(or, the Second Week of the Historically Thinking Summer Vacation)
• As J.L. Bell explains over at the always-interesting Boston 1775, in 1777 the Continental Congress almost forgot to celebrate Independence Day. Perhaps the reason that we don’t celebrate July 2nd as Independence Day–the day that independence from Britain was voted for by the Second Continental Congress–was that in 1777 (or so John Adams claimed to his little daughter) it wasn’t until July 2nd that they concluded they ought to have a celebration. But, as Bell concludes, “Even when the seat of government nearly forgot to celebrate the first anniversary of independence, there were fireworks.” Read the whole thing.
• Betsy Ross might not have designed the first American flag. But as Liz Covart notes in her Book of the Week feature, she and ordinary craftspeople like her deserve to be recognised as American founders.
• As part of your holiday, you should really listen to Thomas Jefferson read the Declaration of Independence. We don’t know what Thomas Jefferson sounded like, or what a Virginia accent was precisely like in 1776, but Bill Barker –who interprets Mr. Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg–sure looks a lot like Mr. Jefferson (there are a number of statues of Bill Barker in and around Charlottesville, which is kind of odd, isn’t it?), and one can imagine that he sounds like Jefferson as well, with a genteel, soft, semi-Southern, semi-Mid-Atlantic English. Give a listen. I use it at least once a year in class, and students are rarely unimpressed.
• Yesterday I was one of the leaders of a group of newly commissioned officers, from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard on a “staff ride” to Valley Forge and to Germantown, now a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, then a small country village some miles outside the city.
As always, with a Revolutionary war site, the challenge is to convey the enormous changes in the landscape that have taken place. Germantown is now very much part of Philadelphia–it’s very hard to see, or explain, how it looked at felt in 1777. But even Valley Forge’s “natural” look is not “realistic”. The pleasant forests and groves of Valley Forge were decidedly not present by the time the Continental Army marched out of the encampment on June 19, 1778–they had been removed by the need for building and burning material. Just ten years later, when Washington visited during a recess of the Constitutional Convention, he already found it difficult to discern traces of his old camp. It’s an interesting historiographic fact that Revolutionary sites were so quickly overwhelmed and submerged beneath the development that occurred in the fifty years after the war was over.
It’s also kind of interesting to me to realize (through conversation and observation with my students) that of all the services those with the least interest in their own history, or any other history, are the Army and the Air Force. The Air Force, well, OK, they’re only interested in the future. But I can’t quite figure out the Army. Marines in Philadelphia make a beeline for the Tun Tavern, where the Continental Marines were organized; who knows what they do when they get there, it’s a Marriot lobby now, but they go because its important to their sense of identity. The United States Army was born or reborn at Valley Forge, on the Grand Parade. It should be a locus of pilgrimage more powerful than the site of Tun Tavern. You’d think that Army officers would be commissioned there, just as the new oath of allegiance was sworn there by all the officers of the Army in the spring of 1778; drill instructors might visit the grand parade, and take a shot of brandy in honor of their illustrious predecessor and forefather, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.
That shows rather conclusively, I think, that memory and nostalgia are never based on simple historical fact. They instead are developed within a culture that is subsequent to that fact, and interprets it (or refuses to) in sometimes surprising ways.
• Cliveden, a stately country home that became the focus of the Battle of Germantown, is well worth a visit. Not necessarily because of the battle, or the battle’s interpretation, but because it was built by a family that could have been the original American Hoarders. The Chew’s were a Virginia family that converted to the Society of Friends, moved into Maryland and Delaware, and then eventually to Philadelphia–while still maintaining twelve or fourteen plantations in the South, and ties to the Maryland gentry. Needless to say, they were rich. But they also had excellent taste, and never threw anything away, including somewhere on the order of 250,000 different documents (documents, not pages). When they gave their mansion to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, seemingly everything came with it, including two centuries’ worth of board games, the children’s cradle, a 1687 map of southeast Pennsylvania sent by William Penn to prospective investors in London, etc., etc., etc. Now that the mansion is located in an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood, interpreting the history of these white slaveowners and “trimmers” (neither Patriot nor Loyalist in the Revolution) is difficult; so too is explaining why the very existence of the house is important. They’re doing a wonderful job of doing both things.
• If we have food trucks, why not history trucks? Here’s another cool Philadelphia historical initiative, this one noted by Liz Covart: the Philadelphia Public History Truck. I am planning to have a conversation with Erin Bernard ASAP, as it will combine at least two of my favourite things: history and Philadelphia.
A very happy holiday to all you. We’ll be back soon from vacation with more conversations about historical knowledge and how we achieve it.