You learned in school about what happened in July 1776, and think you have a good handle on events surrounding American independence from Britain. Right?
Well, if you think that was the day that America’s independence was declared by the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, you are wrong.
And if you think that that was the day that members of the Congress signed the new Declaration of Independence, as depicted in a famous canvas painting by John Trumbull, (which now hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol), you are wrong.
And if you think that Thomas Jefferson alone wrote the Declaration of Independence, or the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was made to ring to announce independence, or that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag at the request of George Washington, you are wrong, wrong and wrong. And if you never learned about George Washington’s own declaration, that’s another gap in your historical knowledge.
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Here, adapted from George Mason University’s History News Network as well as from some other sources, including Joseph J. Ellis’ book titled Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence here are some truths about July 4 that may be news to you.
• American independence from Britain was not decided on July 4. The Continental Congress voted on July 2, 1776 to declare independence.
In fact, Ellis makes the case that John Adams “liked to claim that the resolution of May 15 was the real declaration of independence and that Jefferson’s more famous declaration six weeks later was a merely ceremonial afterthought.” The resolution of May 15, which was actually approved on May 12, was a formal call for the colonies to write new state constitutions that would “replace the colonial constitutions. On May 15, Adams added a preface that placed the resolution in the context of the historical march to independence.
George Washington issued his own important declaration on July 2, Ellis wrote, without knowing what was happening in Philadelphia. In his General Orders on that day, he wrote: “The time is now at hand which must probably determine, Whether Americans are to be, Freeman, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses and Farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them.”
• So what happened on July 4, 1776? The Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which was mostly written by Jefferson but subject to edits by the other members of the five-man team appointed to come up with the document (Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, John Adams and Roger Sherman) as well as the full Continental Congress.
Though both Jefferson and Adams later claimed the signing ceremony took place on July 4, David McCullough wrote in his biography of John Adams: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”
• The Liberty Bell did not ring in American Independence. , despite the famous story about how 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. 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.
• Betsy Ross did not in fact sew the first American flag despite the story that George Washington himself asked her to. 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.” A small group of descendants works hard to keep his name alive.
• You may have learned that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the Fourth of July. They did, 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.
Valerie Waters blogs about education for The Washington Post.
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