Yale’s Revolutionary History

July 2, 2018

On July 4, 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia and announced the independence of the thirteen American colonies. In adopting the Declaration of Independence, these men not only opened a new chapter in the ongoing war between the thirteen colonies and Britain, their words and actions inspired movements for freedom and democracy around the globe, from the eighteenth century to the present. Many of us know these words by heart: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This Wednesday, Americans will celebrate Independence Day with barbecues, parades, and trips to the beach. These pleasures of summer are not to be missed, but we may want to learn more about the history of American independence and the people who lived it. Here at Yale, we have many opportunities to do so.

Yale—whose founding predates the nation’s by roughly seventy-five years—was well represented among the nation’s founders and revolutionaries. Twenty-five Yalies were members of the Continental Congress, and five signed the Declaration. Six Yale alumni later served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Yale treasurer Roger Sherman is recognized as the only person to sign four major documents of the revolution: the Declaration and Resolves of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. His papers are in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives, and Sherman—the first mayor of New Haven—is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, where he is honored every Independence Day. 

Many Yale students and alumni served in the American Revolutionary War, as they have done in every major armed conflict since. British troops invaded New Haven in 1779, and Yale president Ezra Stiles hid the college archives in order to protect them from destruction. And who can forget Nathan Hale—scholar, soldier, spy, and member of the Yale College Class of 1773—who gave his one life for his country? 

Today, Yale’s amazing collections provide a window into this pivotal time. One of the twenty-six known first copies of the Declaration of Independence is on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library until July 9. While you are there, you can see other periodicals from the revolutionary era.  

The Yale University Art Gallery showcases several artistic renderings of the period, such as striking works by eighteenth-century Connecticut artist John Trumbull, including his portraits of General George Washington. You might recognize Trumbull’s well-known painting Declaration of Independence (a version appears on the two-dollar bill). Across the street, the Yale Center for British Art displays John Singleton Copley’s portrait of (British) General Thomas Gage in his striking red coat

Not everyone who played a critical part in the revolution sat for a portrait painter. Over the years, scholars, including many Yale faculty members, have helped enrich our understanding of this period by showing us the broader cast of characters who moved history. Enslaved people of African descent, for example, fought on both the British and American sides. Their dreams of liberty too often ended in disappointment, but their efforts animated the struggle for independence and helped lead to the first wave of emancipations that took place in the aftermath of the war. 

The eminent historian David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of American History, emeritus, opened new vistas in the study of slavery with his prize-winning 1975 book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, which won the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize. The influence of slavery on revolutionary ideas—and of revolutionary ideas on the institution of slavery—reverberated throughout the Atlantic world and lived on well past the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Today, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, under the leadership of director and Class of 1954 Professor of American History David Blight, makes primary documents and lesson plans available for teachers in its “Voices from the Archive” project. Students and teachers can access items from Yale’s collections to learn about how the American Revolution connects to the broader history of slavery and emancipation. 

Interest in the founding fathers remains high, as the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton attests. Joanne B. Freeman, professor of history and American studies, has known all along that Alexander Hamilton was worthy of our interest. In a new, accessible paperback, she introduces readers to this key figure with The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings, a special publication from the Library of America. Professor Freeman also has researched how the revolution unfolded here in New Haven—stories she shares in a free course on the American Revolution are available through Open Yale Courses.

As we reflect on the complex history of American independence, I am reminded of the rich legacy of public service and sacrifice exemplified by so many Yalies—from the eighteenth century onward. Service to the community, nation, and world is a vital Yale tradition, and one that I hope will continue for generations to come. Happy July 4th!