Eleven Things You Didn't Know About July 4th
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.
3. Thomas Jefferson Didn't Want The Job
Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. But it turns out, 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? 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.
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 in 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.
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.
Poll: What's Your Favorite July 4th Tradition?
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 under way.
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 death 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, fifty 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 8pm 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 1pm 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 who 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.)
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.
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 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 which 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 wig so ridiculously large that even in an era given to ridiculously large wigs, this one was thought to be a little foppish.
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... eleven 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!