Here in Fredericksburg, the home town of George Washington, and 50 miles from the nation’s capital, the Fourth of July is a big deal. There is a parade, a wonderful wacky raft race featuring almost anything that floats, a street fair with vendors and a stage for local talent. The day ends, of course, with fireworks bursting in the air above the park along the river. It is a Norman Rockwell Fourth of July — the way we like our history.
But the Fourth of July isn’t over for me until I have watched 1776. It just isn’t the Fourth until I sing our nation into existence along with Tom, Ben, Abigail, and John. I know all the songs and most of the lines by heart. Each year I have to remind myself that the Continental Congress didn’t really sing and dance their way to the Declaration. Critics may have found the movie trite and historians may be horrified by a musical taking dramatic license with some characters and events. But it strikes me that, when it comes to historical accuracy, Sherman Edwards’ song and dance of the Founding Fathers may not be much different than the highly edited photo-op sound bite version of current events we get on the evening news.
I know that 1776 is quasi-history, but if we are completely honest, is there is really any other kind of history? We weren’t there. History is someone else’s best guess based on interpretation of incomplete evidence and less than objective witnesses. The best we can do is take their story of who, where and when, try to verify information we have, and ferret out what is missing. We discern what, how and why by considering multiple interpretations of facts, looking for consistencies or conflicts, and forming our own opinions.
Thirty-five years after its release, some school systems are still fribbling over whether middle school civic students should be allowed to see 1776. Sexual innuendo and inappropriate language, rather than historical accuracy, seems to be the concern. I hope some teachers will practice a little civil disobedience and continue to treat their students to two hours of this engaging and uplifting piece of history as entertainment.
Our children face enormous challenges against great odds in a very cynical world. There is little doubt that we will leave them with large and serious economic, environmental, social, and international problems. Moving our nation forward is likely to require some audacious new ideas, a great deal of compromise, and considerable sacrifice. Perhaps they might find courage in a version of history where less than perfect people engage in what was sometimes less than noble behavior to arrive at a less than pure policy that still transcends itself and its makers.
Maybe those haunting lines, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” were theatrical inventions of self doubt created for dramatic effect, but within a few hours of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence the real John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:
I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than the means.
The movie ends with the signing, but the story doesn’t. There was indeed a great deal of gloom and frustration and difficulty ahead. Jefferson and Adams, partners in conception, often found themselves at odds on how to rear an infant nation. But until the shared day of their death on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration, there was one common belief on which they never differed:
The objects of... primary education [which] determine its character and limits [are]: To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing; to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment; and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.--Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818.
Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. John Adams, The Boston Gazette, 1765
If we are to honor our history, we need to prepare the next generation to think creatively as well as efficiently, to value cooperation as much as correctness, and to question as effectively as they recall. So, on the Fourth of July of an election year on behalf of America’s teachers, I’m asking along with Adams —
Does anybody see what I see?
The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.