Independence Day, U.S., and reading tips

Hi, folks–been kinda crazy here. Didn’t get to a zombie tip this week, but I DID watch the movie Zombieland again. Love Woody Harrelson’s character. You can tell he had a hell of a good time with that role.

At any rate, I know a lot of folks are doing the long weekend stay-cation thing (and maybe vacation, if you can afford it). But also keep in mind what this holiday’s all about. It ain’t about shopping, or buying new furniture, or retail sales. If you’ve got kids, remind them why we observe this holiday. It ain’t just a nice weekend to have a nice BBQ on.

I’ll help with that. Read on…

The U.S. was originally founded as a colony of England. After increases in tensions between the two, a faction in the U.S. got fed up with English rule. Here’s a short video that you and your kids can watch, thanks to the History Channel:

The Declaration of Independence was formally released on July 4th, 1776. John Adams (who would later become the second president of the United States) thought that the day should be recognized ever after, with parades and celebrations, including fireworks. So the first July 4th celebration was actually held 4 days later, on July 8th, in Philadelphia (where the Declaration was written) and included fireworks — ironically a custom borrowed from the English, who set off fireworks on the king’s birthday. Americans who supported a revolution were probably aware of this, and were doing a big “screw you” to the king by shooting off fireworks on a day they declared his rule was done, rather than marking his birthday.

A lot of Americans — too many, sadly — don’t know the history of this country or how we have evolved over the years, or what political, social, and historical currents have gotten us to this point. And sadly, in the current political climate, many Americans are taking a lot of things out of context with regard to the Founding Fathers and the Revolution, and not really understanding the historical context in which they lived, and the stark differences between then and now socially and culturally. History is useful, yes, because it helps you track a path and see where we’ve come and where we might be going, but picking and choosing your history — pulling things out of context and using them to justify your position politically — only alienates Americans further from each other and also does history and the study of history and its documents a great disservice.

Not that there’s much of a difference then as now. America has always been a contentious nation. What many people today don’t seem to realize is that a third of American colonists remained loyal to England. America was by no means a fully unified front in the Revolution. Things were complicated then, as now, and trying to paint historical events in these broad, black-and-white swaths serves, again, to misrepresent history, historical documents, and the contexts in which both occurred and existed.

To that end, here’re a few decent books on the Revolutionary War era that might prove helpful to getting a broader view:

Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History. It’s a fast read, and Wood may not be the most riveting of authors, but he really lays out the issues, the players, and the conflicts within the colonies on the eve of the Revolutionary War. This book will clearly explain how America got to the point of Revolution, and the economic, philosophical, and ideological underpinnings of it in clear, easy-to-understand prose. I highly recommend this as a refresher or introduction to this crucial point in American history. Wood is a preeminent historian of the era, and honestly, I think this is one of the best and most readable books on the lead-up to the Revolutionary War by a historian.


Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791: Documents and Essays (Major Problems in American History Series), ed. by Richard Brown and Thomas Paterson (both known historians)

This one might be best checked out at your library, since it’s pricey. It includes analytical essays, primary documents, and other materials to help you think critically about the Revolutionary era up to the ratification of the Bill of Rights. It’s actually a student text book, which are really useful if you’re not familiar with the era or you want a good refresher about the important figures and documents of the time.


Stuff like that really gets you thinking about the various sides, factions, and ideas that influenced people during the era, and hopefully, you’ll come away appreciating the depth and nuances of historical documents, and how attempting to shoehorn one era’s writings into the context of another 200 years later might not be the best approach to bolster your arguments. People are complicated. Always have been, always will be. Attempting to understand them outside of their own eras, however, might not be the best approach to reading history. Certainly, draw comparisons, but remain aware that the world is a much different place now than it was 230 years ago.

And for your kids/young adults (and hey, you too!):

One of my fave books when I was younger was Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Originally published in 1944 (and it’s a winner of the Newbury Award), it’s in its thousandth printing or whatever, and remains a great read about a young boy in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War. He starts out as an apprentice to a silversmith, and soon ends up in the thick of things as war looms. I had some of my undergrad history students read it, and they really enjoyed it, so age levels from probably 11-up will do just fine with this.


And for a powerful young adult story (and also a winner of the Newbury) about a family torn apart by the war — some members are Loyalists, while others aren’t — My Brother Sam is Dead by James and Chris Collier will tear your heart out, but also demonstrate the complicated underpinnings of the war. Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever cut-and-dried, and the idea that all American colonists supported the war is a myth. This story will demonstrate that.


And finally, here’s another YA novel I had my undergrad history students read, and they really enjoyed this one, too. Ann Rinaldi’s Cast Two Shadows. It’s a view of the Revolutionary War through the eyes of a young girl (14) growing up on a South Carolina plantation in 1780. Her Patriot father — the plantation’s owner — is wounded and her Loyalist brother is imprisoned. Her sister, meanwhile, is enamored with the cruel British officer who has commandeered the house. Caroline, the young girl, also knows that her mother was one of the slaves on the plantation. You’ll get a whole different view of the war here, and how the complexities and tragedy of race, class, and gender affected views of it in an area of the colonies whose loyalties might shift with opportunity, or as a way to survive.


This is why history is so fascinating. Nothing is ever as it seems, life was and still is complicated, and trying to shove history into your own agenda for it really doesn’t make much sense. Learning it and reading about it, however, can expand your own sense of things, and give you a much broader picture of this country, and how we came to be as we are.

Happy reading, happy Independence Day, and stay safe out there!

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