It’s that time of year again: hot dogs on the grill, fireworks in the sky, and patriotic tunes played by the town band. Happy Fourth of July! On this American holiday, many Americans like to look back at how the country was founded—and consider how that history got us to where we are today. The folks at Serial Box didn’t wait for a holiday, however; for the last seven months, they’ve been releasing episodes of 1776: The World Turned Upside Down, a serial nonfiction piece in partnership with the AP.
The project came about when AP’s Peter Costanzo approached Serial Box CEO Molly Barton with a book he had found in the AP archives that had never been released to the public. Written in 1976 as a celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, the month-by-month account of 1776, the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, focuses on the lives of people involved in the American Revolution.
“Each episode is a very textured and colorful look at the people who were involved and what their life was like,” Barton described. “Not just the famous people, but the militiamen on both sides. You get a much clearer sense, at least, than I had before of the ambivalence on the side of the British—how many militiamen on the side of the British didn’t agree that the colonies should not be allowed to be independent.”
Serial Box and the AP brought on an editor and copy editor to freshen up the text and offer a more contemporary lens.
“What’s most compelling about the series is you really get a sense of what it was like to be alive then. It gives you a much more textured and tactile window into the time period,” said Barton. She has found that, as she works on the series, modern news articles, such as the issues being brought up in the various primaries across the Americas, have resonated with the early years of the country, and the compromises that the founders had to make in order to reach an agreement on Independence, particularly on the issue of slavery, the repercussions of which are still felt today.
“It’s very easy to judge the past harshly because we know so much more than the founders did. But what’s really interesting about the series is the humble reality of what it was like to be a person in that year. The very different struggles that everyone was going through,” Barton noted. While the year of turmoil has a lot of resonance with the divided opinions of modern Americans, there are also aspects that are hard to fathom, such as, said Barton, “how slow communication was. If you read July[’s episode] you find out it wasn’t until the 23rd of July that people in Boston knew the Declaration of Independence had been signed.”
In addition to the monthly serial episodes, Serial Box has been bringing scholars, historians, and writers to the blog, offering an even more modern “in-the-now” perspective on the early days of the United States. “With any history project, you have to let the reality of things that were said stand, but try to bring a contemporary lens to the way those moments of history are being described and discussed,” Barton said. Because so many of the original quotes from the time are from white men (though the editors did add quotes from Abigail Adams and other contemporary women), the blog posts have brought in newer voices of forward-thinking historians.
An April post, “Born in Revolution, Born into Slavery” by Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro, for example, follows the story of two of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves: Betty Hemings and her son, Johnny, who was born in April, 1776. Monteiro extrapolates about their lives from very limited historical documentation, because such limited record-keeping was done about slaves, beyond how they impacted Jefferson’s financial transactions. Barton noted that more blog posts emphasizing the perspectives of women and slaves will continue to come out as the blog series and serial continue through December.
As with all Serial Box productions, e-book and audio versions are released simultaneously to subscribers. Unlike Serial Box’s scripted and fiction series, which feature one to three voices, for the audio version of 1776, Serial Box brought in several familiar voices as historical figures: Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in Hamilton, serves as his voice in the serial; Nicholas Christopher, who replaced Jackson as Washington in Hamilton, plays the voice of John Adams; journalist Bob Garfield voices Thomas Paine; and actor and podcaster Clint McElroy serves as Ben Franklin.
Robin Miles, who was also the narrator for Hidden Figures, is the series narrator, and gives voice to the quoted women from the period. Barton enthused about bringing the voice actors into the studio, particularly the actors involved with Hamilton, which, she credited with reawakening interest in the early years of American history.
Hamilton himself was still in school in 1776, and readers—like Barton—may be more familiar with the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence from another Broadway musical: 1776. “I remember when I saw that as a kid,” Barton recalled. “I always had trouble keeping timelines straight in my mind. I was obsessive as a child writing out timelines for school, because I needed to visualize it. That musical really helped me grasp the story of the beginning of the country.”
For readers who are unfamiliar with the period, 1776: The World Turned Upside Down offers a similar entry point. “We’re providing an easy way for people who want to get the history and aren’t serious history book readers. It’s also quite different from a lot of the history that’s out there. For people who are just looking for a nice addition to their commute, this is a nice way of revisiting the revolution. It’s a very lightweight way to engage.”
Ready to learn more about the back and forth between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (who everyone thought was obnoxious) over who would write the Declaration of Independence? Pick up July’s episode of 1776: The World Turned Upside Down, and raise a glass to freedom—and gaining perspective on history.