My Beautiful Wickedness


More on the history of Independence Day
July 4, 2007, 12:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Americans didn’t always celebrate it, you know.

It appears to have been hardly ever celebrated once the Revolution was over — or rather, as I like to think of it, once the War for American Independence was over and the real revolution (the transition from subject to citizen) was on.

According to the distinguished historian of the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Meier, even in the late 1770s and 1780s, the Fourth of July was not regularly celebrated, which probably reflected the ambivalence about independence. (Wars fought on home soil — especially one that turned into a sort of civil war in the southern theatre — provoke massive demobilization even when everyone was on board to start. How much moreso the disenchantment must have been when fewer than half the people supported the Patriot cause to begin with?) . The holiday seems to have declined in popularity once the Revolutionary War ended. Remember, there were lots of problems after the war – high inflation, tax revolts, rumors of foreign intrigue, and a fledgling government that lacked some basic powers. It was more of a struggle to get started than most realize and one can forgive the general population if there was some skepticism about whether this had all been a good idea to begin with, even though no one appears to have argued that Americans should reapply for admission to the British empire.

Interestingly enough, when it was remembered, however, festivities seldom involved a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was considered the vehicle of the news, not the object of veneration or anything of particular worth.

So why and when did we embrace the Declaration as a politically significant utterance in its own right?

When the French used it (not once, but twice — in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizens) and the support of the French Revolution became a political football in the early American Republic. In the 1790s, Republicans of the day (supporters of Jefferson) wanted to celebrate it as an epochal human event that their guy authored and began to read the Declaration and reprint it as the fundamental document of the American Revolution. Federalists — “hey, we helped write that too!” — considered it more of a “dress, not the body and soul” and didn’t read it.

By the early 1800s, the devotion to the Declaration again ebbed only to be picked up again in the 1820s –1830s, when there was a great public urgency to commemorate the events of 1776 and fix their meaning, as all the soldiers and other participants were dying. This was a time in US history when there was an upsurge in political organizing and demonstrations, when it was fashionable to hold street parades, bonfires, etc, and when one’s participation in these civic rituals was giving shape to a public culture of American nationalism. (Historians David Waldstreicher or Len Travers would be the persons to read if you wanted to know more about how this all worked.) The Declaration starts to be pointed to as a “birthright” — note the property law language of inheritance — for white male citizens.

But hey! How’s about the rest of us? In the 1830s-1850s, the Declaration (like the Statehouse Bell — who first called it the Liberty Bell but some Pennsylvania abolitionists) became a touchstone for social reformers. In Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton deliberately echoed the Declaration of Independence in her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. And others, including Frederick Douglass, could bitterly ask “What, to the slave, is the 4th of July?” — pointing out the cruelty of asking a self-stealing black man to extol the virtues of a “free country.” (If you’ve got a moment, you should read Yale historian David Blight’s description of this speech, a speech that is in my top three American oratorical events. Chill-inducing every time.) Many blacks refused to celebrate July 4th — they celebrated July 5th or August 1st instead or sometimes January 1st (Haitian independence in 1804, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808).

But if the Declaration could be used to argue passionately for liberty, it could also be used as a vehicle for justifying slavery. The articles of secession of South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Mississippi are explicitly modeled on the Declaration and make reference to it. Words are what one makes of them. Liberty for some rested on slavery for others.

Imagine the scene throughout the former Confederacy on July 4th throughout the 1860s. African-Americans paraded, held bonfires, eagerly celebrated and asserted their desire to be citizens of the Union — whereas defeated white southerners gritted their teeth and blocked their ears against Yankee Doodle everywhere. They began to celebrate Decoration Day (May 30th or last weekend in May), an act of political defiance that showed where one stood vis a vis the occupation government. Remember, the date roughly corresponded with Jefferson Davis’s birthday.

The federal government insisted on July 4th. In 1870, they made it a federal holiday for employees — Union forever, but without pay.

And so it goes. In 1948, a war-sickened world brought forth the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that is built directly on the US Declaration of Independence. Yet, it is impossible to read the Universal Declaration without being sickened somewhat at how very far short our own country is falling, how much ground we gained foot by foot only to lose it yard by yard. But what a world it would be if humans actually acknowledged these basic liberties for all.

The day, the Declaration means what we make it mean. What are you making it mean?

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2 Comments so far
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Imagine the scene throughout the former Confederacy on July 4th throughout the 1860s. African-Americans paraded, held bonfires, eagerly celebrated and asserted their desire to be citizens of the Union — whereas defeated white southerners gritted their teeth and blocked their ears against Yankee Doodle everywhere. They began to celebrate Decoration Day

This reminds me so much of the current situation in Alabama surrounding MLK Day. In defiance, Alabama made the third Monday of January each year “Robert E. Lee Day,” a state holiday. Yup, state employees get off for Robert E. Lee’s birthday! While blacks and liberals do civil rights marches honoring Dr. King, the pro-Confederate assholes are marching to commemorate Robert. E. Lee. It’s nauseating.

Comment by Nick Dupree

There are more statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest (whizbang Confederate cavalary general, but also one of the founders of the Klan) in the US than there are statues of Lincoln. Sad but true.

The war to fix the meaning of the Civil War is still going on and right now, the neo-Cons are winning…as long as it was about valor, the defense of home soil, and a dedication to the preservation of a “way of life” (must refer to slavery in code, understand), then why not celebrate Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis and NBF? But, there are historical reasons why neo-Confederates can argue this position credibly. The post-Reconstruction era (say, from 1876-1914) was a long rapprochment in which white civic unity between northerners and southerners was based on willful amnesia and the development of a rhetoric of the “shared sacrifice of the battlefield” — an interpretation that conveniently allowed Confederate men their share of military honor while removing from the “national political crucible” a) any immigrant who had moved to the US after the Civil War; b) women (who were still not citizens, but were making political noises); and c) African-Americans, against whom great violence was still being done in all areas, social, political, and economic. This interpretation of what the Civil War was “really” about took a big hit from 1954 to the rise of the Reagan Right, but it never went away. Now, the sons of segregationists have found it fairly easy — in our troop-loving, yellow magnetized bumper sticker sporting, boo-yah commercialized patriotism climate — to connect the dots between honoring Confederate soldiers and supporting American military efforts abroad.

For whatever that’s worth. There’s a ton of good books on post-Reconstruction attempts to build national identity through manipulating Civil War memory. Two of the best, for my money, are David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) and Nina Silber’s Romance of Reunion (2002).

Comment by bridgett




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