If We Knew Our History Series

Rethinking the 4th of July July 1, 2014

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By Bill Bigelow

In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the 4th of July holiday offers an excuse for a wonderful annual blues festival in Waterfront Park downtown. Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, it also provides cover for people to blow off fireworks that terrify young children and animals, and that turn the air thick with smoke and errant projectiles. Last year, the fire department here reported 35 fires sparked by toy missiles, defective firecrackers, and other items of explosive revelry. The Washington State Department of Ecology warns that “Breathing fine particles in fireworks smoke can cause or contribute to serious short- or long-term health problems. They include: Risk of heart attack and stroke. Lung inflammation. Reduced lung function. Asthma-like symptoms. Asthma attacks.”

Apart from the noise pollution, air pollution, and flying debris pollution, there is something profoundly inappropriate about blowing off fireworks at a time when the United States is waging war with real fireworks around the world. To cite just one example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has estimated that since November 2001, U.S. drone attacks have killed at least 2,600 people in five countries, including as many as 247 children. And, of course, the Iraq war, which began with the deadly U.S. fireworks of “shock and awe” bombardment in 2003, has morphed into seemingly endless internecine fighting, and according to the United Nations, the creation of more than a million refugees just this year. The pretend war of celebratory fireworks thus becomes part of a propaganda campaign that inures us—especially the children among us—to current and future wars half a world away.

reexaminingtherevolutionBut the yahoo of fireworks also 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, middle school, and high school texts and found them filled with inaccuracies—some merely silly, but others that leave 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 that

[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.

noslavery_fourthofjulyAs 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.”

And there is a lot more that complicates the events surrounding the 4th of July and the Revolutionary War. As 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 in Rethinking 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 object is their total destruction and devastation and the capture of as many persons of every age and sex as possible.

It will be essential to ruin their crops now on the ground, and prevent their planting more. . . .

Parties should be detached to lay waste all settlements around . . . 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.”

In 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. As 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 Danny Glover, who performs one of history’s most passionate denunciations of U.S. racism and hypocrisy: Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.” Howard Zinn introduces Glover at one of the 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.

Frederick Douglass

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, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the  Zinn Education Project, www.zinnedproject.org


Image Credits


if_we_knew_bannerThis article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s
If We Knew Our History

© 2014 The Zinn Education Project

Published on: Huffington Post | Popular Resistance | ZNet.



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There are 7 comments by other visitors:

  • You fail to give credit to the great state of Rhode Island, which not only was the first to establish religious freedom, but also the first to fight the British. We burned the British ship, the Gaspee, in 1772 in protest of unfair taxation – long before the Boston Tea Party. http://www.gaspee.org/

    Response shared by Elizabeth Kenyon — July 3, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

  • Re-imagining the 4th of July. Ever since I first heard the 7/5/1852 speech by Frederick Douglass, I had words to articulate my reservation/refusal to join the fireworks and other BBQ’s for the 4th. The hypocrisy of all the unabashed celebratory, congratulatory hype,

    Thanks, for adding to my continuing Retirement Re-education Project. So needed by so many today and future. Thanks to Howard Zinn, Horne, Foner, Zinn Education Project, DemocracyNow.org, Americans Who Tell The Truth, and others that available to me now through the Internet, I find information, stories so long hidden from me and most, if not all, of us in “lamestream” education system. And, from what I am finding, my long-term outrage at being lied to, being denied a real education of the U.S. and the world, has increased my outrage, but also has added dimensions: hope, inspiration and gratitude, to the people who are bringing this history to more of us throughout the world; gratitude to our ancestors, especially the “unknowns” and “little knowns whose voices and actions in the struggle for truth and justice are silent no more…..they are moving to the forefront of mainstream, through technology.

    Voices from the past, so long hidden from most of our view, now approaching plain sight. And gratitude to all whose shoulders I stand upon, who fought against racism, sexism, classism, etc. Thanks for all the incredible work. No amount of thanks is truly adequate to you all at the Zinn Education Project, and Re-thinking Schools, for keeping Howard Zinn’s legacy alive, for to me, he is one of our greatest American heroes. Hoping more and more of our younger generation(s) will have access to this “real” education.

    Response shared by Katy Kay — July 6, 2014 @ 12:38 am

  • Actually, we need to be Rethinking Professors and Tenure. This liberal gibberish has no place in academia. If this is what tuition gets you then kids are better off saving their money. If you decide not to publish this remark then it will be clear you do not believe in the 1st amendment either.

    Response shared by Dean Wilson — July 6, 2014 @ 9:13 am

  • It is a shame that the author has such a hatred for the United States, the greatest country to ever exist on this planet. Shame on you for wanting people to give up their right to celebrate what freedoms they have left.

    Response shared by Nonsenseyousay — July 7, 2014 @ 11:46 am

  • No political system is perfect, but the first steps of the American experiment, leading up to the Declaration of Independence, were popular displays of anti-government sentiment, sometimes armed. To that extent, if we are to celebrate that individual initiative, that of people coming together in communities to protest the corruption and abuse of an over-taxing, over-regulatory government, then we must also teach these are the same roots of standoffs such as Mr. Bundys and the roots of the birth of the modern Tea Party. Granted, there is nothing “progressive” about our Colonial uprising, which are considered by todays standards “acts of terrorism”, or our current observations of popular swings towards libertarianism, but the ideals of this nation are not based on adoration of or allegiance to a top down, regulation-crazy, tax-crazy wealth redistributionist government. The people in the colonies were ready to go to war over taxes and government abuses that pale in comparison to what our current “progressive” government foists on us. To that end, I think Rose Wilder Lanes book “the Discovery of Freedom” (1943 I believe) should be required reading in our schools. In that book she mentions the history @ the Gaspee ship mentioned by the comment above. Great discussion of the INDIVIDUALS who made US history happen during the time period of the Founding, and what it was exactly they were trying to escape.

    Response shared by JoeFromMd — July 9, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

  • I cannot celebrate freedom with such imitations of war as fireworks! The noise alone is too stressful, I’d rather be at Walden Pond…

    Response shared by Deborah Lotus — July 3, 2015 @ 9:14 am

  • History has always been recorded with great bias and propaganda of the winner. War crimes are overly abundant in the creation of the USofA … Yes it is too bad we do not teach this in Grade School let alone High School or College. All men are flawed including the ones we hold up as ‘great’ or ‘founders’. We should not hide these flaws as you imply. We should teach these flaws along with the great deeds. Then our children will not feel so small and hopeless in their own quests because of their flaws and the flaws of their parents.
    Truth hurts but hurts make us stronger.
    Shame on the deniers and Bravo to this quest for truth or at least a truer understanding.

    Response shared by Doug Thorburn — July 4, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

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