Would the Confederacy Have Celebrated the Fourth of July?

July 4, 1861, was a day of ambivalence for many Southerners.

James River, Virginia. On Confederate gunboat TEASER captured on July 4, 1862.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
July 3, 2014, 1 a.m.

“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.

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