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Posted at 7:12 AM ET, 07/ 3/2010

Top 5 Independence Day myths

By Valerie Strauss

Here are the top five myths about Independence Day, adapted from George Mason University’s History News Network:

1. Independence was declared on the Fourth of July.
America’s independence from Great Britain was actually declared by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.

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."

So what happened on the Glorious Fourth?

The document justifying the act of Congress -- you know it as Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence -- was adopted on the Fourth, as is indicated on the document itself, which is, one supposes, the cause for all the confusion. As one scholar has observed, what has happened is that the document announcing the event has overshadowed the event itself.

When did Americans first celebrate independence? Congress waited 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 Aug. 10. And when did the British in London finally get wind of the declaration? Aug. 30.

John Adams, writing a letter home to his beloved wife Abigail on July 3, predicted that from then on:

"the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival."

A scholar coming across this document in the 19th century quietly "corrected" the document, Adams predicting the festival would take place not on the second but the fourth.

2. The Declaration of Independence was signed July 4.
Hanging in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States is a vast canvas painting by John Trumbull depicting the signing of the Declaration.

Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote, years afterward, that the signing ceremony took place on July 4. When someone challenged Jefferson’s memory in the early 1800’s Jefferson insisted he was right.

The truth? As David McCullough remarks in his biography of John Adams, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

So when was it signed?

Most delegates signed the document on August 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Several did not sign until later. And their names were not released to the public until later still, January 1777.

The event was so uninspiring that nobody apparently bothered to write home about it. Years later Jefferson claimed to remember the event clearly, regaling visitors with tales of the flies circling overhead. But as he was wrong about the date, so perhaps he was wrong even about the flies.

The truth about the signing was not finally established until 1884 when historian Mellon Chamberlain, researching the manuscript minutes of the journal of Congress, came upon the entry for Aug. 2 noting a signing ceremony.

As for Benjamin Franklin’s statement, which has inspired patriots for generations, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately" ... well, there’s no proof he ever made it.

3. The Liberty Bell rang in American Independence.
Well of course you know now that this event did not happen on the Fourth. But did it happen at all?

It’s a famous scene. A young boy with blond hair and blue eyes was supposed to have been posted in the street next to Independence Hall to give a signal to an old man in the bell tower when independence was declared.

It never happened.

The story was made up out of whole cloth 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.

If the Liberty Bell rang at all in celebration of independence, nobody took note at the time. 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.

As for the famous crack , well, it was a badly designed bell and it cracked. End of story.

The Liberty Bell can be viewed in all of its glory in Philadelphia, where it is displayed in a glass chamber in the appropriately named Liberty Bell Center on Market Street. Available are a video presentation and exhibits about the bell, “focusing on its origins and its modern day role as an international icon of freedom,” as the website about the center says.

4. Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag.
A few blocks away from the Liberty Bell is the Betsy Ross House. There is no proof Betsy lived here, as the Joint State Government Commission of Pennsylvania concluded in a study in 1949. Oh well.

Every year the throngs still come to gawk at the famous scene. Behind a wall of Plexiglas, as if to protect the sacred from contamination, a Betsy Ross mannequin sits in a chair carefully sewing the first flag. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is where Betsy sewed that first famous symbol of our freedom, the bars and stripes, Old Glory itself.

Alas, the story is no more authentic than the house itself. It was made up in the 19th century by Betsy’s descendants. It goes something like this: George Washington himself asked Betsy to stitch the first flag. He wanted six point stars; Betsy told him that five point stars were easier to cut and stitch. The general relented.

Poor Betsy. In her day she was just a simple unheralded seamstress. Now the celebrators won’t leave her alone. ... They even dug up her bones where they had lain in a colonial graveyard for 150 years, so she could be buried again beneath a huge sarcophagus located on the grounds of the house she was never fortunate enough to have lived in.

So who sewed the first flag? No one knows. But we do know who designed it. It was Frances 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.

Just down the street from Betsy’s house is Christ Church Burial Ground, where Benjamin Franklin is buried and Hopkinson is too, along with three other Declaration signers: Dr. Benjamin Rush, Joseph Hewes and George Ross.

5. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July.
Ok, so this isn't really a myth. It happened. 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 4th, 1872.

There will be a birthday celebration in the White House on July 4, 2010: President Obama’s daughter Malia turns 12!

Have a Happy Fourth!

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 3, 2010; 7:12 AM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  adams and jefferson, declaration of independence signed, facts about independence day, facts about july 4, history, independence day, john adams and thomas jefferson, july 2nd and independence, july 4th, malia obama and birthday, the crack in the liberty bell, the liberty bell, when did adams and jefferson die, when was independence declared  
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Next: What Americans don't know about their history


So whats the point of addressing myths when there are so many true reasons for being patriotic?

Posted by: lastword | July 3, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Lastword, the writer was trying to bash your patriotism. She was simply pointing interesting "facts" that it turns out are not true.

Posted by: CrestwoodKat | July 3, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

So you're saying it's OK to be ill-informed and ignorant then? I'm not sure why it's a problem to put these facts out there so that people have a stronger understanding of history.

Posted by: CDon | July 3, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

CDon, stop assuming what I was trying to say. I asked a simple question.

Posted by: lastword | July 3, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Ahh..., Ya'll just take a chill pill. I thought this article had some pretty interesting information, information, @60+, I din't know? Thanks. Oh yeah, HAPPY BIRTHDAY Malia, on your big 12th!

Posted by: jws2346 | July 3, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

"But as he was wrong about the date, so perhaps he was wrong even about the flies."

Nope. I have a book before me, Thomas Jefferson - Statesman of Science, written by Silvio A. Bedini (historian of science and former Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution). Bedini presents such a beautifully and well documented account of events surrounding July 4th regarding Jefferson that I would do it injustice to try to relay details here, but here is a bit. Bedini writes, "The Committee of FIve reported Jefferson't draft on June 28th, and it was read to the Congress. It had to be tabled, however, until Lee's resolution had been approved, which occurred on July 2nd. While the delegates attempted to reach a decision on the question of independence, they had an opportunity to examine the declaration at their leisure and discussed its strengths and weaknesses and suggested revisions."

Jefferson visited a Sparhawk's stationary store on July 4th and purchased a thermometer and gloves for his wife. "The Congress met at nine o'clock as usual, and later that day Benjamin Harrison, chairman of the Committee for the Whole, reported that the delegates accepted the document that had been presented."

Jefferson was a man of detail in all manner of studies. Monticello, Poplar Forest, and University of Virginia at wonderful lasting reminders.

Posted by: shadwell1 | July 3, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

A bunch of rich white men, many of them slave owners, declare freedom and equality in a country where a majority of the population did not even support their struggle. Not much has changed in 234 years...

Posted by: levbronstein | July 3, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Have to disagree on the Adams/Jefferson comment in myth #5. We don't have proof that it transpired that way, but we don't have proof it didn't, either. The witnesses may have made up some details to add some flavor to the event, but it has been convincing enough that several historians, to include David McCullough whom you cited earlier, include their accounts in his history (p 646). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it's an account open to debate, which is different from not being true.

Posted by: kreuz_missile | July 3, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

kreuz, Mccullough writes that Adams was reported to have said something about Jefferson, and it may or may not have been "Jefferson Survives". But while they may have been his last eloquent words, they were not, according to Mccullough's narrative, his final communication. His dying words were to his granddaughter: "Help me, child! help me!" .

Posted by: dnd1 | July 3, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Given the temperature and sanitation in Philadelphia at that time, there were flies, whatever else was going on!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 3, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Of course there were flies- hasn't anyone ever seen "1776" the musical?

"Won't somebody open up a window? NO NO NO tooo many flies, tooo many flies! But it's hot as hell in Philadelphia!"

Posted by: sarahee | July 4, 2010 1:11 AM | Report abuse

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