Most Americans go about their daily lives thinking they know their patriotic historical facts. Those details that were faithfully taught to them when they were in school. But here are FIVE curious and commonly mistaken facts about American history:
1. American Independence Day is not July 4th
During the American Revolution, independence from Britain actually occurred on July 2nd, 1776. This is when the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to approve a Resolution of Independence, declaring the 13 Colonies free from Great Britain. The vote was passed 12 to 1, with New York delegates abstaining. After the vote in the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall), Congress then turned its attention to the actual paper Declaration of Independence, they would all sign. It had been prepared by Thomas Jefferson and the ‘Committee of Five,’ including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence over 17 days from the 2nd floor room he’d rented in a private home in Philadelphia. July 3rd was spent with the Congress debating the language of the final declaration and deleting a quarter of Jefferson’s draft. Every member of Congress signed the document on the 4th of July. John Hancock signed first, as President of the Congress. It was a somber rather than celebratory event as each person knew they were committing treason in the eyes of the British Crown, punishable by hanging. After a day for printing, the first newspaper published the Declaration on July 6th and the first public reading took place in Philadelphia on July 8th.
2. U.S. Pledge of Allegiance started in 1942
The American Pledge of Allegiance was NOT instituted by our Founding Fathers as many assume. The text was in fact written a century later in 1892 by a socialist Baptist minister from New York state named Francis Bellamy. Bellamy believed in the equal distribution of resources, which mirrored the teachings of Jesus Christ. The magazine Youth’s Companion published it for the World Columbian Exposition, hence its first adoption by school children. A firm believer in the separation of church and state, Bellamy did not include any reference to God.
In 1902, the Daughters of the American Revolution added “to the flag” to Bellamy’s pledge. The pledge was not adopted as the official Pledge of Allegiance until 1942, in the midst of World War II with Germany and Japan. It was then that a raised arm salute to the flag was replaced with holding a hand over one’s heart. Leaders felt a raised arm was too close to the infamous Nazi’s salute to Adolf Hitler. It was not until 1954, during the Cold War, when “under God” was further added by President Dwight Eisenhower to counteract the atheist Communists of the Soviet Union and Red China. Interestingly, legal challenges to school children reciting the pledge is not a modern occurrence. It goes all the way back to the 1940s, when Jehovah Witnesses objected and filed the first lawsuits.
3. American National Anthem began in 1931
The National Anthem of the United States is of course the famous Star Spangled Banner. Most Americans know that the words were composed by (35-year-old lawyer) Francis Scott Key from a British ship anchored in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812 with Britain. He observed the American flag flying valiantly over a Baltimore fort following a heavy British bombardment. Key was moved to write his famous poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” on the back of an envelope. The fort’s flag had only 15 stars and 15 stripes back then.
But did you know the tune was actually a 40-year-old British Men’s Social Club song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” written by Englishman John Stafford Smith? Key’s brother-in-law is the one who realized the poem matched the tune, and it was published as The Star Spangled Banner by war’s end in 1814. Bands played it for decades, but NOT as the national anthem. The tune was adopted by military bands in the 1890’s, and then famously played at the first game of the 1918 World Series Baseball tournament. America the Beautiful almost became the national anthem, were it not for the VFW, who lobbied heavily for the SSB. In 1931, then President Herbert Hoover signed the bill proclaiming The Star Spangled Banner as the U.S. National Anthem.
4. The Motto of the U.S. changed
The original motto of the United States was not “In God We Trust” that we see on every minted coin and printed bill today. That is a relatively new creation. In 1782, our Founding Fathers adopted the Great Seal of the United States containing the words, E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of Many, One.” A banner with those words is clasped in the mouth of a bald eagle with its wings spread, bearing a red, white, and blue shield of 13 stars and stripes. The reverse side bears the recognizable unfinished pyramid, topped by the “Eye of Providence.” And that’s the way the motto stood for almost 200 years.
The phrase “In God We Trust” comes from the Bible’s Psalm 115 and first became popular during the U.S. Civil War amongst both Union and Confederate supporters. Fast forward to the next century and we see Republican President Teddy Roosevelt opposing its adoption in U.S. currency, citing separation of church and state. But the pubic was against him and we slowly see it minted in all U.S. coins by 1938. BUT, it still was not the official U.S. motto. That is, until the 1950’s again, when the Cold War inspired its usage on postage stamps to counter the ‘Red Threat’ of atheist Communism. It was not until 1956 that a joint resolution of Congress declared “In God We Trust” as the National Motto of the U.S.
5. U.S. Bill of Rights
The famous Bill of Rights was NOT a part of the original U.S. Constitution, but was rather an afterthought. The lacking Articles of Confederation of 1777 gave most power to the states and created a weak central government, with little decision making or enforcement authority. A Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall ten years later in 1787 to draft a revised U.S. “Constitution.” The Virginia Plan, written by James Madison, won out in the end. It created a split Congress (House and Senate) and separation of powers into three branches (Executive, Legislative and Judicial). Congress ratified it a year later in 1788 by 9 of 14 states.
But Madison, and the new 1st President George Washington, knew this compromise Constitution was still lacking when it came to individual rights. So, the First U.S. Congress met in New York City’s Federal Hall in 1789 to debate Madison’s nine proposed amendments. Twelve articles were eventually approved by a contentious Constitutional Congress by the end of the summer, and 10 of them ratified by three quarters of the states in 1792. They became the first 10 Amendments, know today as The Bill of Rights. They ensured freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, to name a few of those rights, in just the First Amendment, not to mention the contentious Second Amendment.
So perhaps you learned something new today, or maybe, you knew them all along and just forgot. In today’s social media culture of instant fake news, false scandals, and endless conspiracy theories – from both sides – let us hope the TRUE historical facts are never twisted or forgotten.