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Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Birthday, America!

I always enjoy Independence Day. I'm usually awakened early in the morning by NPR's annual reading of the Declaration of Independence, one of my favorite traditions, and one which never fails to give me chills. I also love that it's easy to find patriotic and American music on the radio for most of the day, and if that fails there's always the Copland & Sousa playlist on my iPod.

In many ways, July 4th feels more like the start of a new year to me than January 1st. For one thing, mid-summer is typically less rushed and harried for me than the immediate post-holidays, which makes it more conducive to introspection and planning. I suspect, though, that it's mostly due to my lingering adherence to an academic schedule, wherein new years begin in August-September. By that calendar, July 4th marks the emotional middle of the summer -- the end of reflection on the old year and the beginning of preparation for the new one.

As such, I always have an urge to begin new projects during the summer, and this year is no different. I have about five such projects in mind, but only two that I really anticipate will make the cut to warrant serious effort. Four of the five are things I'm not ready to talk about yet, and I may launch a new blog for them anyway, but Independence Day seems like a good time to discuss the other one.

Around a decade ago I had the idea of reading my way through American history, at the rate of about one book a month. The goal was to select around 12 (give or take) major events and turning points in our history, spaced roughly evenly between 1776 and 1976, and read one really good book on each one.

My first book was George Washington's War, which is a great history of the Revolutionary War. Despite the title, its scope is actually much broader. I especially found myself getting caught up in the drama of the rise and fall of Benedict Arnold. His name may be a byword for treason now, but at the time he was one of the best-loved heroes of the war, possibly second only to Washington himself, which made his betrayal all the more shocking. Analogies are difficult, since we don't really have that type of celebrity war heroes these days, but a close comparison might be if Patton had suddenly decided to turn Italy over to the Nazis. I gained deep new insight into the War for Independence, and a greater appreciation of the scope and precariousness of the endeavor.

Alas, despite the auspicious beginning, the start of school (and all the required reading that entailed) interceded, and I never even got to choose the second book.

So that's my project for this year: read one book on a major even in American history each month between now and July 4, 2009, and I'm soliciting suggestions. I'll be hitting the library tomorrow to select my first one (probably on the Constitutional Convention), so it's a little late to suggest that event/book, but feel free to post comments on others. I may also read some related items, especially primary sources (such as the Federalist Papers in conjunction with the Constitutional Convention), so feel free to suggest those as well.

I'm trying to space topics out evenly over the 200 years up to 1976 (I should have a pretty good handle on events since then), proceeding chronologically by the order of the events, but if there's a period that lacks a major, well-known event, then I'd also be interested in learning about one of those obscure "gap events" that fill in the spaces between the main features, so to speak.

The topics I'm currently considering are the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, the Civil War, Reconstruction, World War I, the Depression, and World War II. Those are all pretty obvious, but there are also some enormous gaps between them, so there are some good open slots. If possible, I would like to read about things other than wars, too -- I'm interested in the ideas that have made America what it is, not just the events.

So, after the Constitutional Convention, what was the next shaping event or idea in the history of America? And what books would you suggest on the topic?

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