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Uncommon Sense

By Holly White · July 02, 2020

The Many Meanings of the Fourth of July

Ben Franklin's World 5 min read

Declaration of Independence, Dunlap Broadside (1776)

Over the past few years, we’ve steadily grown our collection of readings related to U.S. Independence Day as well as Ben Franklin’s World episodes detailing the early American history of the Fourth of July. It’s time we put it all in one place. 

Frederick Douglass famously questioned Americans in 1852, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” and his essay is an important place to start any exploration of the holiday. Although early Americans may have heard the same ruckus, they certainly did not experience or internalize the meaning of the Fourth of July the same way. Regionalism, religious belief, gender, and class certainly all impacted the way in which Fourth of July was interpreted and recognized but race and status were the greatest dividers in how the holiday was perceived. 

This week’s new episode of Ben Franklin’s World, “Whose Fourth of July?” explores Douglass’ thoughtful question within the context of Early America. Liz chats with historians Martha S. Jones and Christopher Bonner to answer the question: What did the Fourth of July mean for African Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?

Historian Derrick Spires’ new Uncommon Sense blog post, “Declarations of a Revolution Deferred” furthers the question of what the Declaration of Independence, citizenship, and the Fourth of July meant, or did not mean, to African Americans. Spires highlights the ways in which African Americans demanded citizenship and challenged white Americans to consider the ways in which the tenets of the Revolution had not yet fully come to fruition. 

In addition to these new resources, we’d like to remind you about past years’ blog posts and episodes on the Fourth. For example, in his blog post “When Did America Really Become Independent?” historian Eliga Gould considers the answer to that question. Was it when the Continental Congress declared their independence from Great Britain on July 4th, 1776? Or was it really the American victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781? Gould suggests we need to consider the more complex (and much later) answer: when America was internationally recognized as an independent nation. 

Gould’s post accompanies Ben Franklin’s World Episode 141: “A Declaration in Draft.” In this episode, Liz chats with historians Danielle Allen, Patrick Spero, and Peter Onuf about why the Second Continental Congress needed a declaration of independence; who Congress elected to serve on its declaration drafting committee; and, the influence John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson had on the ideas and language of the Declaration of Independence.

Between Gould’s blog post and the Ben Franklin’s World episode, we gain a pretty good sense of what formally declaring and establishing American independence meant. But how did early Americans celebrate and commemorate American independence? Ben Franklin’s World Episode 245: “Celebrating the Fourth” provides us with some answers. Liz chats with historical experts Benjamin E. Park, Jay Hinesley, and Shira Lurie to understand the early American origins of Fourth of July celebrations.

Historian Emily Sneff adds to this episode with a blog post on “The Sounds of Independence.” Sneff helps us hear the sounds we may have encountered during late eighteenth and early nineteenth century celebrations—from cannon fire and ringing bells to public readings of the Declaration.


[…] 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,” […]
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