Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Fourth of July and the American concept of freedom

The Fourth of July holiday is over (sigh). But I didn't see this piece by sociologist Claude Fischer until today: Fighting for the 4th of July Berkeley Blog 07/2/10. He gives a brief sketch of the political history of Fourth of July celebrations. He writes in part:

Commemorations of the Fourth of July in the early 19th century were caught up in a political tug-of-war between the Jeffersonian Republicans who revered the Declaration of Independence and the Federalists who were less enthusiastic. (The Federalists preferred to ignore or downplay those French-like passages about universal rights, equality, and the virtue of revolutions.) As the founding generation was dying off – both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826 – civic leaders became more eager to preserve the history of the Revolution and to promote the nation’s birthday. The Jeffersonians won.

When the conflict over slavery heated up, abolitionists, of course, deployed the Declaration’s clarion call for equality as a rhetorical weapon. And slavery’s defenders rejected that call. In 1848, South Carolina’s famed senator, John C. Calhoun, announced that “There was ‘not a word of truth’ in the notion that men were created equal” and an Indiana senator said five years later that “the supposed ‘self-evident truth’ of man’s equal creation was in fact ‘a self-evident lie’” (quotes from historian Pauline Maier).

But the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln solidified the Fourth as a celebration of rights and equality. (Here I follow Gary Wills.) In an 1858 Fourth of July speech, Lincoln argued that many Americans of his day – the recent immigrants – could not literally trace their ancestry back to the Founding Fathers. But they could trace it spiritually:

when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.
The immigrants of that day – many of them despised in their time – had equal moral claim to equality in America.

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