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11 Things You Didn't Know About July 4th

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Bill loves sharing obscure knowledge about holidays with others.

Enjoy this Independence Day trivia before the fireworks start!

Enjoy this Independence Day trivia before the fireworks start!

1. Happy July 2nd!

Although we celebrate July 4th as Independence Day, the Thirteen Colonies actually broke from Great Britain two days earlier, on July 2, 1776. On that date, following months of preliminary debate, the Second Continental Congress formally voted to sever the political ties binding them to the mother country. July fourth is the day that Congress finally approved the language explaining the reasons for the separation, and it's the date of the final version of the text that appears at the top of the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was so sure the earlier date was the more memorable of the two, he wrote his wife Abigail:

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha 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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

Adams may have been off by two days, but history shows he certainly had the spirit of the thing exactly right.

2. The Scene in That Painting? It Never Happened

You've probably seen John Trumbull's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Among other places, it can be seen in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building and on the back of the American $2 bill. The problem is, the event shown probably never took place, at least not like that.

First of all, Trumbull's painting isn't of the signing at all. It was intended to depict the day on which the men charged with drafting the Declaration delivered the results of their work to the Second Continental Congress as a whole. Moreover, the painting contains a few people who didn't sign the Declaration at all and omits fourteen who did.

Beyond that, there's some doubt that an en mass gathering to sign the Declaration took place at all. While Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams all verified that the Declaration was signed on July 4th, all 56 signers were almost certainly not present on that day, and some probably signed the document as late as August 2nd.

Of course, regardless of exactly when, the Declaration was signed, and the rest is history.

"The Declaration Committee," by Currier & Ives (1876)

"The Declaration Committee," by Currier & Ives (1876)

3. Thomas Jefferson Didn't Want The Job

Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. But it turns out that he thought someone else was right for the job.

After the Second Continental Congress voted to break from Great Britain, it was deemed proper that they would formally justify their reasons for the separation in a written Declaration of Independence. The Congress selected a committee of five men (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson) to draft the separation document. Four of the five agreed that John Adams was the natural choice to write the document. Fortunately for history, the exception to the consensus was Adams himself, who convinced the rest of the committee to give the job to a reluctant Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson went on to craft words that ring down through the ages, although he did have some help from the other members of the committee.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident" is one of the most well-known opening lines to a paragraph in the history of the English language, and we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for it, right?

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Actually, not.

Jefferson originally wrote, "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable . . . " We have Ben Franklin to thank for editing it into the final version.

"Timothy Matlack," by Charles Willson Peale

"Timothy Matlack," by Charles Willson Peale

4. Timothy Matlack? Who?

If Jefferson ended up writing the Declaration (well, mostly), then it's his handwriting in the copy we've all seen, right? Turns out that's not the case. What we're used to seeing is the work of a man named Timothy Matlack.

Matlack came to play such a significant part in United States history from unlikely beginnings. Growing up largely in Pennsylvania, he was at various times a merchant, a brewer, and an inmate in debtor's prison. He enjoyed gambling on cock-fighting and horses and was disowned by the Quakers for associating with unsavory characters. Rising from all that, he was hired to be the clerk of the Second Continental Congress in 1775. In late July, Matlack was given the task of copying the text onto parchment for formal signature, which is the image we see today.

Matlack's story is enduring proof that America is the home of second (and third) chances.

Drawing of the Liberty Bell, by Thomas Nast

Drawing of the Liberty Bell, by Thomas Nast

5. The Liberty Bell Didn't Ring on July 4th

The story goes that the Liberty Bell rang on July 4th, 1776, to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But it probably didn't.

The problem with the story is that there was no public announcement of the existence of the Declaration on July 4th. While the text was finalized on July 4th, the first printed copies only appeared later that night. Those—the Dunlap Broadsides—were distributed and eventually "proclaimed"—that is, read publicly—on July 8th, at which time there was a public ringing of bells. There's not actually a record of the Liberty Bell being rung on that occasion, but it was a well-known fixture at the time (there is a record of citizens complaining in 1772 that the bell was being rung so often it was becoming annoying), so it probably did.

By the way, the famous crack in the bell? There's no definitive record, but the best guess is it happened sometime in the 1800s. And it wasn't actually even called the "Liberty Bell" until 1835 when it was adopted as a symbol by the anti-slavery movement.

6. The Colonies Were Already At War

The British were so incensed by the Declaration of Independence that they declared war, right? Not so fast.

The Colonies had been at war with Great Britain for over a year by the time the Declaration was drafted. The battles of Lexington and Concord (the "shot heard round the world") took place in April of 1775. George Washington had already been appointed General of the Continental Army, and the Colonies had invaded Canada. So the armed conflict was well underway.

Nor was the Declaration the first political resort. Prior to drafting it, there were several attempts to reconcile with Great Britain, including the Olive Branch Petition in July of 1775, which, like the Declaration, was drafted in part by Thomas Jefferson. But peace was not to be for several more years.

7. A Bad Day for Presidents

July 4th also has the distinction of being the day of the deaths of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe. In one of the more bizarre coincidences of the history of the Republic, Jefferson and Adams died hours apart on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the July fourth we all celebrate.

The anniversary was certainly on both of the men's minds at the end. Jefferson, knowing he was on his deathbed, roused himself about 8 pm on July 3rd and, speaking his last words, demanded to know: "Is it the fourth yet?" ("It soon will be," was his doctor's response.) He lived a few more hours until ten minutes before 1 pm on the 4th. Adams died several hours later, at 6:20 PM. Unaware of Jefferson's passing earlier in the afternoon, his last words were, "Jefferson survives."

James Monroe died a few years later, on July 4th, 1831, the last man to serve as President and was also a Founding Father.

The story of Presidential July 4th trivia is not entirely a morbid one, however. It's also the birthday of the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge (in 1872.)

"First at Vicksburg," courtesy of the US Army Center of Military History

"First at Vicksburg," courtesy of the US Army Center of Military History

8. Union Created, Union Preserved

While the original Thirteen Colonies might have expressed their agreement on July 4, 1776, later anniversaries did not always see the country in such accord. Two of the major actions of the American Civil War happened on July 4th, nearly a hundred years later, and helped shape the country as we know it today.

On July 4, 1863, following a siege of a month and a half, General Ulysses S. Grant captured the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In doing so, he achieved what Abraham Lincoln called the key to Union victory and wrested control of the Mississippi River from the South. Along with the city, Grant captured nearly 30,000 Confederate soldiers and was credited with devising "the most brilliant campaign ever fought on American soil."

The same day, a thousand miles away on a muddy field in Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg following a disastrous turn of events on the previous day, capped by the failure of Pickett's Charge. The day remains the bloodiest in American history by far, with a combined total of over fifty thousand casualties.

While the men and women of the Revolution rightfully get their fair share of attention for declaring Independence on July 4th, 1776, it's also worth remembering that a long line of patriots followed to preserve what they created.

"George Washington in Uniform of the Virginia Regiment," by Charles Willson Peale

"George Washington in Uniform of the Virginia Regiment," by Charles Willson Peale

9. George Washington . . . Assassin?

July fourth wasn't always kind to George Washington. Prior to the Revolution, he was in the service of the Crown as a Lieutenant Colonel in the militia of "His Majesty's Colony" of Virginia. It was in that capacity that he helped start the French and Indian War.

In May of 1754, George Washington led an ambush against a force of 35 French Canadians who had been sent to deliver Washington a warning not to encroach on French territory. The French Commander, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, was killed during the action; whether he was killed in a fair fight, deceitfully shot while in parley with Washington, or had his skull bashed in by the tomahawk of one of Washington's Native American allies is a matter of historical debate. The French, naturally, believed the story that cast Washington in the least favorable light. Incidentally, it was this battle that inspired Washington's famous note: "I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound."

Shortly thereafter, the French sent a force of 600 men commanded by the late de Jumonville's brother to answer what they saw as English aggression. The French found Washington entrenched at Fort Necessity. Outnumbered and his cause not helped by a rowdy bunch of Virginia militiamen who broke into the fort's liquor supply and spent their time getting drunk, Washington accepted the French terms for surrender. Included in those terms were an admission that de Jumonville had been "assassinated," though Washington, not reading French, later denied he knew that he admitted to the charge. Washington's force abandoned Fort Necessity on July 4th, 1754, fleeing as the French rifled through their belongings.

For George Washington, defeated and branded an assassin, July 4th must have held some bitter memories.

10. Yankee Doodle? Them's Fightin' Words!

Yankee Doodle is thought of now as one of the most patriotic of songs, emblematic of the United States and the Revolution. But it didn't start out that way.

In the 1700s, Europe was the center of Western culture, and the Colonies were, frankly, something of a backwater. Naturally, English disdain for the colonists was a natural outgrowth. The origin of the term "Yankee" is unclear, but it was being used as a pejorative as early as 1758, with British General James Wolfe describing Yankees as not being particularly well suited for "either work or vigilance." Doodle seems to have come from the German word dudel, denoting a fool. Put the two together, and you have an insult, something along the lines of calling somebody a shiftless yokel.

Knowing a good dig when they heard it, the British set the term to music, perhaps borrowing the tune from an old nursery rhyme, Lucy Locket. The redcoats supposedly used it as a marching tune as their armies moved through the country.

The Americans, never without a sense of humor of their own, took to piping it themselves to mock the British after each Colonial victory until it turned into something of a Colonist rallying cry. It was even played by George Washington's army after the final surrender during Cornwallis’ final surrender at Yorktown, while the British offered their own musical assessment of the occasion with "The World Turned Upside Down."

Oh, and "put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni?" A "macaroni" was a wig so ridiculously large that even in an era given to ridiculously large wigs, this one was thought to be a little foppish.

The Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris, 1883

The Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris, 1883

11. The Statue of Liberty's Birthday . . . Sort Of

And finally, we come to The Statue of Liberty, or Liberty Enlightening the World, as it is formally known. From France laying claim to part of the North American continent to their support during the Revolution to our Revolution inspiring theirs (and helping bankrupt their country), France and the United States have a long history together.

In 1865, a prominent Frenchman and supporter of the Union during the American Civil War, Edouard Rene de Laboulaye, remarked: "If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations," and a grand idea was born, France building the statue and America being responsible for the pedestal. Designed by sculptor Frederic August Bartholdi, the statue and pedestal attracted involvement from such luminaries as Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), Rutherford B. Hayes, Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, and Joseph Pulitzer before being finished and put into its familiar place in New York Harbor.

The completed statue was formally presented to the United States Ambassador in Paris on July 4th, 1884, in some sense giving Lady Liberty the same birthday as American liberty itself.

And There You Have It!

So . . . 11 pieces of July 4th trivia. How many did you know? How many will your friends and family know? It's a fun conversation starter as you're waiting on the fireworks show to start.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


Dennis AuBuchon from Ohio on July 12, 2014:

This is a fantastic hub and well worth the read. I voted up, interesting, useful, and awesome along with liking, tweeting an pinning.

savvydating on July 05, 2014:

I think I knew three of the things you listed here. Well, just goes to show you how little we know (guess I should speak for myself) about our American heritage. For anyone else who may be interested, today (Saturday the 5th) PBS is showing a nice program about how America got started. It will probably run all week long. But, you've pretty much covered all the good stuff here. Congratulations on being featured. Up & interesting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 05, 2014:

Congratulations on HOTD! This was a fun and entertaining list and so appropriate for today!

LisaKeating on July 04, 2014:

Congrats on HOTD. I knew several of the pieces of information a few were new. I love American history, so I found this article quite interesting. Nice work.

Al Wordlaw from Chicago on July 04, 2014:

Creative story whether accurate or not. Glad there is freedom and liberty although it has to be fought for at various times. Thanks for sharing onlyabill :-)

hankscita on July 04, 2014:

I love #10! I used to sing that song as a kid, and literally pictured a feather in a macaroni noodle. Great Hub!

Cynthia Lyerly from Georgia on July 04, 2014:

I love this type of history...the kind not in traditional books. Nice blog!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 04, 2014:

Congrats on HOTD!

This was a fascinating look at some little-known trivia behind the most famous and well-recognized American holiday of them all.

Voted up, interesting and useful; shared on FB.

bluebird on July 04, 2014:

There's a lot about this country most don't know, and most of it pertains to our heritage, who we really are, in the Bible. It's astounding, yet most are ignorant. But soon it will all come out and there will absolutely be "a brotherhood of man." I look forward to that day when eyes will be opened and hearts will be united!

RTalloni on July 04, 2014:

I had read of some of these, but not all. Thanks for an interesting read that reminds me of how important it is to put myself in their place rather than look at historical events from the perspective of where I am in history.

Congrats on your Hub of the Day award on this 4th of July!

Lisa from Central USA on July 04, 2014:

Very interesting article.. A lot I never even knew. Thank you for the great information and great article! You deserved the hub of the day on July 04, 2014:

Had never heard of Timothy Matlack - such a regular guy gets a top gig!

Thankyou sir for this timely hub.

Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on July 04, 2014:

Interesting hub. Also, congrats on the HOTD!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on July 04, 2014:

Wow! What an amazing and timely hub for today. Congrats on Hub of the Day. Well deserved. Voted up and sharing on social media!

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on July 04, 2014:

Number 7 was my favorite bit of information. It's hard to believe that two of our founding fathers had that close association on the same day and a third, a few years later. Nicely written and interesting. Congratulations on the Hub of the Day award. This was well deserved.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 04, 2014:

What a great Hub to read on the 4th of July. You did a lot of research for this one; full of interesting info! Congrats on HOTD.

I do not like the fireworks I am forced to hear on this date. My little dog hates the loud noise, too.

Hope you have a nice 4th. of July!

Voted UP and will share here and on Google+

Sunil Kumar Kunnoth from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India) on July 04, 2014:

Well written. Informative and educative too. Loved reading this wonderful text. But I would also love to know how the U.S. citizen celebrate this great occasion. Happy July Fourth!

bookwormella from USA on June 26, 2014:

I agree this sounds like a great conversation starter.

mbuggieh on June 26, 2014:

Thanks and Happy Fourth of July!

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