The Fourth Of July And Other Myths Of Independence What actually happened on Independence Day? Did the rebels really wait until they saw the whites of British eyes at Bunker Hill? Historian Ray Raphael helps us debunk some of America's most popular — and believed — national creation myths.

The Fourth Of July And Other Myths Of Independence

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(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: The British are coming, the British are coming.

GUY RAZ, host:

Historian Ray Raphael has spent years unearthing some of the myths of the American Revolution. His book is called "Founding Myths." And so on this Fourth of July, we asked him to highlight some of them and also to truth-squad this 1976 song about the revolution from Schoolhouse Rock. So here goes.

(Soundbite of song, "Shot Heard 'Round the World")

Mr. BOB DOROUGH (Singer): (Singing) Now, the ride of Paul Revere set the nation on its ear...

RAZ: Okay, you can stop. The British are coming, the British are coming, Paul Revere set the nation on its ear. Myth or fact?

Mr. RAY RAPHAEL (Author, "Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past"): That would be a myth.

RAZ: Okay, let's continue.

(Soundbite of song, "Shot Heard 'Round the World")

Mr. DOROUGH: (Singing) When the British fired in the early dawn, the war of independence had begun, the die was cast, the rebel flag unfurled.

RAZ: Okay, pause. When the British fired in the early dawn, the war of independence had begun, the rebel flag unfurled.

Mr. RAPHAEL: Flag unfurled, heavens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAPHAEL: I'll have to go with myth.

RAZ: Okay, carry on.

(Soundbite of song, "Shot Heard 'Round the World")

Mr. DOROUGH: (Singing) Now, at famous Bunker Hill, even though we lost, it was quite a thrill. The rebel Colonel Prescott proved he was wise. Outnumbered and low on ammunition, as the British stormed his position, he said: Hold your fire till you see the whites of their eyes.

Mr. RAPHAEL: That's still in dispute today, and there's a big story behind it.

RAZ: So myth and fact?

Mr. RAPHAEL: Myth and fact. Okay, Ray Raphael, let's move on to some other myths. It is, of course, Fourth of July. You say this isn't even the right day to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. RAPHAEL: Well, no, it is the right day to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. It's not the right day to celebrate the signing of the declaration or the right day to celebrate independence. The vote for independence was on July 2nd - two days before - and the first signing of the declaration was not until August 2 - a month later.

RAZ: Why do we celebrate on the Fourth of July? Is this something that we invented for a reason?

Mr. RAPHAEL: Well, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife Abigail on the third of July, the day after they voted for independence, and saying the Second of July will always be remembered and will be celebrated with parades and illuminations and patriotic speeches...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Ah, poor John Adams.

Mr. RAPHAEL: ...(unintelligible). And, I mean, he described the Fourth of July to the tee, but he called it the Second of July with good reason because that's when we became an independent nation.

July Fourth was when the Declaration of Independence got sent outwards into the States to be read. And it was under the date line July 4th, and so that's how July 2nd became July 4th.

RAZ: Many of us who have been to Bunker Hill, a wonderful place in Boston, a beautiful square, know the story of Colonel Prescott telling the rebels not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes, the British, of course, he's referring to. This is not true?

Mr. RAPHAEL: He might have said that and then other people say, well, Putnam might have said that. And I'll tell you why they might have, because people had been saying it for years. It was a very common saying back in colonial times.

RAZ: Did they mean it literally? They mean it literally: Don't fire on the British until you see the whites of their eyes?

Mr. RAPHAEL: If they meant that literally, we would have been absolutely overrun. You can try this experiment. Go have somebody charge at you...

RAZ: With a gun.

Mr. RAPHAEL: ...full-bore with a gun, shooting at you with all the dust. See when you see the whites of their eyes. It's going to be within five yards.

RAZ: You would be dead.

Mr. RAPHAEL: They can if they haven't fired, they can pretty much reach out their bayonet and stab you.

RAZ: Okay. We're obviously sticking with the Boston area because this is, of course, where it all began. Paul Revere anybody again who has been to Boston has been to the Old North Church, probably, where, you know, where that ride began.

Mr. RAPHAEL: Listen my children, and you shall hear...

RAZ: That's right.

Mr. RAPHAEL: ...of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Now, those lines and that story was concocted 86 years after the fact, by Longfellow, who was trying to issue a call to arms for the Civil War. And, in fact, Paul Revere was he was one of many riders that night. He never looked at those signal lanterns. But we have this image, this entire revolutionary...

RAZ: One by land, two by sea.

Mr. RAPHAEL: Yeah, one if by land, two if by sea. And Longfellow's poem has him and his horse, the only two characters in the poem, sitting there waiting for that lantern. Well, that was somebody else waiting for the lantern. And he was he took an entirely different route, and that somebody else just rode off and disappeared from history. We have no idea where they went.

RAZ: Ray Raphael, why do these myths persist? I mean, we know what they are. We know that they're not true. And yet we still repeat them and basically believe them.

Mr. RAPHAEL: Well, one reason we believe them is that they're good stories. They were meant for kids, and that's where we still learn them. We learn them in our textbooks.

And they have clear characters, you know, we can identify with. A child can't remember, you know, the whole host of characters that made the revolution, but he can remember George Washington, Paul Revere, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, a handful of individuals. And most of us really have ingrained our history from that childhood experience, and we just don't move beyond it.

RAZ: That's Ray Raphael. He's a historian and author of 13 books, including "Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past." His latest is called "Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation."

Ray Raphael, thank you so much, and happy Fourth of July.

Mr. RAPHAEL: And happy Second of July, the nation's birthday, July 2, 1776.

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