#VastEarlyAmerica / July 4th

Set Forth A Reckoning?: July 4th Roundup

As soon as I started this blog, I knew I’d be writing about July 4th writing (and listening, and watching). This is a time of year when early Americanists can reliably get some attention to the complexity of the American Revolution. The urge to smooth out that history is ever-powerful of course, to offer a narrative of British colonial past to American national present via the liberating tool of revolution. A lot of pablum is spread. But there are often also deeper considerations by historians and journalists about the early American past that scholarship and analysis has long showed to be much more violent and much less about liberty. I also started writing these as an ode to the thrill of having been quoting in the Washington Post‘s lead editorial for July 4th, 2000 on exactly this point of how divisive the Revolution was.

2017: Writing Fourth and A Star-Spangled Metaphor

2018: Writing Fourth (again!)

2019: Frayed Fourth

Previous July 4th posts

Our civic culture is always better served by better history, and by better history that is not only widely shared but widely discussed. This year I don’t need to dig too hard for insightful writing about the era of the Revolution; we’ve been having a year-long national conversation thanks in large part to the New York Times 1619 Project. The volume of controversy about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay for the New York Times Magazine is a subject unto itself. Opening the essay noting that “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” Jones asserts what historians have been arguing for decades– that slavery was central to the eighteenth-century world of the Founders, and in fact the lives and fortunes of many of the Founders themselves. Arguing that 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in British mainland North America is a truer foundation for the nation than 1776, Jones provoked public attention to this critical history. (Leslie Harris had the best take on the 1619 Project, pointing out that “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy. At least that is the corrective history toward which the 1619 Project is moving, if imperfectly.”)

In the wake of the 1619 project’s prescience, pandemic, and protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd, this year’s editorials are doing less Revolution and more revolution?, looking directly at the moment we’re in rather than the national founding. Even this David McCullough piece from 2005, reprinted today in the Richmond Times Dispatch, has a bit (not a lot) more bite than I expected. The Post leads with “Black Lives Matter is America’s Ray of Light this Independence Day”:

Before their Revolution, Americans who saw the emerging new nation as a global moral leader were regarded by some as hypocritical in the extreme. “How is it,” asked Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers” of enslaved workers? There was no good answer to that question. It was, in fact, this very hypocrisy that was to cost the country dearly in civil war and civil discord over two centuries and more. But the new and impassioned protests in America, by people of all colors, offer hope — the best hope in a long time — for “a new birth of freedom” proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg….what’s taken us so long is a fair question. Too many of us have been as oblivious to this injustice as the faraway British Parliament was to American grievances in 1775. 

Washington Post, “Black Lives Matter is America’s Ray of Light

In Charlottesville, the Daily Progress went with a “did you know” approach. The best thing about their “Ten Facts about the Declaration of Independence” is that it highlights archival preservation, in this case the holdings of special collections at Small Library at UVA. More compelling is the idea behind the Philadelphia Inquirer’s annotations to the Declaration, by a group including historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar– though I couldn’t get the annotations feature to work! Among flashback features, the Chicago Tribune included material from 1873, in the run-up to the centennial of 1876. The Los Angeles Times featured important July 4th speeches, heavy on the 19th century and including both Susan B. Anthony and Charles Francis Adams from 1876. And of course, Frederick Douglass.

Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” is surely the most iconic July 4th speech. The Post borrowed its resonant title with “What to the African American is the Fourth of July,” with readers reflecting on “race and racism in America”; Sharon Brooks of Tallahassee, Fla, for example, offered that “Black people have fought and died in every war since the Revolutionary War, when some slaves were even promised their freedom for fighting in place of their masters.” The Seattle Times offered a “Check Your Patriotism” editorial that kicks off with Douglass. In Smithsonian Magazine British photographer Drew Gardner paired American descendants in startling period dress and styling with their famous forbearers, including Douglass’s great great great grandson, Kenneth Morris (see also Jefferson descendant Shannon Lanier). And NPR filmed five young Douglass descendants reading Douglass’s speech; it’s powerful in any context, and this context more so. It’s a very good companion to their traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence. In this year’s version of the latter, Melissa Block gets the ending, with a mutual pledge of sacred honor. Ari Shapiro reads the text about “merciless Indian savages.” On that racist cant, read Jeff Ostler in the Atlantic from earlier this year. Every year I wish NPR would dedicate as much time to the history of the Revolution and this document, to the mutual histories of native dispossession, slavery, and the experiment in democracy as they do to that text. Maybe the addition of Douglass is a start.

At the OI, we have years of July Fourth blog posts and episodes of Ben Franklin’s World : you can catch up on all of them in this helpful roundup. This year, Liz Covart put together a stellar episode on “Whose Fourth of July,” interviewing Christopher Bonner and Martha Jones to explore how African Americans experienced July 4th in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Also not to be missed, on the blog, Derrick Spires has written a post reflecting deep research, “Dreams of a Revolution Deferred”: “for Black citizens of the early United States, the Fourth of July was a yearly reminder of a revolution deferred—the always-not-yet nature of Black freedom in a “pseudo-republic.” Following the work of Black activists and intellectuals through the antebellum period, he concludes that:

Black citizens maintained faith in themselves and a sense of justice, if not their white fellow citizens. For despite the many setbacks, these celebrations offered moments of joy and fellowship through which Black communities could affirm themselves in the face of anti-blackness by reminding themselves and those around them of where they’d been, who they were, and where they were determined go. Black joy had and continues to have power. 

Derrick Spires, “Dreamsof a Revolution Deferred”

Yesterday the film of Hamilton the Musical started streaming on Disney Plus, and although no word on how many people viewed it it seems like it was… a lot. Historians joined in for a night of Historians at the Movies, with Hamilton scholar Joanne Freeman joining creator Jason Herbert to host and post on Twitter using the #HATM hashtag along with the #HamilFilm hashtag that Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Hamilton team were using. The film prompted a round of reviews and reflections that connected the musical’s themes with the context of its Obama-era hopeful, progressive notion of America’s history and trajectory with Trump-era pessimism. In the Atlantic David Sims called it “a time capsule.” After watching last night, NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie, who reads and thinks about early American history as much or more than any journalist, was more blunt about the soft-pedaling of the Revolution:

“It provides a pleasing, grade-school story of the American Revolution, a celebratory narrative in which the Framers are men to admire without reservation. Through its casting, it invites audiences of color to take ownership of that narrative, as if they should want to take ownership of a narrative that white-washes the history of the revolution under the guise of inclusion.” 

Jamelle Bouie, Hamilton review on Letterboxd

My own sense is that Hamilton is not only powerful but important because of the opportunity it opened to think about history– no, no, I don’t mean that way. Some folks have embraced the musical for having made the founding cool for kids to learn about. That hasn’t been my experience. I’m inclined to think about historical process as the key lesson anyway, but even my own kid was more interested in whether this was the right take, how the interpretation was functioning. He wasn’t beguiled into an uncritical founder’s celebration just because he loved —and oh did he love–the music. As I said last night on Twitter, historians like Joanne Freeman who can illuminate the history of that period (Joanne does far more than that in her public educational outreach) are incredible. But I still think the point of Hamilton is that history is really elusive and what you make of it can be fully dependent on the materials you employ and the narrative you’re driving. It’s our charge to be alert to that, to share the process of historical production as much as we can. When historians point out that no, Hamilton wasn’t an abolitionist and that no, his squad of Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan wasn’t quite all that, they point up the ways that Miranda was selecting and narrativizing.

This emphasis on history as process is, no surprise my special pleading for early America, all that much more critical when we engage the very foundations of this nation. I was taken with Annette Gordon-Reed’s comment in a forum about monuments hosted by the American Historical Association that Americans need to have a “more mature relationship with the Founders.” To extend her comment in ways she may not have intended, I think that’s just right. A mature perspective is one that allows for complexity and for not only error but even grievous wrongs.

This July 4th, are we finally embarked on a real reckoning with the complex, violent (vast) early American past? The past is always our platform for the future, which is why it is so powerfully contested. The cliche is that complexity is too dull for popular consumption, that the public wants a tidy version of history. I think that’s neither true nor useful. We all experience and can acknowledge the tremendous complexity in the world around us, and in our own lives. The scholarship is there to support this fuller, more complex and ultimately sturdier historical platform for a national future. Even in the midst of a pandemic, global economic collapse, and private and community pain of so many kinds, I want to see a glimmer of hope.

Did I miss some good July 4th reflections and opining I should add? In previous years I’ve added more blog posts and local editorials so I’d love some pointers.

*Also, my COVID-19 mantra is “good enough.” This is a messy post, but I’m going with it because it’s good enough for a July 4th morning! May your independence day be a safe one.

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