A Little History of… Independence Day

Yale’s Little Histories are a family of books that explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas.

Independence Day is celebrated by Americans each year on the 4th of July, and commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. From that date onwards the American colonies became independent from the British Empire and formed a new nation in its own right – the United States of America. This landmark date is one of the many fascinating historic events explored in James West Davidson’s new book A Little History of the United States, which will join Yale’s Little History family of books in September. To celebrate the 4th of July 2015 you can read an exclusive pre-publication extract from the book here, which follows the story of the Declaration of Independence, when some Americans emerged more equal than others…

A Little History of the United States by James West Davidson 

Extract from Chapter 13: Equal and Independent

Like Franklin and Paine, Jefferson was an Enlightenment man and a deist. “Fix reason firmly in her seat,” he advised his nephew. He agreed with John Locke that humans in their natural state were born “equal and independent” and he even used Locke’s phrase in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Locke had also argued that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” Jefferson omitted health and, instead of “possessions,” spoke of the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These were words that turned rebellion into revolution. The people of “these United States” were not claiming rights the king gave them as Britons. Or even that their Congress gave them because they were Americans. All people had these rights from birth: they were natural rights. The rest of the Declaration explained the quarrel with Great Britain, listing Americans’ complaints, but the document’s first sentences set forth an ideal that would inspire people for centuries to come. Eighty years later, Abraham Lincoln realized how astonishing it had been that Jefferson, under the “pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people,” should place a truth about all people in the Declaration. The nation’s Founders meant to set up equality as a “standard,” Lincoln explained, “which should be familiar to all, and revered by all. . . constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained . . . constantly spreading and deepening its influence.”

Of course, the evidence was everywhere that not all people were being treated equally. Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John, about the new “code of laws” that she knew the delegates would be drawing up. “Remember the ladies,” she insisted. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” She was joking, but at the same time entirely serious about her feelings. As for Jefferson, he arrived in Philadelphia riding in a horse-drawn carriage attended by three slaves. Did Jefferson believe that Richard, Jesse, and Jupiter were created equal?

The nA Little History ofation’s Founders were two-faced, some have said. They preached up equality while keeping down slaves. They assured their wives that women were the real masters in life while confiding (to other men, as John Adams did) that a woman’s “delicacy” made her unfit to vote or to manage the great “cares of state.” Others have suggested that even great individuals are products of their times, that only later generations could fully appreciate that equality should extend to black Americans and to women.

A Little History of the United States by James West Davidson
is published by Yale University Press, September 2015.

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Image courtesy of Sam Howzit.

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