“It is like the anniversary of a divorced couple’s wedding.”
That’s how a reporter in the New York Times described July 4, 1861, the first Independence Day of the Civil War. And much like a failed marriage, it was unclear which side would retain what was once shared. Should the Confederacy have their own July Fourth as well? After all, without the initial breakaway from Britian, their revolution wouldn’t be possible.
The writer — an ur-David Brooks of sorts — continued in a thought experiment: What might a Confederate Fourth of July celebration look like?
It would be simply the old one, such as we have been accustomed to all our lives, and then a sequel directed against the United States. Liberty, independence, British oppression, Colonial misgovernment, would appear in their old places, and then would come “Part the Second,” consisting of indignant complaints against the Free-soilers, and their violation of Southern rights, joined together like the landing at Torbay and the Gun-powder Plot in the service we have alluded to. The tyrants of the old speeches would do duty again with a new one added. It will now be King GEORGE, Lord NORTH, and President LINCOLN.
Like the shared biblical figure Abraham in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the Founding Fathers would make it into the founding sagas of each country. The story would diverge from there.
In a 2009 paper in the Journal of Southern History, historian Paul Quigley wrote that while some Southerners were conflicted with celebrating the holiday, acknowledgement of the day continued on. In Charleston, S.C., he points out, a specially appointed five-member committee decided that “public procession, solemn oration, and political banquet ought to be omitted on the present occasion,” but offices would would be closed for the Fourth.
Before the war, the meaning of the holiday was already taking on different flavors. In the North, abolitionists used its language of freedom to call for the end of slavery. In the South, secessionists used its language of willful rebellion to call for a new state, inciting that the North had not lived up to the Declaration of Independence’s promise. Quigley goes on to explain how the Fourth of July ambivalence was “part of their attempt to resolve tensions between southernness and Americanness.”
But most importantly, the Fourth of July represented a shared celebration and an identity the North and South could rejoin after the war.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, Independence Day settled into a less overtly partisan occasion. Celebrations took standardized forms: the ringing of bells and the firing of salutes; the closing of businesses and stores … the reading aloud of the Declaration; and the consumption of food and alcohol.’
In their very uniformity, these rituals constituted important elements of early American nationalism, in the South as well as the North. This was the day of the year when, according to numerous reports, the American people were supposed to forget their differences and come together in a unified celebration of their great nation.
So maybe the Fourth of July saved the Union, or at least provided a basis for a renewed national identity after reconstruction. “They had separated from the central government formed by the American Revolutionary generation but wished to claim the heritage of that generation,” Quigley wrote.
And when the war was over, that heritage was something they could still hold on to. The divorced parents got back together.