Who would have guessed? Today’s post by Gwen Pearson (formerly “Bug Girl”) at Minifauna shows a clear connection between members of the order Diptera and the holiday Americans are celebrating today: the fourth of July, or “Independence Day.” That was the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress finally approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence, the formal notice that the colonies were separating from our tyrannical masters in the UK.
But July 4, 1776 wasn’t the day that the Continental Congress decided to declare independence (they did that on July 2, 1776).
It wasn’t the day we started the American Revolution either (that had happened back in April 1775).
And it wasn’t the day Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (that was in June 1776). Or the date on which the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain (that didn’t happen until November 1776). Or the date it was signed (that was August 2, 1776).
So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They’d been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitted on July 2nd and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.
July 4, 1776, became the date that was included on the Declaration of Independence, and the fancy handwritten copy that was signed in August (the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) It’s also the date that was printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original printed copies of the Declaration that were circulated throughout the new nation. So when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 was the date they remembered.
But Pearson puts an arthropodian spin on the event, describing what happened on that day when the delegates were putting the final touches in the document at Independence Hall (named later) in Philadelphia:
Someone opened the windows to let in a breeze… but as they were down the street from a stable, what actually came into Congress was blood-sucking flies.
Congressional Precedent established.
From Parton’s 1874 Life of Jefferson: (page 191):
“During the 2d, 3d, and 4th of July, Congress were engaged in reviewing the Declaration. Thursday, the fourth, was a hot day; the session lasted many hours; members were tired and impatient. Mr. Jefferson used to relate, with much merriment, that the final signing of the Declaration of Independence was hastened by an absurdly trivial cause.
Near the hall in which the debates were then held was a livery-stable, from which swarms of flies came into the open windows, and assailed the silk-stockinged legs of honorable members. Handkerchief in hand, they lashed the flies with such vigor as they could command on a July afternoon; but the annoyance became at length so extreme as to render them impatient of delay, and they made haste to bring the momentous business to a conclusion. “
As another historian put it, “treason was preferable to discomfort”, and members closed debate, hustled to sign, and exited stage left, pursued by horse flies.
Horse flies (Subfamily Tabaninae) are still common in the US. Horse and deer fly mouthparts are basically scissors and a sponge; they slash you and then lap up the blood that pools up. This is extremely painful. The amount of blood a horse fly can suck up varies, but 40 to 200 mg of blood seems to be the range of a single fly.
Why horseflies (Tabana atratus) instead of houseflies (Musca domestica)? My guess is because the delegates parked their horses outside the hall, and horses were everywhere in those times. Houseflies would not have been so annoying nor, I think, forced a hasty exit from the meeting.
Pearson also shows a painting portraying the event, not quite anatomically accurate (caption from Perason’s post):
Happy Fourth, everyone! I’ll be working on The Book and watching footie.
h/t: Matthew Cobb, who won’t be watching both games.