The meaning of July 4th

In celebration of the July Fourth holiday, we asked a few of our authors to discuss what Independence Day means to them (a la Beacon Broadside’s awesome blog post for the holiday last year). Three of our authors responded with mixed emotions, musings of its unsung heroes, and stories of forgotten holidays. Read their pieces below.

Beverly C. Tomek is author of Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011).

July 4th brings mixed feelings for those of us who focus on issues of social justice in our scholarship and activism. On the one hand, it is a day of celebration, but on the other, it is a stark reminder of the contrast between the ideal and the real. Given the amount of time I spend reading and writing about antislavery, any mention of Independence Day takes me back to the antebellum years – to a time when a small group of dedicated reformers pushed this nation to broaden the scope of liberty.

July 4th was an important and highly contested date for the antislavery movement. It began when the American Colonization Society (ACS) tried to claim the patriotic holiday. Starting in the 1820s, the ACS encouraged ministers of various denominations across the young nation to take up special Independence Day collections to be used to send blacks to Liberia, where they were to help spread Christianity and American liberty to the “Dark Continent.” Most African Americans argued that the ACS’s scheme stood for anything but liberty, but most whites who opposed slavery in the 1820s and beyond believed in the Society’s mission.

On July 4, 1829, however, a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison sparked an antislavery revolution as he reclaimed the holiday for advocates of freedom. By that point,  July 4th colonization collections had become widespread, and Garrison had been asked to deliver a speech in support of the movement. When he rose to speak, to the shock of his listeners, instead of celebrating American freedom and independence and supporting colonization, he chastised a nation that kept human beings in bondage. Slavery made a mockery of American ideals, and he set out to show his listeners that human bondage must end and it must not depend upon colonization.

Though Garrison’s speech sparked what would become known as the “immediate abolition” movement, the most famous July 4 speech of all came from black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. An escaped slave who had gained international celebrity status, Douglass was asked to speak at an Independence Day commemoration in Rochester, New York, in 1852. He electrified the audience when he asked “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” The answer was no:

“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . . I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”

Frederick Douglass’s address, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (5 July 1852), is one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.  It highlighted the disparity between the white Americans who celebrated “freedom” and “independence” on that date and the black Americans who lived their lives in chains, forced to work for the benefit of others.

Throughout much of the early nineteenth century, African Americans chose to celebrate West Indies Emancipation Day on August 1 instead of Independence Day on July 4th. That began to change when the Civil War became a war for freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Even so, especially after the regression that accompanied the end of Reconstruction, July 4th maintained some its tarnish for many disenfranchised Americans.

With recent Supreme Court rulings, this year the 4th of July will seem a little more legitimate to some who continue to labor for social justice, though true liberty remains elusive for far too many in the U.S. even today.  Perhaps someday all Americans will be able to share equally in the festivities and enjoy the day without reservation, but the fight is far from over.

Donna T. Haverty-Stacke is author of America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867-1960 ​(NYU Press, 2008).

Every July 4th, Americans celebrate the moment in 1776 when the colonists declared their independence from Britain. Throughout America’s history different individuals and groups, including abolitionists, women’s rights activists, and civil rights crusaders, have claimed the promise of that founding moment voiced so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence: the promise of equality and freedom.

The same was true for American workers and political radicals. For several decades beginning in 1886, they made their demand for freedom not just on July 4th, but also on May 1st. From the beginning this new May Day holiday included many concerns, ranging from shorter work hours to basic union recognition to the broader goals of its socialist adherents for the overthrow of the capitalist order of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This annual event was thus complex, multifaceted and controversial.

Anarchists and many socialists refused to embrace nationalist references in their May 1st celebrations, pointedly referring to May Day as International Labor Day instead. But many other workers, and socialists, continued to claim the day’s American roots. They proudly marched in parades carrying both the red flag and the Stars and Stripes and demanded that the democratic promises of 1776 be extended into industry. Such expressions of a hybrid radical-American identity were not well received. Bans on the use of red flags complicated the actions of May Day’s supporters for decades. And then there were the various attempts to replace May Day demonstrations altogether with events like National Child Health Day during the 1920s and Loyalty Day during the 1950s.

May Day never became a national holiday. It is now virtually unknown in the land of its birth in large part because of the Cold War. America’s Forgotten Holiday tells the story of this celebration of dissent and the process of popular amnesia through which it has been displaced from the American calendar. It reminds us how many Americans at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond believed that the promise of 1776 was yet to be realized for the hundreds of thousands of industrial workers who remained fettered by the invisible chains of capitalism. This book recovers their struggle to effect that liberation through the politics of protest and popular celebration.

Gerard N. Magliocca is author of American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2013).

This week when we celebrate the Fourth of July, we celebrate Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal.” But the Constitution did not include that ideal until John Bingham penned the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Congressman Bingham was, like Abraham Lincoln, inspired by what he called “our sublime Declaration of Independence” and frequently invoked that sacred text during the struggle against slavery. In 1859, he told the House of Representatives that the United States was not founded to further oppression, and that:

“It was not to this end that the fathers of the Republic put forth their great Declaration, and in defense of it walked through the fire and storm and darkness of a seven years’ war…It was not to this end that, after the victory was thus achieved, those brave old men, with the dust of Yorktown yet fresh upon their brows, and the blood of Yorktown yet fresh upon their garments, proclaimed to the world, and asked it to be held in everlasting remembrance that the rights for which America had contended were the rights of human nature.”

Seven years later, Bingham took the lead in revising the Constitution after the devastation of the Civil War, and in that process he wrote into our law the guarantee that no state shall “deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.”  The struggle to make equality a reality goes on, of course, but John Bingham is one of the unheralded heroes of that story.

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