The 4th of July brings to mind all sorts of things: hot dogs on the grill, parades, fireworks, a day off work. At its heart, it is a celebration of our nation’s independence. It is a day that brings out the patriot in us and makes us proud to be Americans. But for all that pride, there a surprising amount of myths that have endured about the history of our great nation, including the significance of the 4th itself, and most of us still believe them. Today, I will share with you the truth so the next time someone says Ben Franklin had a thing for turkeys, you can set them straight.
1. The Declaration of Independence was signed on the 4th of July
All that happened on the fourth was a revision of what the Continental Congress voted for and drafted two days earlier. It was read aloud on the 8th and the final version was signed on August 2nd. John Adams wanted the national holiday to be July 2nd, but sometimes we all have to compromise.
2. George Washington could not tell a lie
Everyone knows the charming story, a young Washington cut down a cherry tree and when confronted by his father immediately confessed, claiming “I cannot tell a lie”. Turns out, according to the writer of Washington’s autobiography in 1806, it was just a tale made up to illustrate the president’s many and uncompromising virtues.
3. One more about Washington: he was the first president
False. He was actually more like the 15th president. During the American Revolution, the first president elected by the Continental Congress was Peyton Randolph. Thomas Mifflin was the president who oversaw the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Even John Hancock served as our leader for a time. But George gets the credit because he was the first to be elected by the people (and by people, I mean rich white guys).
4. Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird
We all know how difficult tone is to convey in a text and in the 18th century, letters didn’t have the benefit of emojis. In one such letter to his daughter, poor Ben was taken way too literally. He told her that the bird on the seal looked more like a turkey than an eagle, and that a turkey might be a better choice as the bald eagle is “a bird of bad moral character” (followed by a very clever comparison of the eagle being run out by much smaller kingbirds and the turkey bravely attacking a British soldier invading his yard). What’s more, he wasn’t even discussing the eagle as an emblem of the United States, but rather a Revolutionary War veterans society which he opposed. Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.
5. During the Salem Witch Trials, witches were burned at the stake and they were all women
The truth isn’t much more civil, they were hanged instead. In fact, other than a few exceptions, witches hadn’t been strapped to the pyre since the medieval days. This was more for practical reasons than anything else – firewood is expensive and Massachusetts is cold. The only person not hanged was Giles Corey, who was pressed to death with rocks (so much better), which brings me to my next point. Of the twenty souls claimed by the trials, seven of them were men. Apparently, they didn’t make the convenient gender distinctions utilized by Hogwarts in the olden days.
6. The American flag was designed by Betsy Ross
This one isn’t necessarily false, but considering no one knew that she was the one to have sewn the flag (and contributed her own design ideas) until a hundred years later when her grandson, William Canby, started telling people she had, the claim is more than a little suspect. She was a seamstress in Philadelphia, so it seems more likely that Canby seized the coincidence for his fifteen minutes of fame. The myth still persists in 2018, so good work, Canby!
7. The midnight ride of Paul Revere
This makes a great story, Paul Revere receiving the warning signals and galloping down the streets to sound the alarm. But most of what we know about this comes from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which is just as fictional as the event itself. In actuality, the signals he received were actually signals he sent, he wasn’t a solo rider, but part of a much larger network, and was arrested in Lexington before he could really be of much use. It was actually Dr. Samuel Prescott who warned the militias. That being said, "Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere” really is catchy
8. Christopher Columbus “discovered” America
I conclude this list with one more catchy rhyme that most of us memorized for a quiz at some point or another in history class: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. This is the only true part of the story. He was not on a mission to prove that the world was round; that was a well-established fact since the time of the ancient Greeks. He was not the first European to land in the Americas; Leif Erikson got there five centuries before him when he settled in North America. This brings me to the next point; Columbus did not discover the America we all thought our teachers were talking about in first grade. We were under the impression he stepped ashore at Plymouth, or somewhere similar, like the pilgrims (another story also wrought with falsehoods), but he actually landed in the Caribbean. And last but not least, a man can’t actually discover somewhere already inhabited by thousands of people, just saying.