Fourth of July History – Five Questions

Fireworks from stocksnapMy husband and I have been listening to the sound track of the Broadway musical Hamilton, (maybe one day we’ll see it) and one song has me thinking: “History Has Its Eyes On You.”  History, the recording and interpretation of happenings, did have its eyes on Alexander Hamilton, and everyone else involved with the American Revolution, and we know about it from official documents, newspapers, letters, and other scraps of information.  Somehow that all comes together as “history.”

For years surveys and data have suggested that American students are woefully lacking in basic U.S. History proficiency, and this article claims that students have always had inadequate understanding of the subject.

It’s not terribly surprising, for history cannot be easily reduced to multiple choice or short answer questions.  History is not like math or science where an answer to a question can be worked out according to a formula and assumed to be exact.  Historical happenings are easy to over simplify and analysis can be reductionistic.  It’s nuanced, and history is often painted, and repainted, in one’s ideologically preferred tones.

On this Fourth of July I asked my son, who is a high school history teacher, to come up with a few questions so that we could all test our U.S. History expertise.  (Thanks Brian!)


1. Was the American Revolution really a revolution?
Some historians argue that the American Revolution was really a war of independence, because although the system of government changed from a monarchy under Britain to a republic, not much changed in the economic system. White, landowning citizens were able to participate more in government but the “Status quo” pretty much stayed the same after the revolution.

Others argue that the war was truly a revolution creating a society where women, slaves, and the poor had more rights than they had previously had as well as creating a political system that had yet to be seen in the world.

2. Why did the American colonies decide to revolt?
I am sure you are thinking, “taxation without representation,” but when looking at causes in history there is always a more complex answer. We can trace the cause of the revolution to the rivalry between Britain and France, specifically the French and Indian War. In short, before the war the American colonies enjoyed relative freedom from the British government, but when the British had to fight the French on American soil it caused the British government to get more involved in American life. American citizens were required to quarter British troops in their homes and pay high taxes on tea, stamps, legal documents, and even playing cards. If American colonies had been used to paying these taxes maybe things would have been different, but their own identity as “Americans” caused the colonies to see England as an outside oppressive force eventually leading them to revolt.

3. Was the declaration of Independence actually signed on July 4th?
The Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2nd and the document was not actually signed until August 2nd but it was dated July 4th, so that is the date to be known as the day of Independence.

4. How were the colonies able to win?
The short answer… France, Spain, Holland, and guerrilla warfare. It is easy to get sucked into the “David and Goliath” narrative of the rag tag colonists vs. the largest and most powerful empire of the time, but it is crucial to understand that the colonies were not Great Britain’s only interest at this time. Great Britain had a giant empire to maintain, and colonies in the Caribbean that were much more lucrative than the American Colonies.
The Colonists also got financial and military aid from Great Britain’s rivals that was key to winning the war. The Financial aid combined with guerrilla warfare tactics the colonists had learned from the Native Americans during the “French and Indian War” meant that subduing the revolt was a very challenging task for the British military.

5. What happened after the war?
As I initially understood the story, we won the war, a new government was put in place, and things got better. But that wasn’t quite what happened.

The nation was bankrupt and could not pay the soldiers who had risked their lives for the cause. Also many former soldiers who couldn’t pay off their debts were put in prison creating so much discontent that some soldiers revolted in an event known as “Shays’ rebellion.”

Shays’ Rebellion involved a series of protests led by Daniel Shays including many former soldiers who had fought in the revolution. It ended in a bloody confrontation where a swarm of 1400 protesters tried to take a federal arsenal to get the government’s attention, cannons were fired into the mob and the group disbanded.  Nonetheless, Shays’ rebellion represents how unstable things were during the United States’ fragile infancy.

Were you proficient?  I wasn’t. Events like Shays’ Rebellion were only vaguely familiar, and my understanding of why the American’s rebelled was, in fact, simplistic and reductionistic.

This little exercise reminds me to take history more seriously, to check out different views, and not to buy sound bite historical summaries quite so quickly.  It’s complicated.

Ultimately, there is One who is writing all of history, whose eyes are always on you and me, who doesn’t miss a thing, and who has figured out how all the events of human history work together for His glory.  It will be fascinating to read His Story one day.


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