Above: Boston Massacre showing the death of the first casualty, Crispus Attucks. In reality, the vast majority of Africans in America fought against the revolution seeking to end their enslavement.
The Fourth of July turns an immensely complicated time in U.S. history into a cartoon of miseducation. For example, check out Ray Raphael’s “Re-examining the Revolution” at the Zinn Education Project, an article that every history teacher should read before wading into the events leading up to 1776. Raphael analyzed 22 elementary-school, middle-school, and high-school texts and found them filled with inaccuracies — some merely silly, but others leaving students with important misunderstandings about U.S. history and how social change does and does not happen.
Raphael offers some context for the Declaration of Independence:
In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval.
Similarly, Raphael reports:
[I]n 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority. In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations 30 times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event. The people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. “The body of the people” made decisions and the people decided that the old regime must fall.
Raphael concludes, “Textbook authors and popular history writers fail to portray the great mass of humanity as active players, agents on their own behalf.” Instead, textbooks credit Great Men — Washington, Franklin, Jefferson — and render all others as “mere followers.”
ABOUT FROM RESISTANCE TO REVOLUTION
Maintaining that the outbreak of revolution in 1775 was not the result of secret planning by radicals but rather the end product of years of painful evolution, Pauline Maier brilliantly traces the American colonists’ road to independence from 1765 to 1776 and examines the role of popular violence as political allegiances corroded and once-loyal subjects were gradually transformed into revolutionaries.
Mrs. Maier presents a view of the American leaders different from that which prevailed a generation ago, when historians saw them as lawless demagogues who, already set upon independence at the outset of the conflict with England, manipulated the public toward their goal through propaganda and mob violence. She shows that none of the men in the forefront of American opposition to British policies favored independence when the colonies blocked England’s efforts to impose a tamp Tax upon them in 1765. Their love of British institutions was undermined gradually and for reasons beyond their opposition to legislation affecting American interest. Developments in England itself, in Ireland, Corsica, and the West Indies also fed American disillusionment with imperial rule, until leading colonists came to believe that just government required casting loose from Britain and monarchy. Indeed, Mrs. Maier demonstrates that participants saw the American Revolution as part of an international struggle between freedom and despotism.
Like independence, violence was a last resort. Arguing that colonial leaders, like many present-day “revolutionaries,” quickly learned that popular violence was counterproductive, Mrs. Maier makes it clear that they organized resistance in part to contain disorder. Building association to discipline opposition, they gradually made self-rule founded upon carefully designed “social compacts” a reality. Out of the struggle with Britain emerged not merely separation, but the beginnings of American republican government.SEE LESS
And there is a lot more that complicates the events surrounding the Fourth of July and the Revolutionary War. Raphael notes:
Not one of the elementary or middle school texts [I reviewed] even mentions the genocidal Sullivan campaign, one of the largest military offensives of the war, which burned Iroquois villages and destroyed every orchard and farm in its path to deny food to Indians.
For use with students, see “George Washington: An American Hero?” in Rethinking Columbus, published by Rethinking Schools. In an excerpt included inRethinking Columbus, Washington wrote to Gen. John Sullivan on May 31, 1779:
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more. …
[P]arties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.
Those are the orders of a war criminal.
Nor do texts mention the indigenous resistance movements of the 1780s in response to American “settler” expansion, which Raphael calls “the largest coalitions of Native Americans in our history.”
Frederick Douglass circa 1855
On a recent episode of Democracy Now!, Gerald Horne, author of The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, points out that more enslaved Africans in the American colonies fought with the British than with the American colonists. Horne told Democracy Now!hosts Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman, “It makes little sense for slaves to fight alongside slave masters so that slave masters could then deepen the persecution of the enslaved.”
Included at the Zinn Education Project site is a link to a video of Danny Glover performing one of history’s most passionate denunciations of U.S. racism and hypocrisy, Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” at one of Howard Zinn’s remarkable “The People Speak” events. Douglass delivered the speech on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, at a Declaration of Independence commemoration:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Douglass delivered his speech four years after the United States finished its war against Mexico to steal land and spread slavery, five years before the vicious Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, and nine years before the country would explode into civil war. His words call out through the generations to abandon the empty “shout of liberty and equality” on July 4, and to put away the fireworks and flags.
In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, the Zinn Education Project urges teachers to use July 4 as a time to rethink how we equip students to reflect on the complicated birth of the United States of America.
Bill Bigelow taught high-school social studies in Portland, Oregon, for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This blog post is part of the Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” series.