4th of July - Primary Documents and Perspective

July 4th 2008 fireworks, Washington, D.C., loc.gov
 The Fourth of July has always been my second favorite summer holiday (after my birthday).  The commemoration of the USA's 1776 revolution falls during warm weather which naturally accommodates swimming, picnics, popsicles, sprinklers, bubbles and other outdoor fun.  And then there are fireworks!  Even for a chicken like me, fireworks are a spectacle too exciting to pass up (as long as I have earplugs).  In addition to bringing summertime festivities all made up in red, white, and blue ribbons and paints, Independence Day is the perfect time to practice analyzing centuries-old documents and ideas in order to understand the patriotic tradition.  While many holidays are based on ephemeral concepts or folklore that are difficult to attach to a timeline, Independence Day commemorates a specific event in history that students can explore for themselves using important information literacy skills.  Between the barbeques and bottle rockets, let students find out what the day is all about.

Lee Resolution, ourdocuments.gov
Let students begin by reading Richard Henry Lee's June 7, 1776 resolution upon which the idea of independence from Britain was based.  This is a great time to discuss what primary documents are, and how they differ from secondary accounts of history.  The National Archives website provides lots of resources for teaching students to evaluate primary resources, including printable analysis worksheets.

Students can also see an image of the July 4 Declaration of Independence, courtesy of the Library of Congress, along with a timeline of 1776 events related to the famous document as noted in the Journals of the Continental Congress.  Encourage students to imagine what kind of dissatisfaction could lead a group of people to make a bold statement as was made that day.

Puck fourth of July 1905 / Frank A. Nankivell, loc.gov
Explore the history of fireworks displays for the annual observance, which date back the the revolution's first anniversary in 1777.

Then turn the subject into a discussion of perspective by introducing Frederick Douglass' 1852 speech, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?  For a short activity, share just an excerpt of the former slave's composition:
Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was "settled" that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were "final;" not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times...The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn...Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them...To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
Students can discuss who Douglass' audience might have been and what his purpose and meaning were in the speech.  Then, they can compare Douglass' perspective on the July 4th holiday to that of the 1852 audience or to the view represented through modern Independence Day celebrations.

Let students get an idea of how the holiday traditions have evolved over 236 years by reading "What the Presidents did on the Fourth of July" compiled by James Heintz.  Ask students to pick which year's presidential celebration they think best fits the meaning of the holiday.

Kids can also find a personal connection to the day's history by interviewing family members about how they have celebrated the day in the past.  Visit Climbing My Family Tree One Branch at a Time to get a printable family interview form kids can use to prepare questions and then record family members' answers. 
Then transition from study time to play time by listening to examples of how Independence Day has inspired music through The Washington Post's User-Poll Fourth of July playlist.

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