July 4th is the perfect time to review our American history. You may think you know everything about our nation's birth, but you may be mistaken.
For example, while July 4th celebrates the birth of our nation, contrary to popular belief, the Continental Congress did not declare American independence or sign the Declaration of Independence on that date in 1776. Our forefathers actually declared independence on July 2, 1776, approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, and signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776. However, Congress did not declare July 4th, the date included in the Declaration, a national holiday until 1870.
Each year, tourists flock to Philadelphia to visit the home of Betsy Ross, “mother” of the American flag, but there is no credible evidence that the legendary seamstress had any hand at all in creating our nation's flag. Betsy's association with the flag first surfaced in 1870 when her grandson, William Canby, informed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania that George Washington had asked Betsy to craft the first flag. Canby's proof, however, was purely anecdotal. While Ross was a gifted seamstress, historians have been unable to substantiate Canby's claim.
Betsy Ross is not the only revolutionary figure steeped in myth; the version of Paul Revere's midnight ride commonly recreated by school children across the country is largely inaccurate. In 1775, colonial Americans still considered themselves British; it is highly unlikely then that Revere galloped on horseback through the streets shouting “the British are coming!” If he shouted anything at all, it may have been “the Regulars (British soldiers) are coming!” On the date of his famous ride, April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was accompanied by two other men, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. The trio was later joined by as many as 40 riders on horseback, yet it is Paul Revere who is given sole credit.
With the aforementioned myths dispelled, we turn now to historic trivia, equally untrue. We'll never know if George Washington could not tell a lie, but we do know his teeth were not his best feature. Contrary to popular legend, however, Washington's dentures were not made of wood. Forensic laser scans of Washington's false teeth revealed them to be composed of elephant and walrus ivory, human teeth, and those of horses and cows (no wonder he isn't smiling in his portrait).
And good old Ben Franklin, regardless of what we were taught in grade school, did not discover electricity by flying a kite during a thunderstorm. Rather, Franklin hoped to prove the electrical nature of lightening by flying a silk kite with a metal key on the end. Franklin touched the key and felt a charge from the accumulated electricity in the air, but had the kite been struck by lightening, Franklin probably would have been killed.
John Adams once remarked that Americans do not appreciate history – perhaps, I think, because what we know of it is often inaccurate. The truth is far more interesting.