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What Do You Know About The Fourth Of July?

Aired 7/5/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

A day at the beach, hot dogs and fireworks: we all know how to celebrate the Fourth of July. But do we really know what we're celebrating? A American History Professor joins us to increase our Fourth of July IQ.

Aired 7/5/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

A day at the beach, hot dogs and fireworks: we all know how to celebrate the Fourth of July. But do we really know what we're celebrating? A American History Professor joins us to increase our Fourth of July IQ.

A day at the beach, hot dogs and fireworks: we all know how to celebrate the Fourth of July. But do we really know what we're celebrating? An American History Professor joins us to increase our Fourth of July IQ.

GUEST: SDSU History Professor John Putman

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: We begin with a tribute to American history. History can be trick for many of us. You may think you know more than you actually do. For instance, here's Sarah Palin on Paul Revere.

PALIN: He who warned a -- deserters that they weren't gonna be taking away our arms. And making sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free.

CAVANAUGH: Governor Palin obviously had some trouble recounting the story of paul revere's ride to warn colonists that the british were coming. But you could probably hear something very similar in any random sampling of americans. On this July 4th, my guest is american history professor John Putnam from SDSU. Talking about what we all should know but perhaps have forgotten on this holiday celebrating the birth of america. Professor Putnam, welcome.

PUTMAN: Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us simply what paul revere was doing riding that horse and ringing those bells?

PUTMAN: It was to go to lexington and concord in order to warn the colonists there that the general gauge and his troops were on their way. Governor Pallin was right on some of the facts. . She just muddled through it a lot bit. Clearly there was a munitions supply area in Concord, which general gauge was going to try to seize. And that's one of the reasons why they needed to be warned. The mayor ordered to protect that. Also John Hancock and Sam Adams were in Lexington and there were concerns they might be arrested by the general. He was out to warn them that the british troops were on their way. But he didn't fire any shots. This was supposed to be a secret mission. He didn't want to let the british know what was going on. And as far as the bells, what he was doing was warning people in various communities that they could ring their bells to get people ready for the british.

PUTMAN: I like that term that you use, mudling through. I think that's what an awful lot of us do when it comes to actually recounting instances of american history. We kind of know about the horse and the bells. But we have trouble putting it all together. Bringing it back to where we are today, the fourth of july honors the signing of the declaration of independence in 1776. What are the mistakes and misconceptions that people have about what actually happened on july†4th?

PUTMAN: One of the most important things is that the united states actually declared its independence in july†4th. In fact, it was two days earlier that the continental congress, the second continental congress declared officially independence. And this was in response to a resolution by another virginian, richard humanry lee, who had come earlier in june from virginia with demands that action be taken by the continental congress. And in his statement, it was a simple couple of sentences laying out that the -- these colonies should be free from british control. So on july†2nd, that's what they voted on, and that's when they declared independent. July†4th is the finishing of the debate and the acceptance of the final formal declaration, the written declaration we call the declaration of independence

CAVANAUGH: Did everybody sign it on the fourth?

PUTMAN: No. In fact, it was not even signed for two months afterwards. A clean copy had to be made and printed. So it was on august†2nd, most of the signers then came back in philadelphia and signed it. But there were several who didn't sign it for months later. They waited until they came into town or somewhere nearby and would sign it when they were there.

CAVANAUGH: When the declaration of independence was being approved in 1776, were we already at war with great britain?

PUTMAN: In an informal way, yes. Clearly since lexington concord americans in some of the colonies had been organizing troops and militias to prepare. One thing about the declaration is the fourth of july, it's really a culmination of a dozen years of leading up to the revolution. I think that's sometimes a misconception, as though all of a sudden on july†4th, Americans decided to declare their independence. They had been working toward that for a decade. And this is a difficult effort and decision because even as late as 1775, and even early 1776, there's still no ground swell for independence. It's really common sense, the famous pamphlet by thomas pain, that comes out in the early part of 1776, then the declaration of independence that cement the final push for independence. And that said, there's still probably 20 to 25% of the americans in the colonies remain loyal to england throughout this.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. What were their arguments? Why did they not want to see the united states of america come into being?

PUTMAN: Who?

CAVANAUGH: The people who were loyal to britain.

PUTMAN: Part of it was -- we have to remember that we tend to see these people as americans, as though they're separate from England. They are british subjects, and they are proud well into the 17 '70s to be british subjects. Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, everybody was very proud of that. So part 've that is simply the allegiance and loyalty to England. The other thing was that the english provided protection for the colonies, they were the most powerful naval force in the world. They provided great trade connections to the larger british empire. So economically and militarily, those were important reasons to remain part of england. And finally, if separated, you risked being taken over by another powerful european party, particularly the french or another group like that.

CAVANAUGH: As these delicates to the continental congress were debating all this, before the signing of the declaration of independence, was there even some question as to whether or not this whole idea of a democratic republic would fly?

PUTMAN: Yeah. Een among what whey call the founding fathers, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of hope here. Clearly they had committed themselves to some kind of a democratic society. But again, one's definition of democracy is not the same as someone else's, much like even today there are different understandings of what democratic institutions mean across the world am even within the colonies, for the elites, and many of those of course are the founding fathers, democracy didn't mean that everybody got the right to vote or everybody gets to participate in the new country that they're gonna form. Obviously women would be marked out, as well as slaves. But also those without property would not be allowed to participate in the political arena, at least. Because they did not posses the means of independence, which property provided one.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with professor john put man from san diego state university. We're talking about the factual foundations of the holiday that we celebrate today, the fourth of july. That's another aspect to this that i think we tend to overlook, and that is the risk that the signers of the declaration of independence were actually taking. Tell us about that.

PUTMAN: Yeah. It is an act of treason, and they understood that because in the month of june during the debates after richard henry lee posed this resolution, basically asking for independence or demanding independence, the one who took the minutes was very vague, and it just simply said resolutions were discussed and debated because they understood that you're putting in writing, if you wrote down that resolution, and the british got wind of it, and let's say the decision went against independence you're opening up -- they're opening themselves up to arrest and possible execution. So clearly they understood that they were committing themselves -- something they couldn't turn around. And this is -- there's a point of no return now once you declare independence. Six months later, you can't say sorry about that without facing some punishment. So for those at the convention or at the delegation that was there at the cont metropolitanal congress, they were putingly themselves at significant personal risk.

CAVANAUGH: So if we hadn't won the war, if the americans had not won the war of independence with britain, what would have happened to great leaders like benjamin franklin or thomas jefferson?

PUTMAN: Most of them would have been executed. It's a capital punishment. It's treason. This is a civil war, and that's a tendency we forget. Up until 1776 and july†4th or second, these are all british subjects. So it is a civil war. And much like there were expectations of -- in the american civil war though this never went through, that once you took up arms against your legitimate government, religion, even if you don't see it as legitimate, you risk that punishment. There are people like william franklin, benjamin franklin's illegitimate son who was on the other side of this, he was the last colonial governor of new jersey. And he found himself under arrest and detained for a couple of years by local forces before they eventually let him go, and he was able to return to england. So clearly the worst case would be death. It's possible depending on your position that you might obviously lose your property, be tossed in jail for a long period of time

CAVANAUGH: Am i right in recalling that some very prominent americans actually left the country because of this war? They didn't want to be a part of this treasonous act against the nation of great britain.

PUTMAN: Sure. Loyalist populations -- i think john adams thought there was, like, 1-third he said were loyal, 1-third were committed to independence, and 1-third were fence sitters. The numbers are not exactly the same. But historians believe about 20†percent of the population were loyalists, and some of them did remain quiet and simply tried to avoid both the american troops and the british troops. Others did supply the british troops and help them while they were going up and down through the colonies, food and places to care. But others did, you know, flee and lost property and -- when the war is over, it's difficult to come back now and claim things that -- when you left.

CAVANAUGH: Where does the liberty bell in philadelphia fit into all of this?

PUTMAN: That's one of those myths again that comes out of the same problem we have with the views of paul revere'sy ride. It's the long fellow poem that has kind of warped how we understand and remember this event. As far as historians can tell, there was no striking of the liberty bell on july†4th. This was perhaps written into a children's book years later, as a book about legends of the american revolution. And it was picked up then and almost became in many people's idea a real memory then. In fact there seems to be no evidence that it was struck at that time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the founders of this nation, the dellidatigates, let's say, who signed the declaration of independence, did they sign that in august or whenever they got their copy, did they then head out to the battlefield? Who fought this war?

PUTMAN: Again, it was fought by all. You obviously have george washington wasn't there, but he already had troops he had already organized. He celebrated the signing of this document in july or the announcement of the document from july†4th about a week or so later with his troops. Jefferson and others, many of them of the elite, some of them become high officials in the military, but many return or -- mostly politicians, they return to the colonies, now states, and help operate the efforts from there. Organizing militia, providing taxes -- again, the states now are freed from the british parliament control, and therefore they have to write their own state institutions. And this is really where we get to see the range of attitudes when it comes to democracy. In the state institutions and that, because once you had freed yourself from british, you're no longer colonies, you have to have a legitimate government. So the delegations are formed in various states, colonies, to create their own state constitutions. Some were wildly radical like pennsylvania that had no governor, it had basically just an assembly. Then you had places like south carolina where they had significant property requirements simply to hold office. If you look at the property requirements, about 90†percent of the white male population could never serve in office. Eventually those things would be changed over the years. You get a sense again that not everyone sees or understands the meaning of this revolution in the same way. It has to be worked out over the next several decades actually.

PUTMAN: Finally, what would you like people to remember today as we're all eating our hotdogs and watching fourth of july fireworks? What would you like people to keep in mind

PUTMAN: I think one of the things -- this is something i did with my children for many years, i sat them down, reminded them why we are celebrating the fourth of july, take out the document, you can get it on line, it's not very long. And you can see in there not only the very commonly well known phrases of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, but also get a sense of the importance of this decision, that the -- this was a brave moment in our nation's history. Striking out on your own against the most powerful nation in the world, there's a lot of hope embedded in this. And i think that we also understand that it wasn't inevitable that this had to happen. This was a culmination of events and other processes that led to this decision. And of course the revolution and independence doesn't end in july 5th. It continues. And we continue to shape it today

PUTMAN: I have been speaking with professor john put man from san diego state yesterday. Thank you so much.

PUTMAN: You're welcome.

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