In honor of July 4th, I have decided to share with you another history lesson on Americanism:
“White Southerners marked the Fourth of July, 1848, as they had for decades, by coming together in cities, towns, and rural communities to commemorate the American Revolution. They picnicked, they paraded, they listened to speeches. Above all, they congratulated themselves on being principal members of what was surely the greatest country under the heavens: the United States of America. Although 1848 marked the beginning of what we have come to call the Civil War era, white southerners celebration of the Fourth of July that year suggest they were little aware of the fact.”
The excerpt above comes from Paul Quigley’s Shifting Grounds: Nationalism & the American South, 1848-1865.
In 1848, the South was an enthusiastic participant in the cult of American nationalism. There was little sign of the storm ahead. There was a small and growing disaffected minority in South Carolina, but overall, the vast majority of White Southerners considered themselves American patriots, including Jefferson Davis and the other future leaders of the Confederacy.
It was a decade of polarization: the Compromise of 1850, the demise of the Whigs, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas,” the rise of the Republican Party, the Dred Scott decision, the John Brown raid at Harper’s Ferry, the splitting of the Democratic Party, and the culmination with Lincoln’s election.
Looking backward, it is easy to forget that the John McCains and Mitt Romneys of that day – war heroes with no principles like Gen. Zachary Taylor, or milquetoast doughfaces like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan – presided over America during that polarizing decade.
The “overt act” that brought about disunion was the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry. After John Brown, there was no turning back in South Carolina. Disunion “went viral” in the reaction in the Lower South.
The celebration of July 4th evolved after secession and the formation of the Confederacy:
“For instance, secessionists were more likely to venerate the Constitution — comparatively friendly toward slavery — than the Declaration. But even the Declaration could be remembered in particular ways that bolstered secessionists’ agenda. Thus they minimized the document’s second paragraph, with its troublesome phrases about equality and natural rights; the Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin described “the indefensible passage in the Declaration of Independence” as “both false & foolish.” Secessionists preferred — for obvious reasons — to remember the Declaration as a cool, political act of separation founded on the principle of self-government: “more a separation of States,” as one Charleston orator put it in 1859, “than a social and political revolution.” Southern secession from the Union would re-enact the colonists’ secession from the British Empire decades before. ..
Across the South that July, the question of how the Fourth ought to be celebrated — if at all — remained unsettled. Members of Charleston’s ’76 Association were not the only ones who were ambivalent. This remained true throughout the war. Celebrations were muted, as one would expect, by the distractions and pressures of the conflict. One young Louisiana woman forgot all about the Fourth until she wrote the date, July 4, 1862, in her diary. And anyway, she noted, “we have no time now to celebrate the birthday of a liberty which we had nearly lost and are now struggling so hard to maintain.” Many others forgot the holiday entirely. Although many white Southerners continued to claim the legacy of the Fourth, on the whole their efforts were half-hearted and sporadic, symbolizing a general confusion about the place of American history in the Confederacy.”
The meaning of July 4th was transformed under the Confederacy: there was a great ambivalence about whether to celebrate the holiday, but for the most part, it was still remembered as a great assertion of states’ rights and a struggle for self government by our forebears shorn of the ideological nonsense about human equality.
“In 1865, Northern claims to ownership of the American nation — including the Fourth of July — prevailed. For the moment, at least, white Southerners relinquished control of the Fourth. In Columbia, S.C., Emma LeConte reported in her diary, “The white people shut themselves within doors and the darkies had the day to themselves — they and the Yankees.” What was being celebrated that day was the triumph not just of the Union military but also of the interpretation of Independence Day that white Southerners had strived to resist. The sight of former slaves openly celebrating the Fourth signified a fundamental transformation in the meaning of the holiday. This became especially clear when the Emancipation Proclamation was read out alongside the Declaration — dual symbols, in this newly triumphant version of Independence Day, of the radical ideals of the American revolution.
…Tensions between region and nation long persisted, of course, and well into the 20th century some white Southerners refused to celebrate the Fourth, seeing it as a Yankee holiday. But beginning after the war, and certainly in our own time, white Southerners have mostly had to worry about which fireworks display to attend or whether they can manage one last hot dog — not, as they once did, about whether they should be celebrating the Fourth at all.”
The darkest day in the history of the celebration of July 4th in the South was unquestionably July 4, 1865 when free negroes and Yankee soldiers paraded through the ruins of cities like Charleston and the Emancipation Proclamation was read alongside the Declaration of Independence in front of starving White people.
It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that July 4th came to be celebrated in the South as it has been in recent decades. Many Southerners never celebrated July 4th again after the scenes of that day in 1865. July 4th was considered a Yankee holiday or a negro holiday.
Note: Consider this a “Civil War Memory” post:
The moral of the story is that the cult of Americanism collapsed in the South in a decade, the celebration of July 4th was transformed under the Confederacy, and it didn’t recover its present meaning in Dixie until after World War II.