"The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776" by John Trumbull

The Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, proclaiming their freedom from Great Britain. We celebrate that day with fireworks and BBQs, but there’s a deeper history to the men and women who crafted our nation’s first beginnings. We talk with historians about the stories behind our country’s independence.

Kenneth C. Davis, historian and author of "Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History But Never Learned"
Danielle Allen, political theorist and professor in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and author of "Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence"
Thomas Slaughter, history professor at the University of Rochester and author of "Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution"

  • Robert Thomas

    One antecedent I’ve found fascinating is that of the 1,100 year old Venetian Republic.

    Though by the second half of the eighteenth century it was not easy to describe it any longer as “Most Serene”, there is no question that Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were students of the Venetian experience. In December 1784, the three of them wrote to Daniele Dolfin, then Venetian ambassador to Paris, proposing a “treaty of amity and commerce” to which the Venetian Senate chose not to respond (presumably for strategic reasons and Venice’s relations with Great Britain), much to Dolfin’s disappointment.

    Venice’s fascinating history is recently revisited in

    Venice: A New History (Viking, 2012) by Thomas F. Madden

  • Robert Thomas

    Though I’m sure the panelists will remind us of its many historical inaccuracies, I admit to a very soft spot for Peter H. Hunt’s 1972 film version of Sherman Edwards’s 1776.

    It’s hard for anyone who ever saw it in a theater as a schoolboy to forget the great John Cullum’s performance of Molasses to Rum.

    Your guest will happily recall that in the screenplay, at least, although Lewis Morris was compelled to abstain for New York many times, it was always “courteously”.

  • ldemelis

    Venice was a republic with the right to vote limited to significant property owners (which, to be fair, early America was too, although the franchise was quickly expanded). But it had had peaceful transitions of power for nearly 700 years (there was one attempted coup, quickly squelched). The Founders might well have used Venice as a successful model for a republican form of government.

  • thucy

    From the exciting guests to the on-point host to the great topic to Robert Thomas’ and Idemelis’ interesting comments, this is a great Forum segment. Thanks, Forum staff!

  • Robert Thomas

    “Taxation No Tyranny”, – 1775, Samuel Johnson

  • Ana

    It is interesting that you are doing a program on the historical inaccuracies around the declaration of Independence of the United States of America, and you are using the name America, as it is now adopted to refer to the country United States of America. America was the name given to the new world by the king and queen of Spain in honor of Americo Vespucci who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass.

    • Bill_Woods

      In Spanish, the term ‘America’ is equivalent to the English term ‘the Americas’, meaning both North and South America. But in English ‘America’ is just the short form of ‘the United States of America’. C.f. ‘the Dominion of Canada’ (aka ‘Canada’), ‘the United Mexican States’ (aka ‘Mexico’), ‘the Federative Republic of Brazil’ (aka ‘Brazil’), etc.

      • Ana

        All this after the name America was adapted to mean United State of America (noticed not “United States of the Americas”). I am just pointing where the name came from historically.

    • Another Mike

      The Western Hemisphere continents were named America because some German cartographer made a mistake. Even if the King and Queen of Spain had done it to honor Vespucci (and, in that case, why not Vespuccilandia?), these were the same people who authorized the Church to torture confessions out of Jewish converts to Christianity. So their judgment is quite questionable.

      • Ana

        I failed to see the merit of your argument. The moral charater of the people at the time does not change the origin of the name. And that the United States of America adopted the name America to represent the country. Maybe you would have preferred the name the United States of Vespuccilandia. So if this was a program about accurate history so why not then keep all things accurate.

  • Fyza Parviz

    Thank you for this wonderful show! Can the guests recommend ways to celebrate independence day other than watching the fireworks. I was hoping to celebrate by visiting the CA state museum in Sacramento and watching the PBS series on American Revolution called Liberty. Is there anything the guests could recommend? And what do they do on 4th of July?

  • Tony Bass

    Great program. I now want to read Professor Danielle Allen’s book; it’s now on my Summer reading list. Professor Allen is so passionate about her areas of expertise; very refreshing. Thanks.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Oh that closing comment about how the Supreme Court “originalists” are getting it wrong needs a show unto itself! Wish you had explored that earlier in the show! Michael, seriously, is there anything more important in quoting history than blowing though blowhards who think theyre our betters?? TRUTH, not propaganda, please – or as close as we can get to it…A cont’d show, please!

    • Robert Thomas

      Fay, it’s so true. I have great respect for Supreme Court Justices who irk me the most, as well as those with whom I usually agree because despite their media reputations, I know they well understand the ambiguities deliberately inserted into our founding documents. But the popular arguments for “textualism” and “strict constructionism” and so on invoked by pundits show themselves to be pretty vacant, after only a little historical study.

      I’m not a lawyer – only a lay citizen who marvels at what he can now easily read (in enlarged type font!) on the internet – but I find myself drawn in by the fragmented record we have available of the lawyerly wordsmithery and vehemence of argument made during the creation of these declamations.

      Ten years ago (about), I was trying to use web sources to see if I could get an “axe-grinding-free” picture of contemporary debate over the drafting of the Second Amendment. I came upon Madison’s own meticulous notes on the debates during the Federal Convention of 1787. I think that was transcribed and presented by the University of Virginia. The best site for reading this now is Ashland University’s TeachingAmericanHistory.org site

      Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
      by James Madison


      It’s a great site, with all kinds of wonderful things to read.

      • Steve

        Thank you for that reference, Robert. It looks like a great resource.

      • Another Mike

        Miraculously, as in Citizens United, Scalia’s originalist view of the Constitution lines up with his personal likes and dislikes. Because it’s quite unlikely that the founders thought of corporations as having a voice different from their owners’, considering the doctrine of separate legal personality for corporations was not to be created for another century.

        • I’ve just re-read ‘Age of Betrayal’ Jack Beatty, 2007, and the “created” doctrine of corporation as persons under the 14th Amendment.

          Corporations are People, Money is Speech, Companies Worship. The Enlightenment came to America, got rebranded, redefined, then died.

        • geraldfnord

          I never cease to wonder at the guileless ‘reverse ventriloquism’ act performed by some leaders—‘Oh, it’s the {Voice of the People}/{The Word of God}/{The Constitution as intended by the Founders}, I don’t have any choice in the matter, good thing it aligns perfectly with every other belief of mine.’

          Originalism suffers from a fundamental defect: none living agreed to live by the Constitution, or were part of a population of a polity that had so agreed, in 1787. Absent Jefferson’s proposal that the Constitution be re-made every generation or so, the only way consistent with fundamental liberty that we can consider it binding is that fact of our implied acquiescence to it as _we_ construe it—roughly: we can’t cater to every idiosyncratic reading, and likely we would be in trouble catering to any in particular, so some smeared and weighted average of the opinions of the living were necessary. (Many now living could likely could not have construed it in the same ways as those ‘agreeing’ to it now, or as those who did so fifty years ago.)

          This does not mean that there are no sections whose meanings are and were plain, so nuts to those of you who want to interfere with the slaves-trade before 1808.

          • Fay Nissenbaum

            love the comment about reverse ventriloquism! Only thing you left out was “think of the children” – the LIAR typically uses two main techniques – generalizations and parsing history to proclaim – lo and behold- that history supports their their point of view and we all just need to see it.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor