The people who founded this nation aren't moldy mannequins in history's closet — they're inspirational figures for modern America as we celebrate the Fourth of July holiday. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently said he had a "man crush" on Alexander Hamilton, and Sarah Palin got into a debate about Paul Revere. So here's to life, liberty and the pursuit of historical trivia:
1 Paul Revere did not shout "The British are coming!" Stop and think about it — he was a British subject at the time. In fact, he said the "regulars" were coming — regular uniformed troops. But regulars had one too many syllables for poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
3 The phrase "Founding Father" is widely credited to President Warren Harding, who said it at the 1916 Republican National Convention in Chicago when he was still a senator. (And by Harding, we mean Judson Welliver, a campaign aide who wrote his speeches.)
4 Phillis Wheatley, whose first name came from the slave ship that brought her from Africa as a child, was too frail for housework but brilliant at poetry. She wrote patriotic verse honoring George Washington and was welcomed at his headquarters — a remarkable meeting considering she was a slave and he a slaveowner. (Four of the first five U.S. presidents owned slaves, the exception being John Adams.)
5 You probably haven't heard of Button Gwinnett unless you're an avid autograph collector. The Georgia politician, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, died violently during the Revolutionary War — but in a duel, not while fighting the British. That early demise makes his signature quite rare, and some say it's the most valuable of any American's. A Gwinnett letter fetched $722,500 at auction last year.
6 Francis Hopkinson, another signer, most likely designed the U.S. flag, the Stars and Stripes. He was never paid, though, and in 1780 he asked the government for "a quarter cask of the public wine" as a "reasonable reward." He never got it.
7 Speaking of American flags, there's little reason to think Betsy Ross sewed the first one. Her legend gained popularity long after the purported events, when her grandson addressed a Philadelphia historical group in 1870 and presented relatives' sworn statements that they had heard Ross tell the story.
8 Like the Ross legend, the Molly Pitcher story was popularized many decades after the fact. But the tale of a woman operating a cannon in place of her fallen husband matches the real exploits of at least two women: Mary Ludwig Hays at the battle of Monmouth and Margaret Corbin at the battle of Fort Washington. The badly wounded Corbin was the first woman to earn a U.S. military pension.
9 Samuel Adams wasn't such a good brewer (he ran his family's business into the ground), but he was a tireless revolutionary. One of the earliest colonists to argue for independence, he wrote hundreds of letters to newspapers promoting the cause. And he signed the letters with myriad fake names so it appeared the countryside was teeming with rebels.
10 What battlefield commander was most vital to American victory in the Revolution? Probably Benedict Arnold. His audacious attacks in upstate New York and Canada protected New England early in the war, and the victory at Saratoga (in which he suffered a grievous leg wound) led to the alliance with the French that made all the difference. OK, so Arnold later committed treason. Nobody's perfect.
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the Tribune's weekend editor.
Sources: "Politics: Observations & Arguments; 1966-2004" by Hendrik Hertzberg; "For You They Signed" by Marilyn Boyer; "Flag: An American Biography" by Marc Leepson; "Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence" by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese; "Stupid History" by Leland Gregory; "Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow; "Molly Pitcher: Heroine of the War for Independence" by Rachel A. Koestler-Grack; Gleaves Whitney of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at gvsu.edu; poetryfoundation.org; betsyrosshouse.org; snopes.com; britannica.com; San Diego Union Tribune.