Celebrating Independence Day

We asked members of the AP U.S. History Development Committee, who develop that subject’s course and exam, what they think about Independence Day. Here’s what they told us.

What inspires you most about July 4, 1776?

“I get excited thinking about what must have been going through their minds! The exhilaration and, at the same time, the anxiety that they must have been feeling. They knew they were taking huge risks; as the conclusion of the Declaration of Independence says, ‘we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.’ They were willing to sacrifice for something larger than themselves. This, for me, is the most interesting and exciting period in American history.”
–John P. Irish, AP U.S. History Teacher
Carroll Sr. High School, Southlake, Texas

“I’m amazed at the risk that the Continental Congress took that summer in Philadelphia. But I’m also inspired by the long life of the Declaration’s ideals and the ways that it has been taken up around the world in generations since: by the Latin American republics in the 1810s, by Filipinos in 1898, by Korean nationalists who actually met in Philadelphia in 1919 to declare their independence from Japan. The Declaration of Independence really is a document of world history, not just American history.”
–Christopher Capozzola, Associate Professor of History
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“The idealistic egalitarianism expressed in the Declaration of Independence presents the ultimate standard for measuring the relative justice found in human societies. The extent to which we live up to its ideals has marked, and continues to mark, our progress toward realizing a better nation and a better future.”
–James Sabathne, Teacher
Hononegah Community High School, Rockton, IL

How do you get your students to think deeply about this time in U.S. history?

“I teach about the period leading up to the American Revolution from the British point of view. Ears perk up, hair stands up on students’ arms, and suddenly students become incensed and ready to rumble. How dare she support the British? Doesn’t she know what brought us to Independence Day? Suddenly, students who generally don’t think about the years preceding 1776 are eager to refute every point I’ve made. To do that, they have to provide evidence and argue their cases. Suddenly what happened from 1763 to 1776 becomes increasingly meaningful — especially when a teacher has temporarily ‘lost her mind.’”
–Geri Hastings, Social Studies Department Chairman
Catonsville High, Catonsville, Maryland

“We look at other declarations of independence (e.g., South Carolina, Liberia, Texas, Czechoslovakia, Venezuela, Vietnam, etc.) and use these documents to frame a discussion about which part of our Declaration of Independence is most important in history—the second paragraph (all men are created equal) or the last paragraph (free and independent states). The students usually conclude that there is a different answer depending on context — U.S. or world — or time — 18th century vs. 19th century.”
–Ted Dickson, History Department Chair
Providence Day School, Charlotte, North Carolina

Recommendations for Further Reading

The educators above recommend the following texts for more information.

  • David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History
  • Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas
  • Albert P. Blaustein, Jay A. Sigler, and Benjamin R. Beede, eds., Independence Documents of the World
  • Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson, America on the World Stage: A Global Approach to U.S. History
  • Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom
  • Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
  • David McCullough, 1776