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10 Things You Might Not Know About America's Independence

Fourth of July

Soldiers with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment Old Guard Continental Color Guard line up near the National Archives building, left, in Washington before the start of the Fourth of July, Independence Day, festivities Sunday, July 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

On July Fourth, Americans eat hot dogs and apple pie, watch fireworks, and go swimming.

But what are we really celebrating? 

Standard answers to this question are that we are celebrating our independence or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Well, yes and no. 

Here are 10 things you might not know about our America's Independence Day.

1.) Independence Was Not Declared on July Fourth: The second Continental Congress actually voted for independence on July 2. In fact, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, predicting that future generations would celebrate July 2 as Independence Day, saying, "The second day of July, 1776, will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illumination, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore." July 4, 1776 is significant because that is the day that Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence document, but contrary to what many people believe it was not signed on the July 4. The official signing ceremony occurred on August 2, which is when most of the signers affixed their names to the document, but other representatives signed the document throughout the summer of 1776. Finally, there is no historical record of John Hancock saying that his signature is that big so that King George could read it. It has been suggested that Hancock's is by far the largest signature simply because he was the president of Congress.

2.) New York Was Late: When the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain the official vote was 12 in favor, 0 against. But wait, you may ask, weren't there 13 colonies? Where is that last one? The answer: The colony of New York abstained from the original vote on July 2. New York did not decide to join until July 19. 

3.) It Was a States Thing First: Independence was not something that was confined to Congress. It started out as a state and local thing. In fact, the very first Declaration of Independence came on Oct. 4, 1774 (21 months before the Continental Congress declared independence) from the town of Worcester, Mass. During the next 21 months a total of 90 state and local declarations of independence would be made. When Virginia declared its independence in May 1776, they sent Rep. Richard Henry Lee to the Continental Congress with specific instructions to put forth a resolution of independence for Congress to vote on, thus allying all the colonies -- soon to become states -- against the British Empire in the War for Independence.  

4.) American Troops Did Not fight Under the American Flag During the Revolution: The Fourth of July is always accompanied by a lot of flag waving, but the soldiers of the American Revolution did not actually fight under the American flag. In fact, our Founders did not really consider the flag to be all that important and the design of the flag varied both in the number of stripes and in the formation of the stars. The reason a uniform flag was adopted was so that our navy ships could be easily identified when arriving in foreign ports, but the boys in the Continental Army did not fight under this flag. In fact, the United States flag was considered so irrelevant that in 1794 when someone introduced a bill in Congress to add two stars to the flag in representation of the entrance of Vermont and Kentucky into the Union many members of the House considered it to be too trivial to pay any attention to. One representative is on record saying that this matter was "a trifling business which ought not to engross the attention of the House, when it was it was their duty to discuss matters of infinitely greater importance." In the end, the bill was passed simply to be rid of it. The Continental Army did still fight under flags, but these flags were all different depending on the regiment.  

5.) Our Founding Fathers Were Not Radicals: As Americans, we like to think that what we did in the American Revolution was original and that our ideas of freedom and rights were new and progressive. But the truth is our Founding Fathers were not radical new thinkers -- all of their ideas and philosophies were rooted deeply in history. Ideas of people's rights, liberty, and social contracts can be traced all the way back through our colonial history, most famously with the Mayflower Compact, and even further through British history and English common law. These ideas can even be seen at work in the medieval era with Magna Carta first established 1215. Our Founding Fathers sought independence in order to preserve their "natural-born rights as Englishmen."  Though it is true no colony had ever succeeded from the mother country before and the British were quick to call it treason, everything our Founders did was, in fact, legal. Jefferson himself explains that the Declaration was not meant to express anything new. He said it was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject."

6.) We Are Not a Democracy: People often associate democracy with freedom. We hear this word used all the time by our politicians, by our neighbors, even sometimes by our educators. But the fact is we are not a democracy. We are a republic. Our Founding Fathers deemed this an important distinction to make and discussed the matter quite a bit. In the end, our Founding Fathers claimed that a democracy was both extreme and dangerous for a country as it would most assuredly result in the oppression of the minority by the majority. Take this one example from Founding Father, Elbridge Gerry: "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy." And Thomas Jefferson said that democracy should never be practiced outside the limits of a town. Our Founders were very wary of power no matter who had it and thus limited it as much as possible -- this is why we have such a unique system of checks and balances.

7.) Jefferson-Hemings Scandal--Not So Scandalous After All? With Independence Day comes a lot of talk about the Declaration of Independence and with that talk comes references to Thomas Jefferson, which these days will inevitably end with the Sally Hemings scandal. The claim that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings started by Jefferson's political rival Alexander Hamilton as an attempt to smear and discredit him. In the past several years these claims got a lot of media attention when a DNA test was done on the descendants of Sally Hemings, which led people to claim that Thomas Jefferson was definitively the father of her children. However, the matter is far from settled and there are still historians on both sides of the aisle in this debate. The DNA test actually proves that a male from the Jefferson family fathered Sally Hemings' children --that's a number of possibilities. At this point, science cannot actually provide us with a definitive answer on the subject.

8.) Our Founding Fathers Would Not Have Recited the Pledge: Another patriotic tradition that gets a lot of attention, particularly around this time of the year, is the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge did not exist during our Founders' lifetimes -- something that is very clear when looking at its text. The Pledge was written over a century after America's founding in 1892. It was also written by a socialist -- Francis Bellamy, whose original text was: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." According to our Founders, the states are not indivisible, but very much the opposite. In fact, when ratifying the U.S. Constitution, some states, such as Virginia among others, specifically declared the right to secede from the Union should they feel it necessary just as an extra precaution to make sure that that state right was understood. Our Founders took their states rights very seriously and considered the U.S. Constitution to be a compact amongst the sovereign states so that any state could secede if it felt the federal government had become oppressive. So, if not with a pledge, how would our Founding Fathers begin meetings and celebrations? The answer: most likely with a prayer. In fact, the very first resolution brought before the First Continental Congress, and immediately passed, was the declaration that they would open every meeting with a prayer.

9.) The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere . . . and 40 others? The mythology of Paul Revere's midnight ride can be traced back to the year 1860 with the writing of that famous poem, "Paul Revere's Ride." Here's what really happened: On April 18, 1775, British troops were ordered to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both of whom were in Lexington at the time and to seize arms and provisions at Concord. Upon hearing this, Paul Revere and William Dawes set out on horseback -- taking two different routes to Lexington in order to warn Hancock and Adams. Along the way, they warned the towns they passed through of the British invasion. By the morning of April 19 roughly 40 men were out on horseback spreading the news. Revere arrived at Lexington first, followed by Dawes. The two men then headed toward Concord, but were intercepted by British troops. Dawes, though injured, managed to escape, but Revere was captured. He was rescued by American militiamen a short while later. It was during this confrontation between British troops and American militiamen at Concord that the famous shot heard 'round the world was fired.

10.) The British Soldiers of the Boston Massacre Were Defended by John Adams in Court: The Boston Massacre, on March 5, 1770, began with a riot and ended with British troops killing five men. The incident help spark the greater rebellion, which led to the Revolutionary War, but tensions had been rising in Boston since British troops had occupied the city in 1768. But you may be surprised to know that one of the Founding Fathers actually defended the British soldiers that were charged of killing the civilians. John Adams, like many of our Founding Fathers, was a lawyer, and though he was a Patriot, he firmly believed in the right to a fair trial and agreed to represent the British troops in court. Adams succeeded in getting Capt. Thomas Preston acquitted as most others. And the two soldiers who were convicted were spared the death penalty. 

So this July Fourth, research what you're celebrating and talk about it with your family. Benjamin Franklin said that we have Republic, if we can keep it. Former Congressman and author of the book "In Tune with America: our History in Song," George Nethercutt Jr. put it this way: "The foundation of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans is the U.S. Constitution, the longest surviving constitution of any nation in history. To be civically unaware is to diminish our freedom, but knowing our history makes us all better Americans. Read our nation's Founding documents and they will inspire you."

 

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