I sit in an office that says “Associate Principal” on the door, but I’ve been fascinated with history since I was a kid. I started my career as a social studies educator, and my passion is still in learning more about those who came before us, their contexts, their dilemmas, their challenges, their courage, their imperfections, their efforts and their sacrifices. So, I put on my history teacher hat for this Independence Day recommendation for readings to ponder the words and deeds of those who worked to build a new nation and have left it to us, as Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg Address, “…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work…” This list and the observations are merely my own. I don’t enumerate them as a representation of perfection of human endeavor but as the Founders said, as some that may represent the dedication to “a more perfect Union.” That job still goes on today, and it may be easy to point out the foibles or mistakes of the past, but personally, I would rather look myself in the mirror and ask if I am doing all I can to be the change I would like to see in my community, my country and my world. Happy Independence Day!
- A Model of Christian Charity (1630) – John Winthrop was not a Puritan minister, but he gave this sermon upon the ship Arbella right after his son had died and another ship bringing Puritans to their “New England” had arrived with fourteen who had perished on the voyage. Winthrop stated, “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” I include this selection because it reminds me that for many who came to this country (even before it was a country), it was considered a place of opportunity and refuge. It was seen as a place for hope and optimism. It was seen as a special place that held special responsibilities of its inhabitants. Whether you share Winthrop’s religious views or not, I think the premise still holds that our country has the eyes of all people watching us.
Here is a reading of Winthrop’s sermon:
Interestingly, John F. Kennedy gave an exposition on this text in January 1961. Some historians state that this is one of the most important speeches the president would give. Here is an examination of the texts from the New England Historical Society:
Here is an 8 minute audio file of President-elect Kennedy delivering the speech:
- Common Sense (1776) – This pamphlet by Thomas Paine had a great influence specifically on George Washington and many other colonists as Paine made the argument that the monarchy of Great Britain had seized their power and used it tyrannically. He also said that the American Revolution was not only inevitable, but winnable. General Washington had the pamphlet read to his soldiers to buoy them during desperate times. In the introduction to what would now be considered a “best seller,” Paine stated, “The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested.”
Here are some links that explain its impact:
Here is the actual pamphlet:
Here is a link to The Crisis which states among other things, “THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
- The Declaration of Independence (1776) – The document that spelled out the reasons for separation of the colonies from the mother country, written mainly by Thomas Jefferson. Although these words do not make up federal law, they reverberate with the expectations that we have as citizens of this democratic republic for the contractual obligations that governments have with their citizenry. Jefferson wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” I hope we are continuing to move towards an authentic reality where the rhetoric is matched more consistently with experience in the lives of all Americans.
Here is a 13 minute dramatic reading of the Declaration with an introduction from Morgan Freeman if you would like to hear it read:
- The Preamble to the Constitution (1787) – Where the Declaration of Independence spells out philosophical underpinnings for the social contract between citizens and its government, the Preamble sets forth the explicitly stated purposes for our current form of government under the Constitution that was ratified and has been in effect with some modifications (amendments) since 1789. Here, James Madison and the other Framers spell out why we have a government and begins, “We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union….” This is a government of “we.”
- Declaration of Sentiments (1848) – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and other women’s rights advocates convened in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 and drafted this declaration modeled after Jefferson’s political ideals. Revising Jefferson, they stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
- “Ain’t I a woman speech?” (1851) – Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in 1797, escaped as an adult and became an itinerant preacher who changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Truth delivered this speech at a Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio and among other things stated, “…And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
- The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro (1852) – The runaway slave and abolitionist orator, Frederick Douglass was asked to speak at a ceremony celebrating Independence Day on July 5, 1852. He gave this harsh reminder of the contradictions between political ideals and reality. Among many other stark phrases, he addressed his mostly white audience with, “Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
- The Gettysburg Address (1863) – In many respects we have come to revere President Abraham Lincoln and look at him as almost immortal, but there was strong opposition to his presidency and even grave concern that he would lose his bid for re-election in 1864 to a candidate that would end the Civil War by allowing the Confederacy to withdraw from the Union. The Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863 was the largest battle ever fought in North America and truly a turning point of the war but a costly one for both sides. The war would continue to drag on until 1865, but in this short address where Lincoln was not even the featured speaker, his three minute utterance can serve as inspiration and reminder for all of us to continue to work for “…government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE…” (emphasis mine)
Here is a short video clip that gives context:
Here’s the document:
- Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865) – If the fate of the war still looked uncertain in 1863, by Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, it was obvious that the Confederacy was waning. Lincoln could have used this occasion to boast of his achievements or glorious military victories. Instead, in what some historians consider to be Lincoln’s most important speech, he spells out what the future could and should hold for a country ripped apart. To me personally, it is a speech of humility and reconciliation and one that offers grace even in the midst of tremendous pain. His address is only 701 words long and in it he asks the nation to demonstrate compassion for all touched by the horrors of the civil war. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wound, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphans; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Perhaps this is a model of civility and forgiveness that could benefit our society today.
Here’s the full transcript:
Here’s a backstory including John Wilkes Booth’s presence at the ceremony
- Chief Joseph (1879) – Chief Joseph, or as he was named, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain,” became the leader of the Nez Perce after the death of his father who took the Christian name “Joseph” after he was baptized by missionaries. “The Younger Joseph” was born in the Wallowa Valley of present day Oregon and grew famous to most Americans as a result of his exploits in leading his people from capture by US troops on a 1400 mile “retreat” from the army hotly pursuing him as he sought to get his people to Canada and elude deportation to a reservation far from their homeland. They were finally captured 40 miles from the Canadian border, and he is quoted in his surrender speech as saying, “I will fight no more forever.” While forsaking military action, he did continue to be a strong voice for the rights of his people. In an appearance in Washington, DC in 1879, he stated, “If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.”
Here is an overview of Joseph’s story:
Here is a list of statements and speeches he gave including the above quote:
What words inspire you? What historical figures urge you to act? What models do you look towards as you work to better our community, state and nation? I realize there are many other great documents, speeches and statements that can be reviewed and held up for their teachings on the rights and responsibilities in this country. I realize there are moments to celebrate and moments more sobering that cause us pause and resolve to make improvements. The work remains unfinished. Let’s do it for them – those that came before and those that will come after.