In the classic movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one of the characters offers the statement “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Although the line was meant to reflect the Wild West, it could also apply to the American Revolution – rarely has a historic event come down through the years with strange legends that have been embraced as unimpeachable fact.
To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday weekend, here are 10 of the weirdest facts about the American Revolution that are far more interesting than the bland legends that obscured them.
Paul Revere’s Companions: Most Americans are familiar with the tale of how the Massachusetts silversmith Paul Revere rode through the night yelling “The British are coming!” as an alert to the American colonial militia ahead of the battles of Lexington and Concord. While Revere’s heroism is not in historic doubt, most people don’t realize he didn’t act alone.
In fact, three other men – William Dawes, Samuel Prescott and Israel Bissell were also riding that night alerting their countrymen of the coming attack. Unfortunately for them, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow omitted them from his 1861 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which beatified Revere while dooming his fellow patriots to generations of obscurity.
An Unlikely Breakthrough: When the American colonists went to war against the British, tens of thousands of Black enslaved people escaped from their captivity and joined the British, who pledged them freedom in exchange for their military service. This resulted in the first all-Black military battalion organized in America: The Ethiopian Regiment, which fought in 1775 and 1776 under the command of Lord Dunmore.
For the Americans fighting the British, having former Black slaves fighting as free men against them was a source of outrage. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence cited this situation when it blamed the Crown for having “excited domestic Insurrections among us.”
Author? Author?: And speaking of the Declaration of Independence, one legend that has completely covered up a weird fact concerns its authorship – contrary to popular belief, Thomas Jefferson was not the sole author of the text.
In fact, Jefferson was part of a five-man committee that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. While it is known that Jefferson authored the first draft, it is unclear what edits and alterations the other four men made before it was submitted to the Continental Congress where the delegates heavily edited the work – the finished document was at least one-quarter shorter than the version created by the committee.
An Ironic Champion Of Freedom: The Continental Congress delegate from Maryland known as Charles Carroll of Carrollton had the distinction of being the only Roman Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the only one barred from elected office.
In 1704, Maryland’s colonial legislature passed a law barring Catholics from holding office. Carroll, a wealthy landowner, became a prominent opponent of British colonial rule and helped organize Maryland’s pro-independence factions. Although he signed the Declaration of Independence, he was only elected to become a Maryland delegate to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 – which leads us to our next weird fact.
Sign At The X: In popular imagination, the entire Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, which secured that date as Independence Day. But that’s not what happened.
When the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration, there was no legal need for the delegates to immediately sign it. John Hancock, in his role as President of the Congress, was the sole signatory to the original paper document. Most of the congressional delegates signed in on Aug. 2, 1776, and some of those signatories were not involved in its passage. The last signature to the document came from New Hampshire’s Matthew Thornton on Nov. 4, 1776, shortly after he joined the Congress.
Another Country: The American Revolution created two independent nations: The United States of America and the Vermont Republic. Yes, little Vermont was once its own country.
Because of a territorial dispute with New York, Vermont was excluded from the Continental Congress and was not one of the original ex-colonies to form the United States. Unwelcomed by the newly formed breakaway country, the State of Vermont declared its independence on Jan. 15, 1777. But no other country would recognize it, and on March 4, 1791, it agreed to become the 14th state within the United States.
Breaking The Diplomatic Ice: While the European powers were delighted that their British rivals were engaged in a costly war against their American colonies, none were immediately eager to grant diplomatic recognition to the breakaway nation. As a result, the first country to recognize the new United States came from an unlikely corner.
On Dec. 20, 1777, the Kingdom of Morocco became the first country to recognize United States independence when Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah gave permission for ships sailing under the American flag to enter his nation’s ports. But Morocco’s generosity was unknown to the Americans until Benjamin Franklin, then serving as the U.S. emissary to France, received word of the sultan’s outreach in April 1778; the two countries would not sign formal papers of diplomatic ties until 1787.
The Flag Hag: Most Americans associate Betsy Ross with the creation of the U.S. flag. However, there is no evidence that this Philadelphia seamstress was either commissioned to create a national flag or crafted one on her own initiative.
Ross’ intrusion into vexillology was the work of her grandson, William J. Canby, who put forth a research paper in 1870 that claimed Ross’ flag was embraced by Gen. George Washington. At the time, there were very few women who were widely known as American Revolution heroes, and the Ross story was quickly repeated as an example of womanhood’s contribution to American freedom. Today, no historian accepts the Ross tale, although mention of her name still resonates with many Americans for her alleged flag-making.
The Making Of A Traitor: In April 1781, an enslaved Black man known only as Billy was indicted for allegedly joining the British forces to fight against the Americans. For this act of treason, prosecutors sought his conviction and execution.
However, two jury members protested to Thomas Jefferson, who was then Governor of Virginia, to grant Billy clemency. They argued that since his enslavement status denied him citizenship in the state, he had no legal allegiance to the state and could not be convicted of being a traitor. Jefferson agreed and granted a temporary reprieve, with the state legislature later pardoning him. What became of Billy afterwards is unknown.
Photo: William Daniels as John Adams in the 1972 film version of “1776,” courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
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