Every July 4 Americans celebrate their freedom with fireworks, barbecues and family gatherings, honoring the day in 1776 that the founders affirmed their independence from Britain. But the story of America’s independence is more complicated, with many details obscured by myths and legends that emerged in the decades that followed the American Revolution.
Here are five things about the American you may not know about July 4, 1776 and the struggle for freedom that followed:
The Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, actually voted for independence on July 2, a date that future President John Adams told his wife would be celebrated “as the great anniversary festival” across the land. But the document justifying the break with Britain — known as the Declaration of Independence — wasn’t formally adopted by the Congress until July 4. Pamphlets announcing the break were distributed throughout the colonies, bearing the date of July 4, 1776. So even before the advent of mass media and cable TV news, it was the press release — rather than the event itself — that stuck in the public’s mind.
But the Declaration was signed on July 4, right?
Wrong. The Founding Fathers were stuck on ceremony, and first the declaration had to be sent to the printer so a proper document could be prepared for signature. Some of the delegates left Philadelphia before the printer could finish his work. Others believed they needed authorization from their colonial assembles before they could sign. Historians believe most of the delegates waited nearly a month to put their signatures on the document.
Did Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration?
The future American president did most of the heavy lifting, crafting his draft by hand over more than two weeks. But Jefferson was part of a five-member committee that drafted the declaration. The committee also included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who were not shrinking violets when it came to editing. And the Continental Congress revised substantial parts of the draft, much to Jefferson’s irritation. In writing the draft, Jefferson himself acknowledged that he had borrowed heavily from similar declarations which were floating around the rebellious colonies, most notably George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Human Rights. Mason’s draft proclaimed: ''All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, ... among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty…” Among portions that the Continental Congress struck from the draft was a condemnation of the slave trade as "a cruel war against human nature.” Those words were penned by Jefferson, who was ironically a slave owner.
Did most colonists support the revolution?
In fact, the colonists were deeply divided. Many considered themselves Englishmen. Although many were dissatisfied with British rule, their complaints were directed more against Parliament than King George III. Many recent immigrants from Germany, France and Switzerland took seriously the oath of loyalty to the Crown which they had to sign in return for granting them refuge from religious oppression back home. British authorities estimated that 15 to 20 percent of all colonists supported the Crown while many others wanted to stay out of the conflict entirely, according to British records at the National Army Museum in London. Although records are incomplete, up to 50,000 colonists are believed to have served in British militias at various times in the war. Support for the Crown was especially strong in the southern colonies, where the Revolution assumed the character of a civil war pitting neighbor against neighbors. The 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain, which turned the tide in the South, was fought almost exclusively by colonists _ patriots on one side and loyalists commanded by a British officer on the other. Although many loyalists were expelled to Canada or elsewhere after the war, others got off with a small fine and a loyalty oath, and their descendants remain Americans to this day.
Did George Washington win the war at Yorktown?
Yes, but with a little help from his friends, the French. France, Britain’s longtime European rival, threw its support to the colonies and sent a 6,000-strong army in 1780 under the command of Count de Rochambeau. After spending the winter in Rhode Island, the combined American-French force massed outside of New York City, which the British expected them to attack. Instead, force slipped away and headed south, where a mixed British and German army under Lord Charles Cornwallis had moved to the Virginia harbor at Yorktown to resupply after a series of bruising fights in the Carolinas. But the French navy defeated the British fleet in the Battle of Chesapeake in September 1781, denying Cornwallis his much needed supplies. With the French navy in control of the waters, the Americans and the French laid siege to Yorktown. Cornwallis, running out of food and ammunition, surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781. That effectively ended the war, although the treaty formally ending the conflict was signed nearly two years later. The last British forces left the new country in December 1783. Washington went on to become America’s first president. Despite his humiliation at Yorktown, Cornwallis went on to greater successes, including governor-general of India where he died of a fever in 1805.