Delighted to have the WSJ review over the holiday weekend, but there’s a fact that needs correcting, so I’ve done so in a letter to the editor, published in today’s edition. The gist:
Mr. Bakshian cites John Adams … quoting the famous letter to Abigail Adams in which John predicts that America’s independence will one day be celebrated with parades, bonfires, etc. … That letter was written on July 3, 1776, and refers not to the document adopted on July 4, but to Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, which had passed July 2, and which in fact made America independent.
I also note that Adams called the July 2 resolution a “declaration,” causing later confusion.
Today, thanks to Robert Sullivan, I got to hear the Declaration of Independence read aloud at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in Manhattan by some reenactors in period garb. It’s the kind of thing I would usually miss, but Bob (Rats, The Thoreau You Don’t Know, The Meadowlands, etc.) is enthusiastic about things like this at the moment (and generally more enthusiastic than I am about anything, ever), so I went.
And along with being predictably bizarre — passersby completely ignoring the unignorable, giggling tourists getting photographed with reenactors, a guy asking me “Is this a protest? or a reenactment?” etc. — it was great, because two of the readers really shouted out the list of grievances, and they hit hard. I actually got goosebumps.
Jefferson and the Congress wrote the document so it would read well both silently and to crowds. But I’d never heard the list yelled so angrily. If you want to get the full, passionate effect of the high-Whig vocabulary of English rights, it might be something to try at home.
I heard the other day that someone I don’t know, who has either read or heard about my books and articles, informed someone I know that I’m a Marxist. What pleased me, of course, is that someone I don’t know has actually been induced to form an impression of my thought. What worried me is that I’m eager to talk about my books to big audiences, and to talk to those audiences, in part, about the complicated presence of socialism at the founding, so I wouldn’t want any word to get around that might turn off those audiences from the get-go. When I, for example, believe that somebody is an -ist before he or she starts talking, I do assume that much of what’s to be said is overdetermined and therefore, even if true, boring. That by no means always turns out to be the case, but it’s a natural prejudice.
I tell stories. Stories that lead to weird destinations, I hope, but nevertheless stories. Some academic historians can find that cheap, for good reason, but I don’t, not the kind of stories I like to tell, for reasons I think this post will begin to get at. Continue reading
I’m going around saying that the story I tell in Declaration, despite its centrality, is little known. Yet one of the better-known dates, pivotal to the story, is Wednesday, May 15, 1776, when the Congress voted to add a preamble to a resolution it had passed on Friday, May 10. Because John Adams co-sponsored the May 10 resolution, and wrote the preamble that was tacked on its front on May 15, adoption of the preamble was an important moment both in Adams’s emergence as the “colossus of independence” and in the Congress’s movement toward declaring independence. Many founding-father biographers and writers on the Continental Congress have therefore mentioned and even dwelled on that day.
Some have even said that on May 15, America effectively declared independence. Adams certainly liked to think so.
But the context in which the preamble was adopted, and the political work that Adams intended it to do — outside the Congress — has been glossed over, at least in most books for general readers. The inside story, which I try to bring to life in Declaration, raises many issues that certified narratives of events of 1776 have naturally found difficult to cope with. For the Adams preamble isn’t an edifying document, and May 15, though Adams rightly thought of it as “an epoch” in American independence, wasn’t an edifying day. Continue reading
The other day — May 4, to be exact — the Smithsonian American History Museum posted this on Twitter: “Today in history: Rhode Island declares independence.” I like and promote the Smithsonian’s posts. But I have a problem with this one, which draws on a longstanding tradition, promoted especially in Rhode Island, that Rhode Island declared independence from England two months before the Continental Congress did.
In the most literal sense the tradition is probably not wrong. But especially at its Twitter length, which allows for no context or nuance, it feeds widespread misconceptions about how the American colonies became independent.
Over on Twitter, I’m trying a “today in history” countdown from May 1 to July 4, 1776. (So as of now, I’ve already posted May 1-3.) That is, I’m giving the story of Declaration away, in a superficial day-by-day rendering, leading up to the Independence Day climax about nine weeks from now. It’s tricky because I’m also occasionally posting there on other things, so the story can get lost; I’m therefore organizing it under a double hashtag that, at the moment, returns only the Declaration countdown. To see it all line up, search Twitter for this: #1776 #history
The idea is copped, in a quick-and-dirty way, from PatriotCast, whose astonishing eight-year mission is to go day by day through the entire American Revolution. I picked up on PatriotCast right around April 18, so it’s been exciting so far. A very impressive concept — and a daunting execution. (Per the subtitle to my book, I’ve only got weeks to get through, and it’s mainly on a single front.) PatriotCast also has a Website and a Facebook presence.
I’m hoping people will want to alert American history-buff friends to my Declaration countdown — like the book, I think it will be surprising — and to PatriotCast’s much more ambitious effort.