With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The American Revolution Remains a Hotly Contested Symbolic Field

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    1776 is a symbol of freedom, reason, and the founding of this country. But two centuries later, that date, 1776, was a rallying cry for rioters disrupting a national election at the Capitol.

  • Protesters:

    1776! 1776!

  • Rioters:

    1776! 1776!

  • Rioters:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is an example of how the politics and rhetoric around the founding has become inflamed and can eclipse the actual history involved.

    Joining me to discuss are Amy Cooter, the research director at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute, and Jim Grossman, historian and executive director of the American Historical Association.

    Amy, I want to start with you.

    July Fourth celebrates our history of men who were radical in their time in the founding, but I want to talk about the group you study now, those were in militias, those who are extremists. How do they use 1776 for their own purposes?

  • Amy Cooter, Senior Research Fellow, Middlebury Institute:

    For them, 1776 has been important for longer than important for much longer than what we just saw with January 6.

    For them, it is kind of their reason to be in the militia, their reason to be as a man in society. They really see themselves as acting in the lineage of the founding fathers and think that true patriots have this obligation to honor them and honor that date.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jim, I want to talk also more broadly about the political bloodstream, because talking about the founding fathers is political boilerplate, but especially in recent times for conservatives.

    And I want to play this video. This is South Carolina, Tim Scott, presidential candidate and Republican, his July Fourth message out this year.

    Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Presidential Candidate: Our founding fathers were geniuses who should be celebrated, not canceled.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Obviously, there was genius involved in the founding of America. But I wonder how you see the positives and negatives versus the rhetoric which is sort of amped up about the founding fathers.

  • Jim Grossman, Executive Director, American Historical Association:

    The problem here is an inclination among many people to see things as black and white, to see things as just, it's either this or it's that.

    And people talk about teaching the glory and the glory, for example, of American history. Senator Scott says they should be celebrated and not canceled. They shouldn't be understood. And that doesn't mean celebrated. It doesn't mean canceled. Their ideas were brilliant. There is no question that the founding documents were, in fact, revolutionary.

    They contained insights into liberty, into freedom. But these men also — they were men. There weren't any women present. These men also were mostly men who owned, bought and sold other human beings. And they lived and had grown up in a world where it was OK to own, buy, and sell other human beings.

    And to understand what they wrote and to understand them, we have to understand that. This is not a theory. This is a fact.

Read entire article at PBS News Hour