Flies and the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2014 • 6:42 am

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.

From ConstitutionalFacts.com:

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):

Declaration of Independence Signing: The REAL Version. 1819 Painting by John Trumbull, slightly updated.

Happy Fourth, everyone! I’ll be working on The Book and watching footie.

h/t: Matthew Cobb, who won’t be watching both games.

25 thoughts on “Flies and the Declaration of Independence

  1. You would think one of the founding fathers would figure out to close the damned (Yankee) windows!

      1. One would think they would at least have had the sense to screen the windows with cheesecloth or the like.

        …then again, this is Congress we’re discussing….


    1. “God in His wisdom made the fly/and then forgot to tell us why.”–Ogden Nash.

      Oddly, one of the names of the Devil is Beelzebub, which literally means “Lord of the Flies.” So maybe it’s his fault.

  2. The colonies succeeded, so that was “Independence”, but the Confederacy failed, so that was “Secession”.

    If France had intervened to support the Confederacy as well then we’d probably be talking about the “second war of independence” or something similar.

    (Note how the ScotNats are always careful to say “Independence” rather than “Secession” as well).

    Here’s to the memory of July 4th 1998 – a truly wonderful day.

    1. Those parallels are entirely superficial though. The American colonies had legitimate grievances and no representation in the British government.

      The southern states were fairly represented in the US government and were driven by rampant paranoia about threats to their beloved institution of slavery. As Lincoln put in the Cooper Union speech of 1860:

      “The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

      “These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.”

      The South did hope for a European intervention, but not only did Europe need Nothern wheat more than it needed Sourthern Cotton, but especially in Britain, and especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, entering the war on the side of slavery would have been very unpopular politically.

      Another anti-parallel is that the American victory at Saratoga helped convince the French the Americans could win. In contrast, the huge losses for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, at roughly the equivalent stage of the Civil War, made European intervention even more unlikely.

      1. I’m so glad that someone who knows American history commented early in this discussion. The winners have sometimes fought the righteous fight and with it the right to label secession what it was, secession.

      1. The first American dictionary was not available until 1798. Prior to that and, for a very long time afterwards, American spelling and grammar were not uniform. This can be seen in documents by some of the most famous people in American history. Educated and uneducated people made “misspellings” and used “bad grammar” according to modern

        1. True, an expressly American dictionary was yet to be compiled, but I’d be amazed if Jefferson didn’t own or have access to some of the English dictionaries that did exist at that point, including Samuel Johnson’s.

          The standardization of spelling was a gradual process, but it was beginning to happen. It/it’s specifically wasn’t standardized at that point, according to the OED.

        2. I’m not sure whether it is a contributing cause, but the Internet has made it clear that a substantial fraction of the American public is unaware of modern standards of grammar and spelling.

  3. Dennis, I’ve never read this story before, but find it amusing and credible. Horse fies, by the way, are just awful. I’ve experienced them in New York state and in Maine. I can easily believe our founders were influenced to act more swiftly because of them. Rebecca

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

  4. But those look like Musca domestica to me, not horse flies. I’m glad there are no horse flies where I am now – but there are equally horrible beasts around to make up for the lack of horseflies.

  5. No flies on me (a goal of mine, at any rate), but more material on Independence Day:

    I am retired US military, and believe the ability of the people in our country to assess past and present governmental policy and actions, both domestic and foreign, might improve if information like the quote excerpted from the link below was taught students our schools. Perhaps it would even lessen the probability of future national idiocy in such matters. Now if the GOP accomplishes a fascist dictatorship I give them both atheism and anti-nationalism as justification for purging me.


    Raphael offers some context for the Declaration of Independence:

    In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval.

    Similarly, Raphael reports:

    [I]n 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority. In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations 30 times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event. The people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. “The body of the people” made decisions and the people decided that the old regime must fall.

    Raphael concludes, “Textbook authors and popular history writers fail to portray the great mass of humanity as active players, agents on their own behalf.” Instead, textbooks credit Great Men — Washington, Franklin, Jefferson — and render all others as “mere followers.”

    And there is a lot more that complicates the events surrounding the Fourth of July and the Revolutionary War. Raphael notes: …

Leave a Reply