MYTHS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

                   [Ontario Inland Bulletin, 7/6/2003]



Critics have been unusually harsh on the teaching of American history 
lately.  Diane Ravitch continues to make a living with her ranting on the 
subject.  James Loewen tours the lecture circuit denouncing American 
history texts.  Even the president has made it clear that he doesn't think 
our kids are learning enough about the nation's history.  Baloney!

The truth is that most critics, especially those on the right, are 
perfectly happy to have grade schoolers taught the old myths their elders 
grew up with:  Washington and the cherry tree and similar canards.  The 
myths we all learned about today's holiday are a case in point.  Here are 
some of them:

* Independence was declared on July 4, 1776.  Not so.  The resolution 
declaring the United Colonies free and independent states was adopted on 
July 2.  Jefferson's formal Declaration, stating the reasons for that 
action, was approved on July 4.

* Members of the Continental Congress signed Jefferson's Declaration on 
July 4. Wrong again.  There was no signing until August, when the engrossed 
copy was ready for signatures.

* The famous John Trumbull painting, reproduced during the Bicentennial on 
the two dollar bill, depicts the signing of the document.  Even though the 
Treasury department claimed that when it issued upon the new bill, Trumbull 
intended the painting to represent Congress adopting, not signing, the 
Declaration.

* Following the signing, Ben Franklin turned to John Hancock and said: "We 
must all hang together , or assuredly we shall all hang separately."  For 
years it appeared in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, but there is no 
evidence that Franklin ever said that to anyone.  Carter Braxton, another 
signer, had said something similar to that several months earlier in 
discussing independence, but even he took no credit for originating the 
phrase.

* John Adams called for annual celebrations on July 4.  Yes, he did write 
in a letter to Abigail that this day "... will be the most memorable epoch 
in the history of American.  It will be celebrated by succeeding 
generations as the great anniversary Festival.... It ought to be solemnized 
with pomp and parades, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and 
illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time 
forward, forevermore."  But Adams was writing about July 2, the adoption of 
Lee's Resolution, not about July 4.

* Independence was unanimously adopted on July 2.  Wrong again.  The title 
of the engrossed copy of Jefferson's Declaration reads "The unanimous 
Declaration... "  But it wasn't unanimous at all.  Not all delegates to the 
Congress voted for independence.  Not all states supported Lee's resolution 
on July 2 or Jefferson's Declaration on July 4. New York abstained and did 
not give its consent to Lee's Resolution until July 9.  Even among those 
states that did give immediate support to the Resolution several delegates 
were opposed to the action and some of them left the Congress.

* The Declaration created a new nation, the United States of America.  The 
other myths are harmless enough, but this one shows a gross 
misunderstanding of the intent of the Continental Congress in July, 1776.  
Actually, the Declaration refers not to a single national government but to 
thirteen separate independent states united in a common cause to seek 
independence from Britain.  A careful reading of the closing section of 
Jefferson's Declaration makes it very clear that each state was recognized 
as holding the powers of a sovereign nation.  It would be several more 
years before a national government, in the form of the Articles of 
Confederation, would be approved, leaving great power to the states.

These myths, however, are so ingrained that it is unlikely that an op-ed by 
an obscure retired professor will have any impact in correcting the 
nation's misinterpretation of today's significance.

                            - - -

[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be 
reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu]