The Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This is an undisputed ‘truth’ printed in every American history book. Ask any U.S. citizen the date of our independence and few will have trouble providing the correct answer.
Before you break out the fireworks, consider the details lost in the history of this historical myth. The document does, in fact, bear the July 4th date, but the actual vote took place on July 2nd. Also, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin did not stand in front of John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, to sign their — well, ‘John Hancocks.’ There was never an official group signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The famous John Trumbull painting (above) wasn’t commissioned until 1817 — more than four decades after the event. More to the point, the war between the Colonies and Great Britain raged on for another seven years before independence from England was finally granted. Britain’s King George III and U.S. leaders signed the Definitive Treaty of Peace on September 3, 1783 — a not-so-celebrated date in history.
It is not so much that the myth of America’s Fourth of July is false. More accurately, the story told is a selection of partial truths. The celebration of Independence Day is representative of a much bigger picture, neatly packaged for the history books and grade-school teachers.
However convenient this historical myth might be, the gap between what is true and what is false — what is correct and what is inaccurate — is the same gap that hinders our ability to fully appreciate our past. What doesn’t get told is often more symbolic than the tale itself. We usually hear the easy version and not the arduous, meaningful version.
“So what?” you might say. The writers of history were comfortable in abbreviating the story and since it doesn’t change the outcome, what’s the big deal? The signers may not have all come together at the same time, but a celebratory signing makes for better ‘historical theater’ and a more entertaining history lesson in our schools.
These are valid points. Just keep in mind that this type of ‘creative license’ is taken in almost every myth, from every culture, in both ancient and modern times. It is said that the winners write the history books. A little stretch of the truth here, a dash of heightened drama there.
Myths which are believed in, tend to become true. ~George Orwell
We each command our own version of reality — including writers. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, Ken Burns asserts, “All story is manipulation.” The storyteller moves the audience one way or another.
That’s not to say this historic myth doesn’t move us in the direction of the common good. America’s 4th of July is an easy to understand, patriotic celebration of this country’s founding. No harm done.
The rest of the story
What may be more alarming than creative license is what is left out of the story. Seldom are events or facts intentionally left out to misinform or misdirect the reader or audience. Rather, they are usually omitted in the interest of space and time. Nonetheless, the rest of the story can have a significant impact on the ‘moral of the story.’
Radio commentator and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Paul Harvey felt so strongly about what writers left out that he titled his daily radio show, The Rest of the Story. Carried on more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, Harvey shared the rest of the Declaration of Independence story in a segment called: “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor.”
We know of the contributions and influences of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in the founding of America. The remaining members of the Second Continental Congress who signed the declaration, however, don’t really make it into the history books. The individual contributions and heroic sacrifices of these fifty-six men were so dramatic they changed the course of history.
It is important to remember the signers of the document and the colonists supporting these revolutionaries, were sticking their necks out attempting to overthrow a sitting government. Even if by some miracle they were able to prevail and break free from the British Empire, they would travel a long and hard road of trials building a new country. If they failed, which was the more likely scenario, these fifty-six rebels would have their necks fitted with His Majesty’s Royal noose and hanged for treason.
Despite the challenges, hardships and losses to be suffered — regardless of the outcome — they bravely placed their signatures below the final sentence of the declaration which read, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Fifty-six men and their families crossed a monumental threshold, risked everything, and did — indeed — pay an enormous price. In the years of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), there was not a single signer of the Declaration of Independence who would escape the ordeal to which they had committed.
Some continued to serve in Congress without pay, living in poverty while hiding their families from the British. Others were not so fortunate. Entire estates were wiped out, family members imprisoned, and sons killed in the war. Their homes were looted, their properties pillaged and many died penniless to be buried in unmarked graves. Some were captured by British troops and tortured before dying.
…he returned to find his wife dead, his children gone, and his home in ruins.
John Hart, the delegate from New Jersey, fled into hiding after being forced to leave the bedside of his dying wife, Deborah. His children ran from the Redcoats in various directions, and his property was laid to waste. At the end of the war, he returned to find his wife dead, his children gone, and his home in ruins. He died a few weeks later with no reason to live.
These fifty-six men were not troublemakers looking to make a name for themselves. They were not poor or destitute individuals with nothing to lose. They were not vigilantes or mercenaries in it for the glory. They were landowners and respected businessmen answering the call of a new nation. They could have remained anonymous in their prosperous lifestyles and used their wealth to purchase safety and security. Instead, they stepped up and stood by their beliefs, a conviction that liberty is more important than security, no matter the cost.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence began paying the price on that fateful day in Philadelphia when they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Pledge honored. Paid in full. Freedom won.
The rest of the story — the full story — can be incredibly important and meaningful. The enormous cost paid by these men and their families goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated by generations of Americans.
Does knowing the story behind the story alter your view of America’s founding fathers? Do you cherish your freedom a little more and take it for granted a little less? I know I do.
Our fast-paced, quick cut style of storytelling — especially in today’s digital media — doesn’t accommodate the luxury of telling the full story. Audiences won’t tolerate it and the younger the audience, the faster the pace must be.
This is why we prefer our history to be brief, quick, and easy. As a society, we’ve found it necessary to endorse convenience over completeness — historical theater over historical thoughtfulness. In my view, that’s what’s wrong with this picture.