Patriotic Bickering: An Independence Day Tradition
What academic historians can offer each Fourth of July is reassurance that the holiday has always been appropriated by a diverse group of Americans, who hoped to advance a particular cause.
For example, in 1845, a new organization calling itself the Native American Party used July 4th to issue their own declaration. Their demands included limitations on immigration and laws banning immigrants from public service. Given its name, modern Americans might expect that the new organization was an attempt by indigenous peoples to reverse Euro-American influence and control.
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Not at all. The party had no Native Americans among its members. The name reflected the antebellum concept of what it meant to be a “native American.” That is, a white person who was born in the United States. The Native American Party further declared that permitting the “worst and most degraded of the European population” into the nation would threaten the freedom of their fellow native Americans. The warning referred only to southern and Eastern Europeans.
Seven years later, in 1852, a group of abolitionists from Rochester, New York, used the Fourth of July as an occasion to connect the holiday with their own anti-slavery agenda. The group invited prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) to speak, no doubt expecting the former slave to heap praises on them. Instead, Douglass delivered a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of all whites, including abolitionists.
“Do you mean, citizens, to mock me,” Douglass challenged his listeners, “by asking me to speak today?” Who could have the audacity to commemorate the Fourth of July, Douglass exclaimed, given the present and past willingness of Americans to profit from slavery. Nat Turner had also hoped to shock Americans beyond the use of rhetoric. He originally planned his deadly slave uprising for July 4, 1831.
Using July 4th to promote a message or course of action extends beyond social conservatives and black radicals. In fact, state and federal governments have been appropriating the day as early as the late 18th century. Northern state legislatures usually selected the Fourth of July as the day when certain slaves would be set free (usually with years of advance warning to allow slave owners to sell their human property “down the river”).
July 4th was also the day the federal government selected to celebrate the Philippines’ independence from Spanish rule in the 1890s; and the day for the official Philippines independence in 1946.
Independence Day has featured marches attended by hundreds of thousands of Ku Klux Klan supporters in the mid-1920’s; Dixiecrats of the late 1940s; supporters of the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960’s; the American Indian Movement of the late 1970’s; and modern Latina/o advocacy groups and their opponents.
The words of the Declaration of Independence have been used by men wearing Confederate flags and by the Black Panthers. In Chicago, these two groups even marched together on behalf of public programs for their very separate neighborhoods.
Perhaps there is a profound lesson here in the widely divergent ways that the Fourth of July has been appropriated and observed throughout history. Or perhaps our Founding Mothers and Fathers would simply be proud that their own bickering with one another about what it means to be an American is still going on.
Then again, these great patriots might remind us of the things we Americans share in common. After all, our Founders greatest talent was their ability to discover common ground and achieve compromise on matters that appeared irreconcilable. And so tomorrow, if you find yourself among a crowd of Tea Partiers and Wall Street Occupiers, I hope you honor our Founders by taking the opportunity to remind each of your fellow Americans about the one thing we all share. We aren’t British.