fourth of july

Our Fourth of July Books

It’s Fourth of July, and a great excuse to highlight the three books we’ve written associated with American History. Ready? Grab your red, white and blue-striped cupcake and Budweiser and let’s jump in, shall we?

Now out in paperback!

Now out in paperback!

Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence. This is the grand-daddy of them all. First published back in 2009, the book features short mini-biographies on the 56 men who signed that famous document in August 1776. Oh, you thought it was signed in July 1776? This is why you need the book!

Also out in paperback!

Also out in paperback!

Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the U.S. Constitution. The follow-up to the bestseller. We knew we had to write this one as soon as we heard someone remark, “I didn’t know the Constitution had signers!” Well, it did. Thirty-nine of them, in fact, and the story of that hot, torturous summer is at least as good as the story behind the summer of ‘76.

A delightful little hardcover!

A delightful little hardcover!

Stuff Every American Should Know. Here’s a slim, tiny book suitable for gift-giving or stocking-stuffing that touches upon a small assortment of factoids about American history. People love to give this book to kids, but we happen to think grown-ups enjoy it too. Learn about flags, patriotic songs, and Geronimo. Yes, Geronimo.

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Photo sent in by an alert fan browsing at a B&N in Charlotte, NC.

Photo sent in by an alert fan browsing at a B&N in Charlotte, NC.

One last thing: the editor behind this trio has since left the publisher to go his own way, but I’ll never forget the day we met for lunch and he opined that these books are awesome because, at the very least, “they’re books people have an excuse to talk about once a year, and you can’t say that about many books.”

Over the years, those words have proved prescient. People love talking about the signers this time of year. Here’s just a sampling of this year’s crop of news articles referencing our book:

A lovely story in The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.: A quick-and-dirty interview I did with a reporter.

Cool piece in The Wilmington Star, NC.: Didn’t know they had done a story until our publisher sent the link.

Nice interview I did with Radio America: I was on the road when they called but we managed to speak. The sound file is embedded below…

Another groovy podcast: This one comes with a longer article on the vote for Independence at a separate page.

Great Tampa Bay Times article on a relative of Signer Elbridge Gerry, the father of gerrymandering: This piece first ran in 2014 but they re-published it in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.

Delightful piece in the Omaha World-Herald that recommends our book to help celebrate the holiday.: Just don’t get BBQ sauce on the pages.

So there you go. A great assortment of stories and coverage that brings a smile to our faces and proves our editor right once again!

Happy Fourth!


Icepop image by Nick Torontali via Unsplash.

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Happy Declatution of America Day!

The long Fourth of July Weekend feels like a good time to run this essay, which Denise and I wrote for Newsday back in 2012.

The problem with American history is that Americans keep making more of it. Citizens can't really be expected to know it all, right?

At least, grown-ups can't. 

It seems clear that Americans expect young people to know the fine points of U.S. history and civics, or else no one would get so up in arms when yet another embarrassing study reveals how few American youngsters know, say, the number of stripes on the U.S. flag. And Americans righteously sneer when Miss USA candidates fail to identify the vice president of the United States. 

So, our list is growing: Kids and beauty-pageant contestants should have a good grasp of American history and civics.

And public officials, right? Certainly those who would deign to represent We the People in Congress should know some elementary points regarding American government.

Which is why elected officials, would-be officeholders on both sides of the aisle, and even the media who cover them, who confuse the words of the Declaration of Independence for the U.S. Constitution ought to be ashamed of themselves. (When this happens, we like to say that the person has made a “Declatution” error.)

But Americans tend to go easy on the rest of the populace who aren't children, politicians, bombasts or beauty-pageant contestants. After all, one might argue, in a nation of immigrants, who or what decides what citizens should know about being American?

Well, in no small part, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, does. Each year, the hundreds of thousands of people -- 694,193 in 2011 alone -- who are sworn in as new Americans are required to take a citizenship test. To prepare, they feverishly cram down 100 factoids. Of those 100, applicants will be asked 10 in an oral exam. To pass, citizen-applicants must answer six correctly.

The questions are challenging. We dare say most "natural born Citizens" -- who, according to Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution are eligible for the presidency -- wouldn't be able to answer most of them without a refresher course. The questions include: What's the "rule of law"? Name one of the authors of The Federalist Papers. Name two Cabinet-level positions. (Answers: Everyone must obey the law; James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or John Jay; anything from the secretary of Agriculture to the secretary of Labor or the attorney general.)

The resulting irony of the great American citizenship test is that new Americans are often better educated about certain aspects of American-ness than those of us who came by our citizenship the easy way.

Does that matter? Some people would describe such questions as trivia -- good for board games but not really critical for day-to-day participation in American life. And doesn't lobbing trivia at each other kind of, um, trivialize the greatness of the American experience?

Yes and no.

When we do book signings these days, the most enthusiastic visitors to our table are not adults but kids who gleefully announce that they've read our "grown-up" books on the founders and they're excited to know a thing or two about William Floyd or Button Gwinnett or John Morton or Stephen Hopkins, all of whom are largely forgotten signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The parents of these children stand proudly and awkwardly by as we and their progeny talk about how cool it is that the real birthday of United States is July 2, not July 4. How cool is it that George Washington was "president" of the Constitutional Convention, which wrote the framework for our government, and then went on to become the "real" president? The passion of those kids delights us, just as the parting shots of their parents sadden us: "He/she puts me to shame."

We hear you, mom and dad. Once you were that little kid. You dug citizenship, you dug America, but somewhere along the line, it became not so compelling. You, like so many of us, decided that it wasn't important to know the little stuff, anyway. It was more important to get the gist, the broad strokes. When politicians argue about the Constitution, no one expects you to follow them word for word, letter by letter, article by article, right? Isn't it enough to just "sort of" know what they mean and, by extension, to trust that they do? 

We beg to differ. As the elections in November near, a lot of insufferable people are going to be telling you what it means to be an American. Don't take their word for it. Arm yourself. It always helps to get out, learn what you can, think for yourself and thus be more properly prepared to peg a blowhard when you hear one.

And in a lot of ways that starts with the geeky stuff. Like, why do we have an Electoral College? And what are the salient differences between our founding documents?

Yes, we know: History is complex, and those deckle-edged books in libraries look so long and tedious. And yes, it takes time to grasp the often complex underlying themes of American history, and to parse the multitude of different interpretations -- but it's always OK to start with the fun stuff. As kids and thousands of new Americans would tell you, what appears to be trivia isn't always trivial. Sometimes, it can be a gateway to deeper learning. It pays to take some time to get to know your nation a little better, from the Charters of Freedom to the Purple Mountains Majesty.

So if we may, some suggestions:

Commit to that lifelong learning this Independence Day. Make it fun. When you're slapping burgers on the grill or hoisting a brew, you can be quizzing your brother-in-law on the origins of our bicameral legislature. If you need help finding appropriate materials, let your librarian, local bookseller or your kids guide you. Our great national summer holidays can be a jumping-off point, too: What are the origins of Memorial Day? The Fourth? Labor Day? When do we celebrate Constitution Day? (Yes, people do.)

If nothing else, a commitment to learning about American history will serve you in good stead this election season. 

The next time you hear a politician quote from the hallowed Declatution -- "We the people, who hold these truths to be self-evident, as we form a more perfect union to establish life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . " -- instead of thinking to yourself, "Yeah, I sort of get what you mean," you'll think, "Nice try, buddy -- you sort of won't get my vote until you work harder."


Huzzah! My July 4th Book Is On Sale!

Fourth of July is coming up, so it's a good time to let people know about my three popular history titles from Philly's own Quirk Books. One's on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Another's about the signers of the U.S. Constitution. And the title of the last one says it all: Stuff Every American Should Know. All these books are available through the usual suspects, which you can find below. The Kindle ebook version of the Declaration book, Signing Their Lives Away, is on sale right now for $3.99 on Amazon. I don't know how long that sale's running, so you'd better grab it soon if you're at all curious. The book is a light-hearted, witty look at the men behind the founding document of the USA.

If you're in the market for a Ben Franklin or Tom Jefferson T-shirt, look no further.

If you want an autographed copy, contact my local bookstore, Malaprop's.

Good morrow to you all, good sires and ladies. Enjoy the Fourth.

BUY SIGNING THEIR LIVES AWAY

BUY SIGNING THEIR RIGHTS AWAY

BUY STUFF EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD KNOW

My Two New Audiobooks

My Two New Audiobooks   Two of my history titles debuted as audiobooks this week.   Signing Their Lives Away   and   Signing Their Rights Away  , the books Denise and I wrote about the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are now both available for download/rent via Audible in the US and UK. It’s not clear whether there will be a hard-copy CD version yet, but these two represent a step in the right direction.

My Two New Audiobooks

Two of my history titles debuted as audiobooks this week. Signing Their Lives Away and Signing Their Rights Away, the books Denise and I wrote about the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are now both available for download/rent via Audible in the US and UK. It’s not clear whether there will be a hard-copy CD version yet, but these two represent a step in the right direction.

Making Up for Zero Days

Since March I’ve been writing sporadically, and it’s been killing me. I keep a journal of my daily output and for much of spring and early summer it’s looked like this:

Since March I’ve been on the road a lot with Denise. I accompanied her on her book tour throughout the east and southeast, and while I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, I’m forced to admit that I wasn’t very productive at all. I’ve never gotten good at writing for myself while on the road.

In contrast, I’ve always been able to force myself to crank out client work and meet their deadlines while on the road. When it comes to my own stuff, I just tell myself I can skip a day. So while my ghostwriting clients can happily say their projects have moved forward—the scientists, the business dudes, the diet docs all got their proposals done this spring, yay for them—but on the Joe-fiction-writing front, this is the result: a long line of zeroes.

I started off great in January and managed to get about 75,000 words done on the new project before things went haywire. And when Denise hit the road solo in mid-June, I locked myself in the house and managed to write 35,000 words—Joe words, not client words—in a week. I now have a good rough draft on that book. It’s big, sloppy, and longwinded, but I’m ecstatic. It means I’ll be able to march through the next draft solidly knowing where I’m headed.

I’ve also decided to share this book with my agent and not automatically self-publish it. You can read that as a sign of how excited I am about this project. But bear in mind that I’m still at least one good draft away from sharing it with anyone. Since this is historical fiction, there’s a lot more research ahead.

If you think you might be interested in being a beta reader on this work, please let me know. The genre is historical fantasy, by which I mean that an element of magic has been inserted into a real-life historical setting. I’ll post again when I’m ready to share it.

By the way, here’s what I can say about any kind of historical fiction: don’t. Just don’t. You can barely write a sentence of your book unless you’ve researched a ton of stuff. Knowing how much I procrastinate, it’s a wonder I’ve gotten this far with this book.

I managed to write a decent short story this week, so I think I may have broken through the logjam. This week I’ll be starting the next book in The Mesmerist series while revising the historical fantasy. Should be good. Just don’t tell my ghosting clients, whose work may or may not be due this week.

* * *

In other news:

* It’s Fourth of July week here in the States. My most best-selling nonfiction book, Signing Their Lives Away, tells the story of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. That book and its sequels have sold pretty well in historic site and museum gift shops. Learn more about them here. Follow the Facebook page here.

*  Back when we had more time on our hands, we did a line of Signer-themed Fourth of July T-shirts. Check them out here.

* Lastly, Google Reader was discontinued July 1. If you’ve been following this blog via that service, it’s time to migrate over to something like Feedly or what-have-you. All I ask is that you take me along with you. It’s been fun, hasn’t it? I haven’t been excessively annoying or needy, have I? Please take a moment to bookmark this page to your new reader, whatever it is.

On the road...in Boston, MA

Old State House, Boston, photo by Joseph D'Agnese

We continued our tour today in Boston, where we signed at the Old State House, site of the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Our hosts for this two-day signing is the Bostonian Society. Our thanks to Chuck Gordon, Peter Leavitt, Nick Trainor, and the rest of their staff for making this event possible. 

We were encouraged by the number of visitors to this shop who knew of the book and had actually read it before. We made a lot of new friends whom we will no doubt call upon to get the word out about the sequel, Signing Their Rights Away.

Fife and drums, Boston, July 2011. Photo by Joseph D'Agnese

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On the road...day 2 in Philadelphia, PA

Author Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese

Day 2 in Philly. We signed today at the Independence Visitor Center Store in a facility managed by the National Park Service. We’ve been at this spot numerous times before, and it’s always a great day. Our thanks to gift shop manager Tom Curry and staff for putting this one together.

Some hilarity ensued thanks to the addition today of our pal, actor Scott Sowers, who read quotes of the signers while attired in colonial gear.

With actor Scott Sowers.

With actor Scott Sowers.


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On the road...in Philadelphia, PA

Dr. Physick Soda photo by Joseph D'Agnese

A short ride to Philly from DC last night put us right where we needed to be for the two-day, back-to-back signings in the city of the Declaration’s birth. 

John Hopkins.

John Hopkins.

We did two signings today. The first was at the Christ Church Burying Ground where Ben Franklin and four other signers are buried. We hung out for a few hours with the docents, including our friend and favorite, John Hopkins (right), who is very knowledgeable about the signers, their resting places, and their association with remarkable Christ Church in Philly. 

The second signing was just outside the walls of the Church itself, where two of the signers were buried. There, we got to hang out with the church’s historian, Neil Ronk. Our thanks to Neil and Anne McLaughlin for making this event happen.

Some other highlights today:

  • We got to meet Chris Johnson, a local actor who has portrayed numerous historic figures, including Declaration signer Francis Hopkinson. We have no photo of Chris in his regalia, but hope to post one in the future.

  • We guzzled some of this excellent beverage, Dr. Physick’s Black Cherry soda, which is reputed to be the first soda pop crafted in the U.S. by Dr. Philip Syng Physick, a Philly physician, in 1807. The good doctor’s descendants make the soda with pure sugarcane, no high fructose corn syrup. And it’s darn tasty.

Neil Ronk.

Neil Ronk.

Historian Ronk showed us an old bell that Christ Church will ring on Fourth of July. The bell’s history is described below. It’s a good launching point to discuss the fact that there were multiple “Liberty Bells” that tolled the nation’s independence.

Christ Church Bells history

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