A divided nation? How very American of us.
As we commemorate the 236th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, revisiting our history helps remind us how far we’ve come — and just what still makes up the American character. For one thing, not all the 18th-century colonialists were keen on this whole independence thing: A good half-million were Loyalists to the British crown, and hung on to their royal connections in places like New York City, Long Island, and northern Georgia through the 1780s.
The Fourth of July is also a good time to give credit where credit’s due, stamp out a few myths, and find out lesser-known truths that are even juicier than the folklore.
Neglected forefather? No argument — founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams have name recognition (it helps that two became president). Lost in historical footnotes are the remaining members of the so-called Committee of Five in charge of drafting the Declaration: Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. And, even more neglected, is the man who first proposed the motion for a breakout from Britain.
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was the classical yeoman farmer and a justice of the peace. The Virginia-born aristocrat benefited from an English private school education. At first an “indifferent figure,” he later rose to the radical occasion and became an admired orator who, according to Patrick Henry, “reasoned well, and declaimed freely and splendidly” with a “deep and melodious” voice. At the second Continental Congress, he put forth the motion to cut maternal ties with Britain.
“That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved… Let this happy day give birth to an American republic.” (“Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence,” 1856, via Colonial Hall)
As it was his proposal, Lee would have been chair of the Committee of Five and its likely scribe, but his wife’s illness called him away. His sub: Jefferson.
Forget firecrackers — let’s burn some effigies: Pyrotechnics and pies are nice, but real Independence Day sticklers would fire off some muskets, burn some effigies of English royalty (sorry, Kate and William fans), ration out some rum, and declare war on England. Over the last 236 years, Americans have found extravagant ways to celebrate (many details courtesy of James R. Heintze, Librarian Emeritus of American University and author of “The Fourth of July Encyclopedia“):
—Pequoad Indians did a “wardance at their wigwam” in 1831 Virginia.
—Teetotalers threw a “Grand Total Abstinence Celebration” to commemorate temperance in 1842.
—An all-time record of 10,471 flags flew over the nation’s capital for the 1976 Bicentennial.
—The shuttle Columbia unfurled the flag in space in 1992, but NASA outdid that in 2005 by deliberately crashing spacecraft Deep Impact into a comet.
—”The Star-Spangled Banner” is the acknowledged go-to tune but, as the Houston Chronicle points out, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has become part of the musical salute. The ditty is actually about Russian forces vanquishing over Napoleon’s at the Battle of Borodino. Credit the esteemed Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops for making the overture an adopted American anthem in their 1974 televised concert. Who’s going to say no to 16 cannon blasts?
The occasion to fight for rights: Independence Day took on new meaning during the abolitionist fight: New York emancipated its slaves in 1827. Twenty-five years later, Frederick Douglass delivered his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In 1876, the 100th anniversary, the likes of Susan B. Anthony read the Declaration of Rights for Women at the Centennial Celebration.
During World War I, celebrations took on an international theme: In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson spoke of an “international Fourth of July celebration” and in New York, 40 nationalities were represented in the “pageant parade.” That same year, about 100 ships launched to help Allied forces. Other fights for rights included the 1989 flag faceoffs, as Americans protested the Bush administration’s proposal to ban flag burning.
Off by two days? Not that we Americans didn’t wait for a government resolution as a reason to party since 1776. John Adams sent a letter to his wife extolling the “great anniversary Festival” that generations would celebrate with “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” Except he had July 2 in mind, the date when the Continental Congress approved Lee’s resolution. (And this year, July 2 would’ve fallen on a Monday and we wouldn’t have all this should-we-take-a-vacation dithering.)
Other Fourth of July myths and truths:
— King George III did not write on July 4, 1776: “Dear Diary, Nothing of importance happened today.”
—Adams and Jefferson did die July 4, 1826, the Declaration’s 50th anniversary. James Monroe died on July 4, 1831, and Calvin Coolidge was born July 4, 1872.
—Paperwork took a lot longer in those days: The Declaration’s signing didn’t begin until August 2 and finished sometime in November.
—No, Nicolas Cage didn’t find a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, because if he did, he could pay off his debts and go back to doing good movies. The only thing on the back of the parchment is “Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776.” There are, however, 26 copies (aka Dunlap broadsides) that do exist — all publicly owned saved one.