- The Fourth of July is a big deal in the US.
- It marks the 13 colonies’ declaration of independence from Britain.
- There are a number of popular historical tales out there about the US’s Independence Day.
- Here are a few that are untrue or impossible to actually verify.
The Fourth of July is all about fireworks, food, and freedom for many Americans.
But be careful before you start regaling your friends with Fourth of July lore.
There are plenty of popular myths about Independence Day disguised as common knowledge.
Here are a few “facts” about the Fourth of July that are actually historically bogus:
The founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776
On a hot summer day in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress declared the 13 colonies independent from the Crown. Massachusetts delegate and future US president John Adams was certain that he’d witnessed history – and that the date would live on in memory.
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” wrote Adams, in a July 3, 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail.
Poor Adams. He was only off by two days. The Continental Congress actually issued an initial resolution asserting independence from Britain on July 2, which was then revised and finalised on July 4.
However, historians believe that the signing didn’t take place until about a month later. Emily Sneff, research manager of the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard University, writes that 49 of the 56 signers didn’t even add their signatures the declaration until August 2, 1776: “It took several months, if not years, for all of the signatures to be added.”
She cites the Journals of the Continental Congress, which include this August 2 entry: “The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed.”
So, why do we gather together to blow things up and grill meat on the Fourth? The Declaration was technically agreed to on that day, and the copies distributed throughout the colonies were dated July 4, 1776.
As a result, that was the date that stuck in people’s minds.
The Revolutionary War was all about the American colonies and Britain
As any American student can tell you, Independence Day in a nutshell was the rebellious, teen-aged colonies finally having it out with their overbearing mother country. And France helped, too.
It’s probably more helpful to look at the war through the lens of the power struggle between France and Britain. The American Revolution was, in many ways, more of an episode in their drama, as opposed to an earth-shaking event, in and of itself.
The American Revolution took place on the heels of the French and Indian War – one of the theatres of the Seven Years’ War between France and Britain.
That North American clash provided a prelude to the Revolution, launching George Washington’s military career and prompting a victorious but cash-strapped Britain to raise taxes on its colonies.
France’s eventual decision to dive into the fight on the side of the colonists was a chance for payback.
That being said, it’s understandable why the American Revolution is a bigger deal in the US than other countries – it is our history, after all. Plus, it’s probably fair to say that the rebellion, along with the spread of the Enlightenment, sparked future global changes, including the French Revolution.
The Liberty Bell cracked on Independence Day
The Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell are forever tied together in the popular imagination.
As the lore goes, after the colonies declared independence, the citizens of Philadelphia partied so hard that they cracked the bell, which was first made in 1751.
While it’s a great story, this tale is total nonsense. First of all, the official announcement about the Declaration didn’t go out until July 8.
“On that day, lots of bells were rung to celebrate public readings of the Declaration, and the Liberty Bell was probably one of them,” writes historian Joseph Coohill – who blogs about historical myths under the name Professor Buzzkill.
We have no way of knowing for sure, though, since the state house steeple in which the bell was housed was kind of falling apart and under repair at the time, according to the Independence Hall Association.
John Hancock’s giant signature was meant to sass King George III
To paraphrase the old story, John Hancock made his mark on the Declaration with a large, flourishing signature. When asked why he had signed his name so large, Hancock quipped that he wanted King George III to be able to read it without his spectacles.
This fun anecdote most likely isn’t true.
Sneff writes, “There is no contemporary evidence for what Hancock said as he signed, and at the very least, we know that the engrossed parchment was not sent to King George III.”
So why did Hancock, a wealthy merchant, accused smuggler, and president of the Second Continental Congress, leave such a large signature?
Well, as president, Hancock would have likely signed the document first. Also, take a look at some of the other documents he signed during his tenure in the Continental Congress.
Turns out, the man just had a large signature.
John Adams died on July 4 and gave Thomas Jefferson a shout out on his death bed
This story is certainly half true – Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the events of 1776.
They’re not the only presidents to undergo a major life event on July 4. James Monroe died on July 4, 1831, while Calvin Coolidge was born July 4, 1872.
According to the popular tale, on his death bed, Adams whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives” before dying. Unbeknownst to him, Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.
It’s impossible to confirm that Adams truly included Jefferson in his last words. Contemporary accounts of the former president’s death may have been embellished, as “America’s Jubilee” author Andrew Burnstein wrote in History News Network.
It’s possible that Adams mentioned Jefferson, but it’s also possible that this story stems from wishful thinking on the part of observers, given the friendship, rivalry, and history between Adams and Jefferson. The two had first became fast friends while serving in Continental Congress together.
This connection endured, despite their political differences, with Adams writing to Jefferson that “… intimate Correspondence with you . . . is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life,” according to the official website of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate.
They had a bitter falling out after campaigning against one another in the divisive election of 1800. They rekindled their correspondence after retiring, sending 158 letters to one another over the course of 14 years.
There’s no evidence that Adams mentioned Jefferson, as National Geographic reported. It’s possible that Adams’ thoughts drifted back to his estranged friend or that summer in Philadelphia as he lay dying, but we’ll never know for sure.
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