EVERY FOURTH OF JULY, A LOT OF LIP service is paid to the United States, its Constitution, its ideology, its citizens, its history, and its flag. There usually isn’t much nuance to this talk — America is a complicated, strange place, and it’s identity is built on shifting myths. So when you sit at your barbecue and watch the fireworks with a beer in hand, try and remember this: America is a complicated place, and a lot of the stories we tell ourselves are exaggerated, incomplete, or untrue. Here are some of the ways how.
July 4th isn’t really Independence Day.
The colonies actually declared their independence on July 2nd, 1776. The 4th is recognized because it was generally believed to be the day the actual document of the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed, but now, historians believe that most of the Founder’s did not sign the document until August.
America’s borders have never been definite.
Alaska and Hawaii were only added to the Union in 1959, easily in the memory of large chunks of our population, and Puerto Rico’s statehood is a constant possibility. On the other hand, the US has changed significantly over time — California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas once belonged to Mexico, much of the Great Plains belonged to France, and the states of Washington and Oregon were originally imagined by Thomas Jefferson as being not part of the United States, but rather as being separate, allied states. At the same time, there are many secessionist movements in the United States, from Vermont to Texas to Hawaii to the Conch Republic.
We were never meant to be thought of as a single country.
It’s in the title of our country: The United States of America. Elsewhere in the world, “state” is synonymous with “country,” and even in America, we refer to the national government as the “state.” Before there was the U.S. Constitution, there was the Articles of Confederation, which created a much looser alliances between the states. Since then, this argument — about just how independent states should be — has been at the center of our only Civil War and is still at the core of some of our most contentious political arguments. Is it “One Nation, Under God”? Or is it many?
”Yankee Doodle” was originally written as an insult to Americans.
You will hear the ubiquitous “Yankee Doodle” about 500 times this weekend, and mostly on commercials for Fourth of July sales. But what most Americans do not know is that this song, which is synonymous with the revolution, was actually created by British soldiers to mock American colonists. The character Yankee Doodle was supposed to be a classic American yokel who thought that putting a feather in his cap would make him fancy (a “macaroni” was a British slang term for a cultured man at the time). American colonists thought it was catchy and reappropriated the song for themselves.
While Americans have been involved in a lot of wars, we’ve actually had relatively few military deaths compared to many other countries.
The United States has had no shortages of wars and conflicts, but unlike many other countries, we’ve managed to avoid the worst bloodshed: from 1775 till now, a little under 1,355,000 Americans have died as a result of wars or conflicts. The bulk of that — around 750,000 — was during the Civil War, with the next runner up being World War II, where over 405,000 Americans died.
While these numbers are still terribly high, they’re actually low compared to many other developed countries: in World War II alone, eight countries (the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, Poland, Yugoslavia, India, the Dutch East Indies, China, and French Indochina) had more deaths than we have had in our entire history as a country. The United Kingdom, Italy, and France had more war deaths in the two World Wars combined than we’ve ever had. So while you’re singing the song “God Bless America,” keep in mind that, if there is a god, he most certainly already has.
We owe our Independence to France.
While today, France is the butt of jokes of many American jokes about surrender and socialism the superpower actually was instrumental in helping the colonies gain their freedom. Britain was France’s primary rival, and when the colonies declared Independence, the French declared war on Britain and provided the Americans with arms and financial support, as well as lending the strength of their military.
On top of this military help, a few decades later, Napoleon sold his entire American territory in the U.S. to Thomas Jefferson for incredibly cheap in the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country. Even the most iconic American symbol — the Statue of Liberty — was a centennial present from France. So before you sneer at our French counterparts, remember: we owe them a lot.
It has been less than a century since women weren’t allowed to vote.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement did not actually succeed until 1920. That means that this country has been a true democracy for only 95 years — less if you consider how difficult it was to vote as a black person in the south before the 1960’s.