Month: July 2017

Writing Fourth: Roundup for July 4th

I love reading July 4th writing.  We should be reading, writing and thinking about history every day, but this holiday particularly inspires and provokes.  There is lots of social media reflection as well as semi-formal and more formal writing out there, and I’ve rounded up some of the blogs and op-eds, mostly by historians,  written for today or shared again to mark the holiday.  I’ve also highlighted some of the archival and digital projects focused on America’s founding that are featuring special materials or collections.  I’ll add to the list throughout the day and this week as the reading accumulates!


On the OI’s Uncommon Sense, Elijah Gould wonders “When Did America Really Become Independent?”  Gould, a historian of international law and politics in the revolutionary period, concludes that “The answer is later than Americans usually think — and the quest for the international recognition that made the new republic independent affected its history every bit as much as the ideals in the Declaration.”  (Joyce Chaplin’s measured suggestions on this topic earlier this year covered by John Fea here and here.)

The AHA blog features a review of the new Museum of the American Revolution by Penn graduate student Anna Leigh Todd.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History revisited a 2013 post on how soldiers celebrated July 4th in 1776 (hint:  they didn’t).

For a day of hotdogs and apple pies, the Junto shared Rachel Hermann’s piece from 2013 about the problematic notion of “American food.”  (In my house a German aunt’s blueberry kuchen is the ritual favorite.)

Sara Georgini writes about changing religious (even liturgical!) texts during the Revolution, as intercessions for the king were replaced by prayers for the president.  This exercise in “tracking changes” illuminates not only growing discomfort with the king’s religion, but the challenges the Book of Common Prayer would continue to face in the new United States.

News and Op-eds:

Religion in the early United States, and the implications of how we understand that history for invocations of religious freedom today, is pervasive in the major newspapers today.  In the New York Times, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onus offer a synopsis and analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s evolving religious beliefs and a reminder of the value of the civil religion he favored.

In the Washington Post Sam Haselby also writes about the significance of religion for American national beginnings.  Haselby argues that the contemporary debate about a Christian founding is almost entirely about the political stakes of simplifying the much more complex historical record.

Post reporters also offered multiple stories on early American topics for the holiday, including Paula Dvorak writing about Maryland printer Mary Katharine Goddard .  (This is a nice piece, though I confess I’m very tired of the “why doesn’t anyone know?” construction.  Remember this similar framing about Pauli Murray in the New Yorker?  Tiresome.  Historians do know, of course, but public narratives make it tough to put people of color, and any women, front and center, and that’s why “no-one knows.”)

Documentary, Digital History and media projects:

Harvard’s Declaration Resources project, led by Danielle Allen, has multiple resources highlighted for the holiday.  Their blog includes a conversation with three authors of books about the Revolution for young readers, for example.  The free e-book, Fresh Takes on the Declaration of Independence can be downloaded here.   The extensive resources include a careful comparison of versions of the Declaration, and a discussion of the recent scholarly and press coverage of the “Sussex Declaration,” a rare manuscript parchment version of the document housed at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, England.

The New York Public Library shared Mark Boonshoft’s blog from earlier this year about the Boston-centricity of the Revolution’s history and the broader New England resistance that sometimes overlooks.  Boon shift highlighted some of the NYPL’s relevant, newly digitized collections such as 8 boxes of papers of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, a volume of minutes for meetings from the Long Island town of Brookhaven, and 7 boxes of papers of Sam Adams.  Irresistible reading.

The Library of Congress reminded all of us just how rough a rough draft can be.  Jefferson’s June 1776 rough draft of the Declaration is here.


Well, I’m only going to mention one at first– on Ben Franklin’s World Liz Covart interviews historians Danielle Allen, Peter Onus, and Patrick Spero on making and declaring independence.  There’s loads of great supplemental content on the OI Reader including texts, bonus audio, annotations and bibliography.  And shhhhh…. I’m sharing just with you that there’s a sneak peak of the OI Reader for iPhones as of today (already on tablets and all Android).  Not really making a big deal about that until September, but let us know what you think!


There are plenty of historians and journalists who have published pieces on the meaning of the fourth in later historical periods or using the holiday to reflect on American patriotism.

For July 4th reflection it’s hard to do better than Frederick Douglass.  The AAIHS editors posted an abridged version of his 1852 speech in Rochester on Black Perspectives.  The Washington Post editorial board also emphasized Douglass this year, in “A 165 year-old Reminder of the Promise of July 4.

The LA Times reached for a slightly earlier 19th century history– the speculations (the work of God?) surrounding  the July 4 deaths of three presidents  (Adams and Jefferson in 1826, James Monroe in 1831.)

I strongly recommend AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman’s piece from 2015 on history and historical analysis as fundamental acts of patriotism— and the challenge of conveying that conjunction.

History is ours collectively.   It is the premise and the promise, but not easy or pretty.  What better way to spend the fourth than in contemplating these truths?

A Star-Spangled Metaphor

The Star Spangled Banner, the garrison flag that was stitched by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill and flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, is an American icon.  As a metaphor, perhaps it is as tired as the stitches that no longer keep the flag whole.  Backed by layers of structure supplied by the master conservators at the Smithsonian, the flag now rests at a 10 degree angle, under low light.  An online exhibit, “Star Spangled Banner:  The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem,” features an interactive exploration of the flag’s origins, its travels before arriving at the Smithsonian in the early twentieth century, and its recent conservation.

What makes this flag so compelling?  The combination of its origins, its long history as a family keepsake of the Fort McHenry commander and a precious relic of the young American nation, the anthem it inspired with its “broad stripes and bright stars,” and, as a material object, its history of public display all suggest the warm glow of American nationalism.  It pulls with it the colonial revival, the centennial and the bicentennial of the Revolution.  It helped to highlight the War of 1812 commemorations.   In 2013 the Maryland Historical Society sponsored a recreation of the flag that involved over 2,000 volunteers.

Repair Work on the Star Spangled Banner, 1914.  Smithsonian Archives.

What makes it such a powerful metaphor for both the early history and the enduring significance of American national values, however, is the way this tattered flag both embodies and reveals the difficult project of nationalism itself.  It survives and is viewed by more than a million people a year because it has been so carefully rebuilt.  The conservation strategies and technologies of successive eras have been brought to bear on the challenge of preserving this treasure.  Nineteenth-century patching and mending alternated with snipping bits to give as keepsakes.  In 1914, a few years after the flag came to the Smithsonian, expert Amelia Fowler supervised ten women who took eight weeks to attach a linen backing  (with 1.7 million stitches!) to stabilize it.  Decades of monitoring light, heat and dust, in its first fifty years of display at the Arts and Industry building, and then after  1964 when it was moved to a vertically in “Flag Hall” at the National Museum of American History, still left the flag in deteriorating condition.  A major effort from 1994-2008 included the creation of a separate, state of the art conservation lab.

In other words, the Star Spangled Banner was private property for a century, and since the early twentieth century has been an increasingly costly public works project.  Its endurance was first the result of soldiers at Fort McHenry, but since 1814 has been the work of countless professionals and volunteers.  The Star Spangled Banner could not be managed by one family; its endurance has required massive collective action.

But of course there is more to the metaphor than what the flag’s material condition has compelled.  Its layers of meaning go beyond the removal of the 1914 linen backing and the application of two new stabilizing layers nearly a century later.

This tattered flag symbolizes, in Francis Scott Key’s telling,  Americans’ fortitude in battle.  Although only the first stanza of the song is traditionally sung, it has four original stanzas.  The second, like the first, queries then extols the flag’s survival.  The third stanza turns from the victors to the vanquished.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Like the flag, the song was cherished in the nineteenth century ( Oliver Wendall Holmes even wrote a fifth stanza for it at the beginning of the Civil War) but became an American national tradition in the early twentieth century.  Just a few years after the flag was given to the Smithsonian, President Woodrow Wilson ordered it be played at military and other events, and in 1931 a law was passed recognizing the Star Spangled Banner as the American national anthem.

But what Key was writing about was hardly a straightforward account of a successful battle heralded by the flag’s survival.  Key’s history as a slave-owner, his experience with black British soldiers in the months before he observed Fort McHenry under attack, his pro-slavery rhetoric and work as the District Attorney in ante-bellum Washington DC , and the language of the anthem’s third stanza all point to the ways that the flag and the song are deeply embedded in the long history of race and racism in America.  In the Washington Post this week Margaret Jordan joined other voices concerned that “Too many Americans still don’t see Black history as their own.”  Or, put another way, American historical narratives still too rarely account for the braided nature of national failures and achievements.

The history of the Star Spangled banner reveals other layers, other histories:  women’s labor, for example, that made and tended and preserved the flag for centuries.  Native American dispossession, which was a dominant outcome of the War of 1812.  The point is this:  no American history is simple, nor could it be.  America at its best is honest about the past, and aspirational for the future.  The flag among flags can help us do both.




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