Correction to the Wall Street Journal Review of “Declaration”

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.

The Declaration Reenacted Today

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.

Is Hogeland a Marxist? (and other burning questions of the day)

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

“The Cuckoo”

oh the cuckoo
she’s a good bird
and she warbles
and she flies

and she never
hollers cuckoo
till the fourth day
of July

I’ve been making the somewhat unconventional move of introducing my talks on Declaration with a few verses of an old song, “The Cuckoo,” accompanying my singing (or maybe let’s call it “vocalizing”) with five-string banjo, or maybe even more accurately, accompanying my banjo-playing with some vocalizing.

Warming up the crowd? Maybe. Maybe not. The song has close British-isles antecedents (many older American songs that sound as if they have such antecedents actually don’t), and the Anglo versions I know are all fairly straightforward: “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies, she brings us glad tidings, she tells us no lies,” etc. All of the American versions I know are stark and strange. With its gapped modal scale (no chords), which vibrates somewhere between archaic England and African America, the droning and scraping of the archetpyal American instrument, and the incommensurable reference to the cuckoo’s silence before starting to holler on July Fourth, the song, which I’ve been trying to sing and play almost all my life, has seemed to resonate lately with the surprising story of America’s coming into being, which I tell in the book. It’s meant to be sung by the untrained.

A note on the arrangement: Based on my ceaseless 1972-73 listening to the Holy Modal Rounders’ mid-1960’s version, on their first album (which everybody who likes this kind of thing should hear), with Peter Stampfel alone on banjo and vocal, an arrangement I think I may later have discovered was influenced by a recording in the Harry Smith anthology. I’ve added and subtracted a few banjo elements, out of my ensuing decades of clawhammer-style banjo playing in somewhat different veins, but still, the basic, repetitive motif is indebted to the 1960’s Stampfel, whose playing on that recording I’ll never come up to, in any vein; the vocal, which just because its so stark and simple seems to further challenge my already very limited approach to singing, is also inspired by his eerier approach.

I may give it another go at the NYC Upper West Side Barnes & Noble on Monday 6/14.

Was May 15, 1776, Independence Day?

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

“You’re Too Short for That Gesture”: Some dissenting historiography behind Rhode Island’s supposedly declaring independence on May 4, 1776

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.

Continue reading

Countdown to the Declaration

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.