Fourth facts? Myths about Independence Day |

Fourth facts? Myths about Independence Day

Library of Congress
Betsy Ross Library of Congress

If you're celebrating the anniversary of America's independence today — July 4 — you're technically a little late to the party.

Historians say America actually achieved independence two days earlier — July 2, 1776 — when the Continental Congress voted in favor of it. Two days later, on July 4, Congress approved the actual document — the Declaration of Independence — that details the move.

Over the years, the two dates have become melded in the minds of many, experts say. And today, it's a notion that lives on as just one of many innocently embellished historical tales that have become a part of our cultural fiber.

Independence's birthday

Founding father John Adams might be surprised by the parades, picnics and pomp of July 4th.

“The founding fathers didn't think the Fourth of July was going to be the big deal,” said Karen Kehoe, a St. Vincent College history professor. “John Adams was very clear — he thought the second of July. He said this is the day that's going to be celebrated.”

History expert Rick Shenkman, associate professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia, calls July 4th's Declaration of Independence “the press release” after the actual decision to become independent that occurred on July 2.

The first Fourth of July celebration was held in 1777, Kehoe said, and by 1870, the Fourth of July was a holiday recognized by the government. In 1941, federal employees were first given the day off from work with pay.

Signing their “John Hancocks”

Though the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4 it wasn't until August when most delegates put their pens to paper to sign it, said Rick Shenkman, an author who is editor in chief of George Mason University's History News Network.

Whether the celebration is most appropriate on July 2, July 4 or in August is a judgment call, he said.

“The culture, I think, has already rendered its decision — it's July 4,” Shenkman said.

Paul Revere's ride

A year before the new country established its independence, Paul Revere rode through the night warning that British troops approached.

But he didn't, as the legend goes, scream “the British are coming!” according to Holly Mayer, chairwoman of Duquesne University's history department, The colonists, who were British subjects, still considered themselves Britons.

“How could (Revere) say ‘the British are coming' because (the colonists) are British?” Mayer said.

Revere was one of a network of riders, and he was captured, then released.

Despite the delay, Revere completed his journey, said Karen Kehoe, a St. Vincent College history professor.

Decades later, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow coined the “one if by land, two if by sea” phrase based on lights strung on a church steeple in Boston.

“The signal was indeed there, and that is the signal they used,” Mayer said. “But they certainly weren't talking about it at that point.”

Molly Pitcher

The wartime heroine is “a composite character” made up of a number of women who traveled with revolutionary forces, Kehoe said.

Her tale is of a woman assigned to give water to her husband's artillery unit who later manned a cannon after her husband was injured.

“This is somewhat speculation because we do have a written account of a woman manning a gun, but not exactly that particular dame,” Mayer said.

The Molly Pitcher character may be based on a woman named Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, of Carlisle, but there are stories out there about another woman who also helped support a gun when her husband was felled, Mayer said.

“This name or this figure really epitomizes all of these other women who stepped in to help the military during the war,” she said.

The Liberty Bell

There is a story about the Liberty Bell so compelling that it has become part of our culture, said Rick Shenkman, associate professor of history at George Mason University.

It's the story of a little blond boy who waited on the street outside of Independence Hall and as soon as he heard that the Continental Congress had approved of the Declaration of Independence, he screamed up to an old gray-haired man in the bell tower to ring in independence.

“The whole thing's just a wonderful story. … None of it was true,” Shenkman said.

The bell didn't receive its name until the 1820s, he said, and it was in honor of abolitionists who wanted the bell to symbolize the end of slavery.

Betsy Ross

It's probably a myth that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag, said Van Hall, a University of Pittsburgh professor of American history.

“Who knows who actually sewed up the first flag,” he said. “ … It could have been a bunch of male flag makers. It could have been women seamstresses. It's kind of like Molly Pitcher — the story is not inherently untrue.”

Sure, Mayer said, Betsy Ross was a flag maker who made one of the first flags. But whether she made the first one is up for debate.

Behind the myths

Historians say the massaged stories aren't malicious. Instead, they're tales that help define a common culture.

“We're kind of telling children or others if they could do it, so could you or so should you,” Mayer said.

The myths may spring from wanting to share a story that's simple, straightforward and easy to repeat through the ages.

“They're terrific stories,” Kehoe said. “They're full of grandeur and glory, action, great heroes. So we just repeat them. It's hard to break that mold.”

It's taken historians a couple hundred years to weed through the lore, Shenkman said.

“Intellectuals and the founding fathers sat around and they came up with stories about themselves — some were conscious and some were unconscious,” Shenkman said. “ … The facts didn't really make for a good story. The more people who told the story, the better the story became.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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