, who signed to authenticate Hancock’s signature. It was not until the end of January 1777 that the Congress sent out authenticated copies with the names of the signers. Give the enormity of Hancock’s ego, and the audience in front of him as he signed the Declaration, it is far more likely that he took the opportunity to make a symbolic statement. In fact, King George saw only published broadsides, not the signed original.  The Society of the Desdendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence has a biography of Hancock that discusses the situation.
  4. Betsy Ross Made the First Flag at Washington’d Request
    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wore “For scholars, the story of how Betsy Ross made the first American Flag is about as credible as Parson Weems’s fable about little George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Yet for more than a century, it has been an established part of American education.”  There is, in fact, no documentary evidence to support this tale. Its origins date back to the country’s centennial, when one of Ross’s grandsons, William J. Canby, made an address to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and made the claims. The truth is that there was no “first” flag. Numerious styles and versions were created in the early years. As late as the 1790s there were flags with three-colored stipes. Ulrich wrote a wonderful analysis of the story called “How Betsy Ross Became Famous” in 2007 for Common-Place.
  5. “Jefferson Survives”
    Three of the first five presidents died on the Fourth of July. James Madison died at New York City 4 July 1831. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died both died the same day five years earlier, 4 July 1826. The last words of John Adams when he died at home at Quincy, Massachusetts, were purported to be “Jefferson Survives.” This was not true, however, as Jefferson had died earlier that day at his home in Monticello 500 miles away. Even more untrue, however, are the words themselves. There is no documentary evidence to show that he ever said those words. You can discover more about Adams on the website for the Adams National Historical Park, located in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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