John Adams predicted that the colonial declaration of independence in the summer of 1776 “would be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. . . .It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parades, with Shews [sic], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” And that was what happened.
At the center of these celebrations was the Declaration of Independence. In antebellum Georgia, for example, from early June onward, newspapers mobilized citizens to organize communal commemorations of American independence. Editors often published the Declaration a day or two before the holiday, and they also wrote essays reflecting on the significance of the event for the nation and the state since 1776. A committee in each town tapped an up-and-coming politician to read the Declaration aloud and a more seasoned local political figure to deliver an oration affirming the glories of American liberty and progress. No Fourth of July celebration was complete without a parade of militiamen in full uniform. Following the parade, the reading of the Declaration, and the oration, citizens continued celebrating, with meals, ample liquid refreshment, and numerous toasts to heroic figures in the struggle for freedom, and to the ideal of freedom itself.
Once the political scene became increasingly polarized, towns and cities across Georgia continued to celebrate the Fourth of July, but at an ever-growing distance, both chronologically and emotionally, from the event, so exactly what sort of freedom was being celebrated on the Fourth was frequently rather fuzzy. In this brave new world of American politics, what was definitely lost was the notion of the “common good” that was supposed to be at the heart of “republicanism.”
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Even before the organization of political parties in Georgia, the potent mixture of patriotism and alcohol could lead to trouble on the Fourth. For instance, in 1787, Colonel James Gunn tangled at a dinner on the Fourth in Savannah with friends of James Jackson, who already had clashed with Gunn over a number of issues related to the Georgia militia. After a lot of eating and drinking, one of Jackson’s allies, Joseph Welscher, who was also one of Gunn’s militia subordinates, was asked to sing a song, but his choice of music angered Gunn and others because it was “an old English song made before the [Revolutionary] war.” When Gunn objected to the song, Welscher apologized, only to have Gunn retort, “Damn the song and you too, you damned stinking puppy.” The two men nearly came to blows, but were separated, and the still irate Gunn left in disgust. A drunken Welscher finally stumbled homeward a few hours later, past the house of Colonel Gunn, who was waiting for him. The two men grappled, with Gunn snatching Welscher’s sword away, then assaulting him with a whip. Only the arrival of a neighbor, summoned by Gunn’s anxious wife, defused the situation.
As political factions and parties formed in the major towns of Georgia in the mid- to late 1790s, first over Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plan to restore the nation’s credit and later over the Yazoo land fraud, it was not unusual for militia units to include members of only one faction or party. In 1796, Colonel Jesse Sanders, commander of the Columbia County regiment, enlivened a Fourth of July muster with a heated oration denouncing land speculators for their opposition to the Rescinding Act, which had negated the corrupt Yazoo sale. Subsequent events helped to polarize militia units further.
Even if all the local militiamen still paraded together through the town, they usually celebrated the Fourth separately once the parade had finished. In Savannah, for instance, “Democratic Republicans” and “Federal Republicans” usually held separate dinners; when, as in 1803, the port’s “friends of government [i.e., Federalists”] failed to meet in a body, the editor of the local Federalist paper hastened to reassure readers that the required muster of the town’s “Volunteer Corps” explained “why no Federal Republican Dinner was given by those of our citizens, who still feel an honest pride in revering the political maxims of WASHINGTON, and who will ever practice his precepts.” In 1804, the Chatham Artillery, led by three aides-de-camp of General James Jackson, fired a cannon in honor of President Jefferson and pledged their Republican faith over drinks under Jackson’s satisfied gaze.
In this later period, newspaper editorials, celebratory speeches, and toasts still addressed the general topic of American liberty, but the real excitement on the Fourth now came during the second phase of the celebration, when members of factions, parties, militia units, or other groups gathered to offer toasts interpreting local, state, or national issues so that their own particular views were presented as the logical outgrowth of the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and, thus, as examples of the nation’s founding ideals, while the political opposition was portrayed as having abandoned those things that had made the nation great, in pursuit of the rewards of greed and corruption. As had been the case on earlier occasions, alcohol and patriotism, transmuted now by increasingly rabid political partisanship, made for a combustible combination.
In 1825, for example, George Troup and John Clark, the leaders of Georgia’s eponymous political parties, opposed each other for the governorship in an exciting, highly emotional campaign. To celebrate the Fourth, planners in the town of Forsyth attempted to organize a non-partisan gathering, promising that no one would offer toasts on “party” topics. However, on the day itself, General Elias Beall, a zealous Trouper, made a strongly pro-Troup volunteer toast (“volunteer” toasts were offered late in the celebration, after the “regular” toasts, and, also, after the celebrants had had additional time to imbibe). In response, an equally avid member of the Clark party, John Cuthbert, proposed a blatantly pro-Clark toast, then left the table, fearing that the rest of the volunteer toasts would become even more overtly political, which, he later claimed, they did.
Seven years later, in 1832, lines were being drawn in Georgia and elsewhere over the efficacy–and constitutionality–of John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of Nullification, the idea that a state unhappy with a federal law, in this case the protective tariff, could vote to “nullify” it, rendering it null and void within the borders of that state. The Fourth of July celebration in Milledgeville, the state capital, began when local citizens, led to the Methodist church by the “Georgia Guards,” listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence and to a rather generic oration, a throwback to the “good ol’ days” before the rise of parties. After this well-attended ritual ended, the crowd broke up. Members of the Troup party, avid supporters of “state rights” and/or Nullification, held a celebration featuring the usual patriotic toasts, as well as more partisan ones, like the following: “The Cholera [then raging in parts of the state and nation] and Tariff for protection: May they both speedily become extinct; and thus the Union of our country and its families remain unbroken.” The men of the “Georgia Guards” militia unit, on the other hand, made their way to a site just outside the capital for a festive barbecue, presided over by Captain John Cuthbert, the man who had answered Beall’s pro-Troup toast in Forsyth seven years before and was now an editor of the state’s leading Clark party paper, the Federal Union.
The “volunteer toasts” during the Guards’ celebration, like those at the Troup party conclave, were more partisan than the “regular” ones, but they were also less strident than toasts offered by the Troupers. For instance, one of the Guard officers proposed “The union of the States, and the sovereignty of the States: clear heads and honest hearts for the defense of both.” Meanwhile, in the village of Hamilton, Fourth of July orator Marshall J. Wellborn denounced the protective tariff, the “American System” of Henry Clay, and the federal judiciary, warning his audience that southerners must “adhere inflexibly to the tattered fragments of our violated constitution wherever we can find them,” while in the town of Forsyth a gathering toasted Nullification as “an unconstitutional remedy for a constitutional but oppressive law.”
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By the early twenty-first century, the Fourth of July has become almost indistinguishable from other occasions for a long weekend. Here in Atlanta, for instance, the “Salute 2 America” parade ended in 2007, after forty-six years as the largest Independence Day celebration in the country, leaving the Peachtree Road Race as the chief local observance of the Fourth. The holiday also still serves, in Atlanta and elsewhere, as the symbolic mid-point of summer and as the occasion for “Independence Day sales.”
Over the years, the Declaration of Independence was a favorite tool for instructing school children, as well as generations of immigrants, in what it meant to be an American. It also frequently served as a way to teach rhetoric, and, for generations, the impassioned delivery of the Declaration by aspiring adolescent orators was right up there with the Preamble to the Constitution, Webster’s reply to Hayne, and the Gettysburg Address as a show stopper during ceremonies marking the end of the school year.
Nowadays, if our young people learn of the Declaration and its ideals, they generally do so in an American History course. One hopes that this lesson requires, at a minimum, that each student actually reads the document, and that the class discusses both what it says and, just as important, what it does not say. For instance, do our children learn about Jefferson’s famous (or infamous) “phillipic against slavery,” charging the King of England with “forcing” slavery upon the southern colonies, a charge that was excised from the draft of the Declaration by the Continental Congress, whose members realized all too well how explosive the slavery issue was (and, just maybe, how silly Jefferson’s assertion was)? A favorite assignment of mine used to be, after my American History classes had read, read about, and discussed the ideas in the Declaration, to give them the dictionary definition of the word “propaganda” and ask them to evaluate–in writing and orally–how accurately that term described Jefferson’s handiwork. These discussions were always very lively!
In this day of the twenty-four hour news cycle and of complex ideas reduced to sound bites and bumper sticker quotes, we should continue to insist that students examine the Declaration and its principles, but that they do so by placing the document and its ideals in historical context. (And, yes, I recognize that, in today’s hyper-partisan political world, I’m whistling into the wind by suggesting this–but that’s the great thing about being retired, not shy, and having my own blog. . . .)
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The problem with calling the Declaration of Independence “American scripture,” as some historians do, is that it plays into the literalist mindset of many Americans. If Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” then that’s the way it was, despite the fact that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and an American “aristocrat” as well. Of course King George III was guilty of all the charges leveled against him by Jefferson in the Declaration. (Aren’t lawyers always truthful in presenting cases to a jury? Don’t they invariably avoid exaggeration?) Moreover, so long as we continue to base evaluations of our children’s knowledge of American history on standardized tests, where the answer is always one of the choices offered and there is no room for contingency or complexity, students will miss much of the reality of the past, which is messy and hard to pin down in an objective, “multiple-choice” sort of way. The system requires unambiguous answers, easily graded–“historical truth” be damned!
Jefferson’s “Great Declaration,” it turns out, was a kind of national “to-do list,” a collection of inspiring ideals to which we committed ourselves as a nation, but which even some who heard the Declaration read in the summer of 1776 knew did not approximate reality. One way to understand our national history, then, is as “the story of American Freedom” (Eric Foner), a still-evolving saga wherein the very definition of “American Freedom” has been contested, stubbornly and consistently, with “progress” measured by which groups enjoy “the blessings of liberty,” and which remain outside the sacred circle, at any given time. And, make no mistake about it, even today groups do remain on the outside, looking in.
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)