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History As It Happens

Jul 15, 2021

The date upon which Americans celebrate their nation’s independence helps explain a curious act of forgetting, a whitewashing of a complicated past in favor of a mythic narrative of heroism and unity. It is on the Fourth of July when we mark the Continental Congress' adoption of the Declaration of Independence, whose opening words have come to embody the American ideal. We do not gather for barbecues or fireworks on, say, October 17. On that date in 1781 Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War -- a rebel victory without which the words of the Declaration would have amounted to a footnote in history. By embracing the Fourth of July and celebrating the Enlightenment ideals articulated in Jefferson’s magisterial Declaration, we tend to obscure the war part of the Revolutionary War -- the internecine violence, civil war, cruelty, terror, destruction of private property, and outright misery that has accompanied most wars and revolutions. In this episode, Pulitzer Prize-winning University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor discusses why it is important to acknowledge the violence and terror that scarred the revolutionary years as well as tales of heroism and courage and the triumph of freedom and liberty.