The United States is the only country with a known birthday.
— James G. Blaine
Let’s try thinking outside the usual box this Independence Day. Before you settle in for grilled burgers and fireworks, think about refreshing your knowledge about the history we celebrate.
Certainly Minuteman National Historical Park in Lexington and Concord is worth a visit if you have not been there recently. If you are up for a walk in the city, try the Freedom Trail in Boston again, ending at that wonderful standby the USS Constitution. But if you want fresh insights to familiar places, I heartily suggest reading 1776 by David McCullough. This narrative about this most important year in the nation’s birth actually begins in 1775 with the skirmishes in Boston, Charleston, and what are now the historic suburbs. The first third of the book is all the more special if you know the landscape. If you do not know the lay of the land, this book will encourage you to get out to see it.
Another site related to the colonial era (rather than revolutionary) is Plimouth Plantation and the replica (full size but still tiny) Mayflower II. It takes only about 30 seconds to see Plymouth Rock but the ship and settlement can fill the rest of your day easily.
Further afield there is Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, complete with the Liberty Bell. The park rangers have an especially thought-provoking exercise revealing who among us would have been entitled to vote in 1776.
While in Pennsylvania you really should continue west to Gettysburg, the site of the three day battle which became the turning point of the Civil War. It was fought July 1-3, 1863; if you leave now you could be there for the annual reenactment, but you might prefer to plan now for next year. If you go any other time be sure to take advantage of the guides who will talk you through the entire battle with as much detail as you have time for. To be prepared you might want to read The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara.
All Broadway is enthralled with Hamilton, the Tony winning hip-hop musical about George Washington’s right hand man, the first Secretary of the Treasury. Did you know you can visit his home in New York? When Hamilton’s Grange was built it was a country estate, way upland in Harlem. The house has survived more than 200 years and two moves but it is currently in a park which was part of Hamilton’s original estate. This is going on my short list of national parks to visit next. In the meantime I will be reading the biography which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
If you prefer wilderness and feel more akin to founding father Thomas Jefferson, perhaps you would rather explore parts of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail with sites in eleven states. You would not have to canoe from one site to the next, nor would you have to rely on Dr. Rush’s “thunder clappers” as a cure-all purgative as the original Corps of Discovery did. But it would be mind-expanding to take in even a portion of the land they covered in two and a half years. The armchair traveler can learn a great deal about their travails reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.
But if you already have travel plans and more than enough books to read, perhaps you will feel more in tune with the sentiment below. Have a happy Fourth, wherever you are!
You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism. –Erma Bombeck
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
30 June 2016