On the eve of Independence Day, American historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of some of the most popular books on the founding fathers Joseph J. Ellis came to the Great Books Summer Program to speak. Ellis’ talk at Amherst went so far beyond textbook teaching that one of the students asked, “Why aren’t we taught the details of the founding of our country as you are telling them to us here?”
Joe Ellis’ response, “Because they think you know it.”
But evidently we don’t. And the kids learning about American history in our schools, don’t. One survey showed that 40% of those asked did not know from which country the colonies declared independence.
Joe Ellis laid out a fascinating timeline of the secession and the writing of the Declaration of Independence, illustrating how this process was truly an evolution, (as opposed to the bloody French and Russian Revolutions), a reaching of consensus that took place over the course of many, many months.
The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Jefferson in 2-3 days and edited by the 55 representatives of the colonies. 86 changes were made, 25% of the text was deleted, most of which in the indictment of George III. The only changes made in the doctrine of original intent was the change to “We hold these truths to be self evident” and the deletion of “property” from the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The original language for which self evident was substituted was “sacred and undeniable. ” For the latter, property likely referred to slaves as property and its deletion may have been the first acknowledgment that slavery stood against the principles of the republic.
During Ellis’ talk, we learned so much more, including the fact that nothing of note happened on the original July 4th, except perhaps that the Declaration of Independence was sent to the printer. Fifty years later, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on that day just hours apart, but that was merely a coincidence. Even so, what we learned made the 4th of July celebration all the more special.