Independence Day dilemmas in the American South, 1848-1865

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Author: Paul Quigley
Date: May 2009
From: Journal of Southern History(Vol. 75, Issue 2)
Publisher: Southern Historical Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 14,798 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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ALONG WITH THE FOURTH OF JULY IN 1861 CAME A DILEMMA FOR THE members of the '76 Association in Charleston, South Carolina. Formed almost thirty years earlier with the purpose of organizing Independence Day celebrations, the association had faithfully marked every anniversary since then with parades, speeches, and dinners. But in 1861 circumstances were different. The United States were dissolved. South Carolina was part of the newly formed Confederacy. And so the dilemma: should ex-Americans be celebrating American Independence Day at all?

The problem required extensive deliberation. A five-member committee chosen for that task recommended that "the usual celebration of the day ... by public procession, solemn oration, and political banquet ought to be omitted on the present occasion." The Fourth was too closely associated with the now-defunct Union. And besides, at a time when soldiers from South Carolina and the other southern states had already begun to face off against their northern the, it did not seem appropriate to hold the customary public revelry. The association as a whole concurred with the committee's recommendation and resolved to bypass the usual festivities, holding only a brief business meeting on the evening of the Fourth. (1)

There was more, however, to the committee's report. Even though South Carolinians should not celebrate the Fourth in the traditional fashion, it went on, they should not go so far as to relinquish all claims to the day. After all, as the report's authors saw it, the Fourth of July acquired its significance from its association with those very principles--state sovereignty and the right of self-government by consent--for which South Carolinians were now fighting against the North. To be sure, celebration of the Fourth was rendered problematic by the fact that it had become "the symbol of [the Union's] continuance and the commemoration of its blessings and its power." South Carolinians should clearly leave this dimension of the holiday behind. Yet the committee remained adamant that they not also abandon their claim "to whatever of historical interest may attach to the day, or any portion of the fame which may belong to it for the constitutional principles there announced." The ideals of the holiday ought to be clung to even as its institutional associations were left behind. (2)

The Charlestonians' ambivalence toward the Fourth of July carried with it a set of difficult problems. Would it be possible to detach the ideals of the Fourth from their association with the United States? Could white southerners celebrate the intellectual pillars of American independence without also celebrating its political fruits, or mark the cultural traditions of American nationalism without the institutions of the United States? How did the central role of slavery in the dissolution of the Union and the formation of the Confederacy complicate matters? Was there a place for the Fourth of July in the Civil War-era South?

While students of the Fourth of July have paid some attention to the Civil War-era South, there has been little effort to use the holiday to shed...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A199800929