It took a decade for the Declaration of Independence to matter in American life

Stanford News

Two Stanford historians discuss how the United States’ Declaration of Independence became one of the pillars of American civic life and other lesser-known historical facts about what happened on July 4, 1776.

On the historic day of July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress, Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, went on a small shopping spree and bought seven pairs of women’s gloves.

Declaration of Independence

Celebrating the Declaration of Independence on July 4 is an American tradition, but it took a while for that tradition to develop. (Image credit: todd taulman / Getty Images)

According to Jefferson’s records from that day, he also bought a thermometer, said Caroline Winterer, a professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Winterer, who has been reading the correspondence between the Founding Fathers for her research, learned that much of their exchange had little to do with independence but with tactical operations instead.

As Stanford historian and scholar on early republican America Jonathan Gienapp discovered, it took over a decade for the Declaration of Independence to matter in American life. It wasn’t until the 1790s that the document was revived for partisan purposes, he said.

Here, Winterer and Geinapp discuss other lesser known facts about the history of Independence Day that they discovered during their research.

Both Gienapp, an assistant professor of history, and Winterer, the Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities and director of the Stanford Humanities Center, specialize in the history of the United States. Gienapp’s latest book is The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era . Winterer’s most recent book is American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason.

Are there ways that your personal historical research ties to July 4 or the Declaration of Independence? What are some interesting findings or conclusions that you’ve made?

Winterer: Historians spend their time reading a lot of pretty boring documents to get to the golden nuggets. I’ve been reading letters from the Founding Fathers during that time, and you’d be surprised how many letters were sent and received on July 4 that have nothing to do with independence! Even in 1776.

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