What you know about July 4th is wrong


A rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. (AP Photo)

You learned in school about what happened in July 1776, and think you have a good handle on events surrounding American independence from Great 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 Capitol of the United States), 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.

Here, adapted from George Mason University’s History News Network as well as from some other sources, including Joseph J. Ellis’s book titled “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence,” here are some truths about July 4th that may be news to you. (Note: I’ve published some of this before for July 4th).

American independence from Great Britain was not decided on July 4th.

Actually, the Continental Congress voted on July 2, 1776 to declare independence. On the night of July 2nd, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the statement: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.” John Adams thought July 2 was going to be the day future Americans celebrated, or so he said in a letter to his wife, Abigail Adams:

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. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

In fact, Ellis makes the case that that 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 2nd, 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 eto be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of the unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the conduct of this army…. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”

So what happened on July 4th, 1776?

The Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which was mostly written by Thomas 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. Franklin had first right of refusal to draft the document, and he took it; Adams also said he did not want to, so the job fell to Jefferson. He finished the first draft during the third week of June, Ellis wrote.

But Americans didn’t first celebrate independence until July 8, when Philadelphia threw a big party, including a parade and the firing of guns. The army under George Washington, then camped near New York City, heard the news July 9 and celebrated then. Georgia got the word August 10th. And the British in London found out on August 30th.

Though both Jefferson and Adams later claimed the signing ceremony took place on July 4th, David McCullough wrotes in his biography of John Adams:

“No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”

In fact, most delegates signed the document on August 2nd, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress; some waited even later to sign, and the names on the document were made public only in January 1777.

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.

In fact, the bell was not even named in honor of American independence. It received the moniker in the early 19th century when abolitionists used it as a symbol of the antislavery movement. And the famous crack? The bell cracked because it was badly designed.

It is also true that 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 the well-known story isn’t all true.

On July 4, 1826, Adams, the second president, and Jefferson, the third president, both died, exactly 50 years after the adoption of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The country took it as a sign of American divinity.

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.

By the way, James Monroe, our fifth president, died on July 4, 1831. And Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, was born on July 4, 1872.

Have a Happy Fourth!

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | July 1