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Friday, July 4, 2014

Five Interesting Myths About The Fourth

A bell that didn't ring on the Fourth
Today as we celebrate the birth of the nation we might also examine some of the myths associated with its beginning. According to the best selling book by Richard Shenkman, Legends, Lies And Cherished Myths Of American History (Harper and Row, 1988), there are many fascinating legends associated with the nation's independence:

Myth # 1: The colonies declared their independence on July 4.

It was actually July 2 when members of the Continental Congress officially declared the colonies "Free and Independent States". Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence", a statement announcing and defending that action, was adopted July 4, but according to historian Mellon Chamberlain, there was no public celebration, and most of the official signing of the document was done on August 2.

Myth #2: Citizens of the thirteen colonies were undivided in their support of the Revolution.

More than half a dozen delegates actually opposed the rebellion in the final vote in the Continental Congress, and in the entire New York delegation abstained, lacking instruction. In the preceding vote, Pennsylvania and South Carolina had voted no, Delaware's delegates were divided and New York's members abstained. Meanwhile countless loyalist citizens were tarred and feathered, thousands had their property confiscated without compensation and more than eighty thousand fled to Canada for safety. John Adams is quoted as saying that a third of the population favored the Revolution, a third opposed it and a third were indifferent. Nearly as many colonists fought for the British as for the American side, making it as much a civil war as a war to overthrow British rule.

Myth #3: Most American soldiers in the Revolutionary War were middle class citizens who volunteered to fight against King George's tyranny.

According to Robert Gross's study of the Concord militia, the average minuteman was, by 1778, "poor, out of work and out of hope", and often hired by members of the middle class as substitutes rather than their having to go into battle themselves. And King George III was far from a ruthless tyrant.

Myth #4: George Washington was a man of prayer who knelt in the deep snow at Valley Forge to pray for success in the next day's battle.

Artists portraying the great general in reverent prayer got the story from Parson Weems, the same person who invented the tale of the young Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Weems said he was told about Washington's Valley Forge prayer from a Quaker named Potts "if I mistake not." Washington was certainly a good man, but throughout his presidency he, like most of the nation's founders, went to church only on special occasions. When the Continental Congress in 1776 declared a day of fasting and prayer "to confess and bewail our manifold sins... through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ," Washington omitted the reference to Christ when reading the document to his troops.

Myth #5: The "Liberty Bell", installed in Independence Hall with the inscription proclaiming "Liberty throughout the land" rang out on July 4 as crowds cheered the announcement of the colonies' independence.

Neither the bell nor its inscription, mounted in the Pennsylvania State House in 1753 (well before any battle for independence), had anything to do with the Revolution, and there is no evidence that it was ever rung to celebrate the Declaration. It was George Lippard who in 1847 published the current story in his book called "Legends of the American Revolution". It was first referred to as the "Liberty Bell" by abolitionists in the 1830's and only later became an American shrine.

Note: I welcome hearing of any reliable sources that may add to or counter any of the above items, which were drawn mostly from Richard Shenkman's book, Legends, Lies And Cherished Myths Of American History, complete with twenty pages of end notes. Shenkman's book became the basis for the series of programs on "Myth America" on the Learning Channel.
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