Happy 4th of July to everyone. Or, happy Independence Day, though most people seem to just call it the 4th of July.
A few thoughts about our holiday, from a literary perspective.
First, these books represent only a fraction of the books I’ve read about the American Revolution. There could be twenty-five more around here somewhere, if we had the energy to look. (Including Chernow’s Hamilton, McCullough’s Adams…).
And these books represent only a portion of the total number of books that have been published. Another note. These are not academic treatises. These are popular books written to be ready by laypeople or at least lay-adjacent people.
There are just so many.
The reason is that the American Revolution is our origin story and these books are our mythology. If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you know that the current use of the word mythology to mean “something that isn’t true” is not the full story. Every society has a primal need to tell origin stories. We want to understand and shape the idea of where we came from as a way to express who we are. Ask Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me.
Once you realize this, you see it everywhere. As a PR practitioner, you realize this is an essential part of storytelling. There’s Hewlett and Packard in the garage, those Google guys in that woman’s house, Woz and Steve hacking long distance calls…you get the idea. “For Bobby Entrepreneur, the key moment came when he watched an ice cube fall into a glass of tonic.”
And the American Revolution is our culture’s mythology. When I say our culture, I mean it in the most literal of ways. No one else thinks this is a big deal. My stepfather grew up in England and when he moved here (around the time of the Bicentennial), he told us that they had spent precisely zero seconds studying the American Revolution in school.
You can chalk that up to English arrogance if you want, but their history around that time is far more concerned with their wars with the French, of which the American Revolution (and the War of 1812) are considered extensions. If the English don’t study it, you can be pretty sure no one else does either.
For my part, the most important part of reading the histories and biographies is to understand that our history was created by men and not Gods. There is a tendency, particularly among those on the right, to deify our Founders. To me, that’s a disservice. When we view historic people with that lens and then our current leaders with a human lens, we end up thinking that we are less than they were.
That’s not the case. Many of the founders were brilliant. They had incredible courage and some of them had a true vision for a different way to found a society. Many of them could also afford to think these great thoughts because slaves were performing all their labor. They were also often bickering, small-minded, factional, jealous and even wrong.
But what they did was important and meaningful, especially to those of us who live here. And the story is fascinating and compelling.
If you’re looking for something to start with, McCullough is always the answer. 1776 and the John Adams are both great books to understand how the whole thing unfolded. Also, a Washington biography is essential. His military leadership, in which he lost almost all the battles and won by never losing the war, and his unique ability to lead the nascent union are critical. Had he died before 1789 and Adams, Madison or Jefferson ended up as Chief Executive, its possible things would have turned out differently.
Especially Jefferson. Don’t get me started.
So enjoy the day. Have a hot dog. Watch some baseball. Read a book.