It took over a decade for the Declaration of Independence to matter in American life, Stanford historian says

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.

A fair number of letters had to do with military operations – people telling George Washington about the position of the troops and other information about the American Revolution’s events. It’s important to remember that hostilities had been going on for some time between Britain and America by the time the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. That document gave the conflict a higher purpose. There was a lot of correspondence in the background of all the Declaration of Independence excitement that had to do with just running the show.

The most surprising finding is that Thomas Jefferson went on a shopping trip during the historic session of Congress. He recorded that he paid someone for a thermometer and seven pairs of women’s gloves on July 4, 1776.


Is there something that you found out through your research about the history of July 4 that the public might not know about?

Gienapp: One thing that is not well known is that it took quite some time for the Declaration of Independence to matter in American life. That might seem difficult to believe since it is regarded as the nation’s foundational text containing its governing creed. Yet, for well over a decade after it was written, it was largely forgotten and ignored.

“Only during the 1790s was the Declaration revived, and for partisan purposes.”

—Jonathan Gienapp

Assistant Professor of History

Americans celebrated the break with Britain but not the now-famous document that justified why. Rarely during the late 1770s and 1780s was the Declaration publicly read or celebrated. Instead, most Americans celebrated their state constitutions and the promise of liberty contained within them. Or they celebrated their local declarations from 1776. Only during the 1790s was the Declaration revived, and for partisan purposes. Thomas Jefferson became one of the leaders of the opposition party to the administration of George Washington, and Jefferson’s Republican supporters began celebrating him as the author of the Declaration.

On the other side, Federalists pointed out that a congressional committee, and not Jefferson alone, had authored the document. As the two sides fought over the matter, the Declaration became an important political symbol. Following the War of 1812, as America’s founding generation began passing from the scene, the Declaration was commemorated and sacralized. What all of this shows is that there was nothing straightforward or inevitable about how the Declaration became one of the pillars of our civic life.


Professor Winterer, you’ll be talking to high school students on July 4 about Frederick Douglass and his famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” What is the significance of his speech?

Winterer: The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass used this scathing speech to contrast the political freedom granted by the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, with the ongoing enslavement of roughly 4 million slaves in the United States in 1852. He called out the hypocrisy of the land of liberty being a land of slavery. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he says.

When he accepted the invitation to speak at an Independence Day celebration at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, he insisted on giving the speech on July 5, in part because slave auctions in the South were often held on July 4 and many white Southerners tried to prevent African Americans from attending July 4 celebrations lest they be contaminated by thoughts of liberty. African Americans in the North could also face violence on July 4. So African American communities had taken to marking July 5 as their celebration.


Professor Gienapp, what research are you working on now that has to do with the formation of the United States?

Gienapp: I am currently working on a few projects that focus on the constitutional thought of James Wilson, who served as one of the nation’s first Supreme Court justices. Despite being a vitally important American framer who was one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Wilson is largely forgotten today.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Wilson made an innovative argument about what the Declaration represented. Throughout history, most Americans have fixated on the Declaration’s promise of equality and its grand moral pronouncements. But Wilson thought its significance lay elsewhere: in confirming that the United States was born a nation rather than a series of independent states. Those who were eager to protect the rights of the states at the Constitutional Convention, and thereafter, claimed that the separate states declared independence from Britain and only then, after, formed a union.

Wilson insisted, however, that the nation was born simultaneous to the states and thus was brought into being not by the separate states but like the states by the American people. Whether the states or the union came first remained a contested question certainly through the outbreak of the American Civil War. During the lead-up to that conflict, Abraham Lincoln echoed the argument that James Wilson had originally made.