#VastEarlyAmerica / July 4th

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?

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