As we look toward the celebration of July 4, W&M News spoke with Catherine Kelly, who recently assumed the role of Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture (OI) and professor of History in the Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History at William & Mary.
Kelly has served as Interim Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute since the departure of Karin Wulf in 2021 and as the OI Editor of Books since 2018. In that role she has overseen the acquisition of seventeen books, including multiple award-winning works. Prior to joining the OI, Kelly was the L.R. Brammer Jr. Presidential Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma as well as editor of the Journal of the Early Republic and of Common-place.
A noted scholar of early American history, she is the author of Republic of Taste: Art, Politics and Everyday Life in Early America and In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century as well as numerous essays, and co-editor of Reading Women: Literacy, Authorship, and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800. The OI is an independent research organization sponsored by William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We’re speaking just a few days before America celebrates the 246th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As a noted scholar of early American history, particularly the lives of women during the Early Republic, what is something the general public may not understand about this pivotal moment in our history?
A: As we move up to the Fourth of July, there are all kinds of civic celebrations. There is speechmaking. There are parades. All of these events are celebratory in nature and they all underscore the reverence that citizens of the United States are meant to have for this moment in history, for the founding of the United States, for the Declaration of Independence with its very powerful language about liberty and all men being created equal.
If I had five minutes on a platform to give my thoughts on what people should understand about the Fourth of July and the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I would encourage people to have curiosity, not just reverence.
And by that I don’t mean disrespect. I don’t mean disregard. It’s a monumentally important moment in U.S. history that had reverberations around the planet for centuries to come. What I’d like this holiday to do is spark curiosity about what the world that produced the Declaration was like.
I think it would be wonderful if people had a richer sense of curiosity about that period. It would enable them, even propel them, to learn not just about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or John Adams or Benjamin Franklin, but also people like Patience Wright. She was their contemporary, a Quaker artist who worked mostly in wax and spent the duration of the war in England working as a wax modeler. Historians believe she was probably a Patriot spy, sending information back to the United States. But she was also a woman who was trying to pay her rent as a working artist.
Curiosity would lead more people to somebody like Boston King, who was born enslaved in South Carolina. One of his parents was literate, and he learned to read and write. When the war broke out, he escaped slavery and went to fight with the British, because he was promised his freedom. He was re-enslaved by the Patriots, and escaped again. Ultimately, he became one of the Black Loyalists who moved to Canada before eventually dying in Liberia working as a missionary. His autobiography provides a wonderful picture of lived reality during and after the war. King and Patience Wright were figures of the Revolution as much as the founders were.
A sense of genuine curiosity about the world that produced the Declaration will lead you to think more deeply about the nation’s founding, and the implications for how we might think about the importance of that moment in today’s world.
Q: Can you place us in the context of the period in which this document was created? What were the stakes?
A: I was just talking about this at dinner last night. There is this way in which, especially between June 30 and July 7, people talk about this moment in history as though it was a foregone conclusion that the Declaration would be drafted and signed and from there it was a straight shot to the ratification of the Constitution and boom! You’re done. America was founded. In fact, it doesn’t work that way at all.
At the risk of sounding flippant, there is very much a sense in which even the founders in the run-up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and certainly throughout the war that followed, are essentially making it up as they go. It’s a deeply contingent period. Everybody is responding to events that are shifting on the ground, immediately and locally, but also in a larger, transatlantic context. Things are changing very quickly and people have to respond without knowing what the end game is. It’s situational, it’s contingent and I think that’s important to remember. It’s a more compelling entry point for thinking about American history if you understand the players didn’t know the plotline. There was no set beginning and no clear end, only making hard decisions within the grinding uncertainty of that period.
Q: Let’s talk about the language of the Declaration for a minute. Just about every American can probably recite from memory the line “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.” I realize there is some problematic language in that phrasing, like the fact women aren’t included, but the essence of it is quite powerful. What can we glean from the language itself?
A: I’ve read it in its entirety many times and I’ve read it aloud. In fact, I can’t read that that first section without having my throat close up a bit. I tear up. Those words are incredibly powerful. But you can’t live up to the best hope of those words until you know the whole story. And you’ve got to read to the end, or you’ll never really realize the full power of the beginning.
Historian Robert Parkinson, who wrote two terrific books published by the OI (The Common Cause and Thirteen Clocks), told me that he makes his students read the Declaration of Independence aloud on the first day of class for a course he teaches on the American Revolution. That opening salvo about all men being created free and equal is inspiring, but then he makes them keep reading, all the way down to the sections at the very end when the signers of the Declaration list their grievances.
The grievances conclude with the accusation that the king has provoked “merciless savages,” meaning Indigenous people, and “domestic insurrectionists,” meaning enslaved people, to harm Anglo-American settlers. To understand the Declaration’s meaning, we have to understand that part of the agitation for revolution was about Anglo-colonists protecting themselves against what they perceived as the threats being mounted by Native Americans, who wanted to protect their land and enslaved people, who wanted their freedom. It’s a complicated story. But if you want to understand the document, how and why it was created, you have to see the many different pieces of the puzzle that were in play.
Q: What should we be thinking about today as we reflect on that moment?
A: I hope that the kind of curiosity I want to see leads Americans to understand the contingency of the historical moment, to understand the world we live in today as a place that is also contingent, to understand that democracy isn’t a foregone conclusion. I go back to Benjamin Franklin’s throwaway line, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That’s as true now as it was back in the 18th century. Founders and ordinary citizens alike understood that the republic was fragile. It needed protection then, just as it does now. The republic doesn’t work without civic engagement.
Q: The OI’s mission is to support scholars and scholarship and to share that work widely for the public good. How do you plan to build on that mission as OI’s executive director?
A: The OI has played a vital role in our understanding of this period. If you think about landmark scholarship on the American founding, works that are so widely known that their arguments have been absorbed into the bedrock of our understanding of the period, you’re thinking about scholarship that was supported and published by the OI. We have always been invested in expanding the trajectory of those conversations and will continue to do so, whether it’s turning our focus to the experiences of women, or enslaved individuals, of the competing interests of different social classes, of the Indigenous Americans whose land all these players occupied.
We have so much that we can share with the William & Mary community, especially as the university looks forward to its key initiatives for Vision 2026 – one of which is “to practice and promote democratic ideals in the pursuit of a more perfect union.” We are collaborating with William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg on a five-year conference series called For 2026 that will debut this fall, which will galvanize discussion of the Founding Era as we move toward 2026, which marks the 250th anniversary of the signing of Declaration of Independence.
I’m also looking forward to partnering with both institutions to turn our mutual strengths toward translating our scholarship for broader public consumption. We’ve always been deeply committed to producing and sharing scholarship that supports the public good. Collaborating with CW and William & Mary affords us new opportunities to extend the reach of that superb research.
Editor’s note: Democracy is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.
Adrienne Berard, Assistant Director for Research, News & Analytics