Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Debunking Our Historical Myths

"All history, so far as it is not supported by contemporary evidence, is romance." So observed Dr. Samuel Johnson to James Boswell, his biographer. No period of history has been subject to more romantic enhancement than the American Revolution.
Dr. Johnson's sage remark was brought to mind by the holiday we just observed. We should more properly call it:

America’s Erroneous Birthday
The Fourth of July is universally regarded as America's birthday. Some say because the Declaration of Independence was adopted on that date in 1776 in Philadelphia. Others say it marks the date on which the history-making document was signed by the members of that first Continental Congress. It may come as a surprise to discover that these are legends. Moreover, they are legends that have been given the ring of truth by several famous errors.
Not the least of these errors is John Trumbull's historically inaccurate painting, "The Declaration of Independence," which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and is reproduced on the obverse of the two-dollar bill.
In their old age, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both mistakenly recalled that the document had been signed on July 4th, adding to a fiction that apparently will not die. Despite its date of July 4th, the Continental Congress actually voted in favor of independence on July 2nd. Two days later it adopted the wording of Jefferson’s Declaration.
In New York, the colony’s Provincial Congress gave its assent on July 9th. At 6 p.m. that same day the Declaration was read to Washington's troops mustered in the Common (now City Hall Park). A rowdy crowd of soldiers and civilians then marched down Broadway to Bowling Green, where they toppled the equestrian statue of George III erected in 1770.  The head was put on a spike, and the rest of the statue, two tons of lead, was hauled to Connecticut to be made into musket balls for the use of Continental troops.
As for signing the document, Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration was not ordered to be engrossed (penned) on parchment until July 19, 1776--more than two weeks after the Fourth of July.
In fact, no one actually signed the document until August 2nd, when all delegates present did so. At least six of the 56 signatures were added later. Matthew Thornton from New Hampshire was not a member of the Continental Congress when the Declaration was drawn up. He was elected in the fall of 1776 and received permission to sign in November when he took his seat.
Thomas McKean, of Delaware, seems to have been the first to publicly challenge the idea that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th. McKean discovered that his name did not appear as a signer in the early printed journals of the Continental Congress and complained. The exact date of his signing is not known, but it probably was after Jan 18, 1777.
Four conservative members of the Continental Congress refused to sign the document on principle. These were John Dickinson of Pennsylvania; James Duane, who became a mayor of New York City (Duane Street is named for him); Robert R. Livingston (Robert Fulton’s future patron and partner); and John Jay, of Bedford, N.Y., later governor and first chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Some members of the Continental Congress never signed--for good reason: Generals George Washington, John Sullivan, Christopher Gadsden and George Clinton were all serving in the field. Fiery radical Patrick Henry did not sign; he had resigned precipitously from the Continental Congress in February of 1776 and returned to Virginia.
In British eyes, signing such a document represented a treasonable act, so delay on the part of any signers is understandable. When Lewis Morris, then third lord of the manor of Morrisania in Westchester (now part of the borough of the Bronx), was about to sign, he was reminded that doing so would risk death and confiscation of his manor, which lay in the path of the fighting.
 "Damn the consequences, give me the pen," he is said to have replied. He signed with a flourish; his Westchester estate was ravaged in retaliation. The homes of 15 of the signers of the Declaration were destroyed.

Who Created the Stars and Stripes?
June 14th is celebrated as Flag Day because on that date in 1776, Congress passed a resolution vaguely defining what the American flag should look like. It said, "Resolved that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." No specification was made for the arrangement of the stars.
Many authorities believe that the "Bennington Flag," flown at the battle of Bennington, Vt.,  in August of 1777, was the first to be carried by American ground forces in battle. Its blue field, nine stripes deep, has an arch of only 11 seven-pointed stars over the numerals "76," with two stars added at the top corners.
Unfortunately, the design of the Bennington flag does not meet the requirements of the Flag Resolution. A significant difference is that the top and bottom stripes are white, rather than the prescribed red.
Another claim is that the Stars and Stripes were first flown over Fort Stanwix (on the site of modern Rome, N.Y.), which held out against British Col. Barry St. Leger's raiding expedition into the Mohawk Valley in 1777. Marinus Willett supplied the makings of this flag from British uniforms he captured at Peekskill.
A flag historian later decided that this "was not the Stars and Stripes, but a flag of the same design as that raised by George Washington at Cambridge, Mass., on taking command of the Continental Army" on July 3, 1775.
That flag had 13 alternating red and white stripes and the joined crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in the canton (the rectangle at the upper corner next to the staff). Washington's Cambridge flag was a modified version of the British Meteor Flag, so named not for its design but because of the terror it supposedly struck in Britain's foes.
In the American version, six horizontal white stripes were imposed on its red field, thus forming 13 alternate red and white stripes.
According to a definitive history of the American flag, "while Congress never formally adopted it, this banner soon became known as the ‘Union Flag,' the 'Grand Union Flag,' the 'Congress Flag,' and the 'Colours of the United Colonies.’"
Other famous flags antedated the Flag Resolution. These included the Bunker Hill Flag (probably a red flag with a green tree in the canton); the Gadsden, or South Carolina Rattlesnake Flag ("Don't Tread on Me"); the New England Pine Tree Flag ("An Appeal to Heaven"); and the Crescent Flag, with a crescent moon in the upper left corner and the word "Liberty" emblazoned across the bottom), first flown at the siege of Charleston, S.C., in 1776.

Did Betsy Ross Sew the First Flag?
Don’t bet on it. Every schoolchild knows--and will proudly tell you--that Betsy Ross made the first American flag in Philadelphia for George Washington. According to the legend, Washington, Robert Morris--who raised money to finance the Continental Army--and George Ross, Betsy’s uncle, ordered it. The three were members of the Continental Congress; the date is supposed to have been in May of 1776, thus antedating the Flag Resolution.
But did this widowed upholsterer actually sew the first flag? Popularly called the "Betsy Ross pattern," the flag in question has 13 five-pointed white stars in a wreath, or circle, on a blue field, and with seven red and six white stripes.
Historians do not regard that flag as a serious contender for the honor of being the first American flag. Documentary evidence exists that Betsy was paid in 1777 for "making ships' colours, etc."
In fact, the story of the Betsy Ross flag did not surface until it was told in 1870, almost a hundred years after the event, by her grandson, William Canby, who claimed it was a family tradition.
Canby’s account was supported by affidavits offered by Betsy Ross's granddaughter, daughter and niece, which described, many years after the fact, how Betsy Ross recounted the story of her flag. But no contemporaneous records exist attesting to her primacy in the making of a 1776 flag.
One contemporary contender was poet and artist Francis Hopkinson. A signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, Hopkinson played a role in designing the seals of the American Philosophical Society, the State of New Jersey and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1780, Hopkinson wrote to the Admiralty Board that he was pleased they liked the seal he had designed for them, and requested recognition for this and "other devices" he itemized, including designs for Continental currency.
Topping his list, however, was his claim that he had created the "Stars and Stripes." Hopkinson petitioned Congress and requested only "a Quarter Cask of the public wine" for his "labours of fancy," evidence perhaps of his desire more for recognition than for payment. After much wrangling, his invoice was not paid because it lacked supporting vouchers. Congress decided in 1781 that too many people had worked on the design of the flag for any one person to be given credit as its creator.
Such fanciful distortions from the time of the Revolution only prove the truth of another of Samuel Johnson's remarks recorded by Boswell: "Many things which are false are transmitted from book to book and gain credit in the world."

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