NEH Celebrates July 4th

close up of American flag
Photo caption

Photo by Luke Michael/ Unsplash

(July 1, 2021)

In honor of the Fourth of July holiday, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is taking the opportunity to look back on our agency’s long history of supporting projects that illuminate the great American experiment, and forwards, to future celebrations and study of American democracy.

This year, 2021, marks just five years until the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. As an ex officio member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, created by Congress to commemorate our nation’s founding, NEH is among several federal agencies playing a leading role in helping prepare the nation for this important milestone.  NEH’s special initiative “A More Perfect Union” is designed to demonstrate and enhance the critical role the humanities play in our nation, while also supporting projects that will help Americans commemorate the 2026 Semiquincentennial. To date, “A More Perfect Union” has supported projects such as the production by the American Association for State and Local History of the “Making History at 250” guide for history museums on commemorating the anniversary, and the Flags and Founding Documents, 1776–Today exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution. For more information on this special initiative and the projects it has supported, consult the “A More Perfect Union” webpage.  

NEH’s special initiative builds on six decades of NEH investment in projects that catalog, preserve, explain, and promote American history. Below is a selection of NEH-supported projects related to the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the Founding Era, and July 4th:

Thomas Jefferson and Monticello
Numerous NEH-funded projects help preserve, interpret, and educate about the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. NEH grants to Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, have provided for site interpretation of Mulberry Row, where enslaved people lived and worked, and the digitization and cataloging of the family artifacts excavated there. NEH has also funded the traveling exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty and a planned 2026 exhibition and tours exploring the lasting impact of the Declaration of Independence and its founding principles of freedom and equality. A 2020 NEH Cares grant allowed Monticello to retain, retrain, and redeploy 21 staff members to work on expanded digital programming and significantly revised onsite programs during the coronavirus pandemic.

NEH has also funded editorial work on the collected personal papers of ten US presidents, including The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. The project, which has received NEH funding since 1992, is preparing the definitive scholarly edition of the correspondence and papers written by Jefferson from 1760 through the end of his presidency on March 3, 1809. To date the project has completed 45 volumes, published by Princeton University Press. Selected documents, such as a compilation Jefferson himself produced of 800 letters, reports, and memoranda documenting his tenure as secretary of state from 1790 to 1793, and this digital resource based on Jefferson’s daily notes on the weather and climate between 1776 to 1826 are available online.

Additionally, NEH has provided funding for: “Thomas Jefferson: The Public and Private Worlds of Monticello and the University of Virginia,” a summer institute for K–12 school teachers; research for a comparative study of the political philosophies of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln; and a biography of Sally Hemings, the Anglo-African woman claimed by Thomas Jefferson as a slave who was mother to four of Jefferson’s surviving children.

The Papers of George Washington
NEH has supported ongoing work by scholars and editors at the University of Virginia on The Papers of George Washington since 1969. This authoritative edition of Washington’s personal papers, records, diaries, and correspondence gives us a picture of the man who led patriot forces to victory in the American Revolutionary War, presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and formation of a new government, and guided the new nation as the United States’s first president. The published volumes are available both in print and online through University of Virginia Press and Founders Online.

Additional NEH-funded papers projects on the Founding Era include the Adams Papers project at the Massachusetts Historical Society; The Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia; The Charles Carroll of Carrollton Papers, an editorial project at the College of William & Mary on the papers of Maryland statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence Charles Carroll; the Pinckney Papers Project at the University of South Carolina, an edition of the personal and political papers of three Revolutionary-era South Carolina statemen, brothers Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) and Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828) and their cousin Charles Pinckney (1757-1824); and the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Concord, At the Center of Revolution
An NEH grant to the Concord Museum in Massachusetts supported the design and installation of the museum’s new permanent exhibition Concord: At the Center of Revolution, which introduces visitors to two pivotal moments in which events in Concord shaped American history: the April 19, 1775, Battle of Lexington and Concord, which sparked the American Revolution; and the intellectual revolution of the mid nineteenth century in which Concord citizens such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists brought into currency ideas and ideals that would ultimately lead to the Civil War.

Revisiting the Founding Era
In 2018, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History launched the NEH-funded “Revisiting the Founding Era,” a four-year national public programming initiative to promote community conversations in public libraries that use historical documents to spark conversations about the Founding Era’s enduring ideas and themes. The project, a partnership between Gilder Lehrman, the American Library Association, and the National Constitution Center, includes distribution of a reader of primary source documents from the Founding Era, funding for public programs at participating libraries, training for library staff on leading community conversations, and supplementary educational resources.

Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution
Liberty Is Sweet, researched and written by historian Woody Holton with support from an NEH Fellowship, offers a sweeping reassessment of the American Revolution, showing how the Founders were influenced by overlooked Americans—women, Native Americans, African Americans, and religious dissenters. Using more than a thousand eyewitness accounts, the book explores connections between the Patriots of 1776 and other Americans whose passion for freedom often brought them into conflict with the Founding Fathers. Holton describes how marginalized Americans and overlooked factors such as weather, disease, geography, misperception, and chance led to the defeat of Britain and the creation of the American Constitution.

The American Revolution
Explore the causes, characters, and lasting consequences of the American Revolution in this NEH-funded project from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The story of American independence is told through podcasts, biographies, and digitized objects from the Colonial Williamsburg collections dating from the 1750s to the early 1800s.

¡Viva la Libertad!
An NEH grant-supported public programs series at the Newberry Library is exploring the connections between the American Revolution and the struggles for independence in Latin America. Through community-based programs, including scholarly symposia, exhibition tours, a youth writing workshop, and a Chicago public art bike tour, ¡Viva la Libertad! will provide opportunities for participants to reflect on the complex shared histories of revolutions in the Americas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story, 1776–1807
When Women Lost the Vote at the Museum of the American Revolution examines the little-known history of the nation’s first women voters —the New Jersey women who legally held the vote more than 100 years before the Nineteenth Amendment. Based on newly discovered poll lists, the exhibition examines how the American Revolution shaped women’s political opportunities and activism, and how political conflicts arising from partisanship, racism, and class tension led to their voting rights being stripped away in 1807. The NEH-funded exhibition is accessible online along with a recording and behind-the-scenes footage of “Meet Rebecca VanDike,” which tells the story of one of these revolutionary women.

Locke in America
Historian Claire Arcenas is using an NEH Fellowship to complete work on Locke in America, examining the influence of philosopher John Locke’s writings on America’s political and cultural history, from the American Revolution to the 20th century. The forthcoming book, under contract with the University of Chicago Press, looks at how interpretations of Locke’s legacy and influence on American culture shifted in the mid twentieth century and were shaped by the ideas and preoccupations of the Cold War. Arcenas presented her research on Americans’ preoccupation with Locke’s involvement in the creations of the Fundamental Constitution from 1669 at the Newberry’s American Political Thought Seminar and as a part of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies Friday Seminar series.

The Boston Massacre: A Family History
Historian Serena Zabin takes an intimate look at the Boston Massacre, a defining moment leading up to the American Revolution, in The Boston Massacre: A Family History. The book, written with support from an NEH Fellowship, gives a “peoples history” of the event, to show how the Boston Massacre arose from conflicts that were personal as much as political. The book draws upon original sources to follow British troops—accompanied by regimental wives and children—as they are dispatched from Ireland to Boston in 1768 to subdue increasingly rebellious colonists. We see how these families become neighbors, jostling with Bostonians for living space, finding common cause in the search for a lost child, trading barbs, and sharing baptisms. Zabin shows how, when soldiers shot unarmed citizens in the streets, it was these intensely human, now broken, bonds that fueled what quickly became a bitterly fought American Revolution.

Restoration of Christ Church Tower & Steeple
In 2019, NEH awarded a grant to help restore the tower and steeple of Philadelphia’s historic Christ Church, which hosted members of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution and Presidents George Washington and John Adams in the first decade of the newly established Republic. Among Christ Church’s early members were Benjamin and Deborah Franklin, and signers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, and Francis Hopkinson. The church’s steeple, which was constructed in 1754 and financed by a lottery organized by Benjamin Franklin, was the highest structure in America for 56 years. The iconic structure is now leaning about two feet and in need of structural support. An NEH Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant is helping restore this National Historic Landmark, a popular destination for tourists who wish to learn about the founding of America and the American Revolution. Learn more about the history of Christ Church, its steeple, and the renovation plans to save this important landmark with this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution                                                                                
Historian Virginia D. Anderson explores memory and the politicization of social relationships throughout the American Revolution through the lives and deaths of Nathan Hale, a spy for the Continental Army, and Moses Dunbar, a loyalist captain and recruiter for the British army. Each man’s life followed a similar trajectory, but American memory of them has been dictated by the events of the Revolution. This compelling double biography illuminates the impact of the Revolution on ordinary lives and how the stories of patriots and loyalists were remembered and forgotten after independence. Read this Q&A with Virginia D. Anderson to learn more about this NEH supported project.

American Women in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars
In 2019 the New-York Historical Society hosted “American Women in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars,” an NEH summer institute for K12 educators focused on intensive study of primary source materials related to women’s experiences during wartime. The two-week summer program gave thirty schoolteachers from around the country the tools to incorporate primary sources and contemporary scholarship reflecting women’s voices and experiences into their teaching of the American Revolution and Civil War.

The Escapes of David George: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom in the Revolutionary Era
Historian Gregory O’Malley at the University of California-Santa Cruz was awarded an NEH Public Scholar grant to research and write a biography of David George, who was born a slave in 1743 and whose pursuit of freedom intersects with major events of the Revolutionary Era in American history. Offering a window into early American society, the story of David George provides a counterpoint to the many biographies on early America’s white founders. Instead of typical narratives about political freedom from Great Britain and monarchy, George’s life presents a parallel quest for freedom from American slavery.

Chrono Cards: American Revolution
Test your history smarts with Chrono Cards: American Revolution, an educational game designed to teach middle school students about the roots of the American Revolution. Created by the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab with support from an NEH grant, the multi-player games include Chrono Scouts, which challenges students to complete a timeline of events alongside their causes and effects, and Fact Fuse, which teaches players about historical thinking and argumentation. The games are available free for download or purchasable as a board game at the Game Innovation Lab’s website.

The Liberty of Loyalty during the American Revolution: Black Loyalism in the Book of Negroes
Kacy Tillman at the University of Tampa is using an NEH Summer Stipend to research and write an article on “The Book of Negroes,” a British manuscript documenting Black loyalists during the American Revolution. Responding to British proclamations that promised freedom in exchange for fealty to the crown, three thousand Black loyalists left New York in 1783 to start new lives elsewhere at the end of the American Revolution.

American Revolutionary War-Era Maps
Browse this collection of maps from the Revolutionary War Era at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, made accessible online with support from NEH grants. This digital portal of maps dating from 1750 to 1800 provides the geographical basis for understanding the role of the 13 colonies within the wider context of the British Empire and its relationships with its European neighbors and competitors. A large concentration of maps from the Boston and New England area highlight Boston’s role in the Revolution.

Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery
In her NEH-supported 2015 book, Margaret Ellen Newell examines the enslavement of Native Americans in New England before 1800. Brethren by Nature tells the overlooked history of how New England colonists relied on the labor of thousands of enslaved Indigenous people, and how the desire for slaves helped drive New England Indian wars throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Drawing on letters, diaries, newspapers, and court records, Newell recovers the slaves’ own stories and shows how they influenced New England society in crucial ways. She also shows how slavery linked the fate of Africans and Native Americans through economics and law as the trade in enslaved Africans expanded in the eighteenth century. As race increasingly became a determinant of who became a slave, New Englanders developed laws that grouped African and Indian slaves together. And Newell finds that second- and third-generation Indian slaves fought their enslavement and claimed citizenship in cases that had implications for all enslaved peoples in eighteenth-century America.

Biography of American Statesman, John Dickinson (1732–1808)
Jane E. Calvert, director and chief editor of the NEH-funded John Dickinson Writings Project at the University of Kentucky, was awarded an NEH Public Scholar grant to write the first full biography of Dickinson, known as the “Penman of the Revolution.” America’s first international political celebrity and leader of the resistance to Britain, Dickinson wrote more documents for the founding of the nation than any other figure and held more public offices in two states. With his belief in Quaker principles, he was unique among the leaders of the generation in his advocacy for human rights. He freed all of his numerous slaves during his lifetime, worked for abolition, and advocated rights for women, Native Americans, prisoners, the poor, and other subordinated peoples.

Mission US: For Crown or Colony?
For Crown or Colony?, the first of the NEH-supported award-winning Mission US educational games designed by WNET to teach middle school students about transformational moments in American history, puts players in the shoes of Nat Wheeler, a 14-year-old printer’s apprentice in 1770 Boston. As Nat completes tasks and navigates the city, he encounters a spectrum of people living and working there as tensions mount lead up to the Boston Massacre. Ultimately the player determines Nat’s fate by deciding where his loyalties lie.

Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780–1880 
Daniel Mandell’s Tribe, Race, History examines the experiences of American Indian communities in southern New England between the American Revolution and Reconstruction. Written with support from an NEH Fellowship, the book analyzes how ethnic boundaries of the period along with connections and distinctions between Native Americans and their non-native neighbors in regards to religion, labor, and government. This groundbreaking study sheds new light on regional development of identity, class, race, and culture. 

Lucy Terry Prince: A Window into African American Life in Early Rural New England
The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association has been awarded NEH funding to develop Lucy Terry Prince: A Window into African American Life in Early Rural New England, a website focusing on Lucy Terry Prince, the first documented African American poet. Her life, from birth and captivity in Africa c.1730, to enslavement in Deerfield, MA, to her death as a free woman in Vermont in 1821, illuminates aspects of the Revolutionary Era, including how instrumental enslaved African-American labor was to the maritime economy of colonial New England, and how a desire for independence fueled by that economy gave rise to Revolutionary political principles that enslaved people seized upon to obtain their freedom.

NEH’s educational portal, EDSITEment, offers free resources for teachers, students, and parents that relate to the 4th of July and the American Revolution. EDSITEment’s 4th of July: Protest, Revolution, and Independence provides links to curricula, resources, and lesson plans covering topics such as the rhetorical structure of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, free and enslaved African-American communities in the colonial and Revolutionary eras, eighteenth-century religion, the role of Native Americans in the American Revolution, George Washington’s military leadership, and more. The media resource page on the Coming of the American Revolution offers additional classroom connections for educators teaching the American Revolution.

State and jurisdictional humanities councils
Many of the state and jurisdictional humanities councils, NEH’s partners around the country, host events celebrating July 4th and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For example, Massachusetts Humanities will present its annual communal reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”. Delaware Humanities is sponsoring an online lecture about the Marquis de Lafayette and the Battle of the Brandywine. Consult your local humanities council to find additional virtual and in-person events in your area.


Humanities Magazine articles:

Reverberations of the Fourth of July
Independence Day Special: How I Learned to Love Patriotic Poetry
Love and the Revolution
Soldiers in the Garden
Madam Sacho: How One Iroquois Woman Survived the American Revolution
The History of the Stamp Act Shows How Indians Led to the American Revolution

NEH Blog Posts:

Bonfires, Greased Pig Races, Pickle Contests, and More: Historic Fourth of July Celebrations from Chronicling America
The Martyr and the Traitor: a Q&A with Virginia D. Anderson
Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn