Is Independence Day a Radical Holiday?


Hsuan L. Hsu is associate professor of English at the University of California, Davis.

Fourth of July on Helena Island, SC, 1939. Credit: NARA

Ask people what we celebrate on Independence Day, and they’ll probably name a discrete historical event such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the American Revolution. But for over two centuries, diverse groups have continually invoked and contested ideas underlying the Declaration and the Revolutionary War in ways that recall William Faulkner’s observation that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Since 1776, the meaning of July 4 has become much broader and more complex than literal interpretations of U.S. history would suggest. The Revolution and the Declaration of Independence have taken on a range of meanings for people in the U.S. and throughout the world fighting to realize their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The struggle for independence did not end when Cornwallis surrendered -- it only shifted from open war to political contests over ideas and policy.

Cities and organizations across the U.S. celebrate the holiday with public readings of the Declaration. But what if public readings used Jefferson’s rough draft instead of the edited document ratified by the Continental Congress? We might have more cause to celebrate the document’s commitment to freedom if we publicly commemorated Jefferson’s initial equation of American independence with the liberty of enslaved Africans: in his original litany of complaints against King George III, Jefferson wrote:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.

Perhaps we should remember the official Declaration -- from which these lines were removed to satisfy Southern congressmen -- with a grain of salt, keeping in mind that the Declaration was carefully revised to deny African Americans the sacred rights of life and liberty. Even in its point of origin, then, Independence Day raises difficult questions about the meaning of freedom. Who is entitled to fight for independence, and who is not? Should the natural rights espoused by the Declaration be guaranteed to all men and women across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries? What should we do when our freedoms exclude or impinge on the rights of others? What is the meaning of Independence Day, and for whom?

In the last few years, rallies in support of the war in Iraq and Tea Party anti-tax demonstrations have been repackaging Independence Day as a conservative occasion for endorsing nationalism, racism, aggressive foreign policy, and cuts to social services. Newt Gingrich has even declared a national “Energy Independence Day” to endorse increased oil drilling in U.S. reserves. On July 4, 2009, anti-immigrant speakers and border patrol supporters gathered near California’s border with Mexico for a four-day “Secure America Now” event.

These moments take their place in a long history in which conservative groups have used the Fourth of July to push nationalist policies and to exclude or control diverse ethnic groups. On July 4, 1845, the first convention of the national “Native American Party” -- consisting not of indigenous Native Americans but of white men born in the U.S. -- issued the “Declaration of Principles of the Native American Convention,” which called for a longer naturalization period, excluding immigrants from public office, and combating foreign influence in all institutions. The declaration warned that “a large proportion of the foreign body of citizens and voters now constitute a representation of the worst and most degraded of the European population -- victims of social oppression or personal vices, utterly divested by ignorance or crime of the moral and intellectual requisites for political self-government.” During World War I, the Committee for Immigrants in America and the Bureau of Education would advocate a more gentle approach to controlling immigrants, organizing July 4 programs nationwide to present immigrants with “a great nationalistic expression of unity and faith in America.” In 1917, the Committee on Public Information established by President Woodrow Wilson as the first federal propaganda organization in history would promote Independence Day as an occasion for foreign-born immigrants to demonstrate their loyalty to the U.S.

Because it disguises imperial actions as acts of “liberation,” the Fourth of July has also played a pivotal role in the long history of U.S. imperialism. On the same day as the Native American Party -- better known to posterity as the Know Nothing Party -- issued its declaration, the Texas congress voted to be annexed by the U.S., a decision that would lead to the U.S.-Mexican War. When the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was proclaimed on July 4, 1848, the war concluded with Mexico ceding Texas and most of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Western Colorado -- along with the tens of thousands of Mexican residents in these territories -- to the U.S. On July 4, 1894, Euro-American sugar planters and business leaders declared the Republic of Hawai’i, years after they had forcibly disenfranchised indigenous and Asian subjects and overthrown the popular regime of Queen Lili’uokalani. Although the Blount Report commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives found the coup to be illegal, the U.S. annexed Hawai’i in 1898 and would not officially recognize the aggressive nature of the overthrow of Hawai’i’s sovereign government until Congress passed a joint Apology Resolution in 1993.

Although General Emilio Aguinaldo and his supporters had issued the Philippine Declaration of Independence from Spain when Philippine and U.S. soldiers had gained control of most of the islands in the War of 1898, the U.S. would subsequently wage the controversial and bloody Philippine-American War (or Philippine War of Independence) to establish possession of the islands. On July 4, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt formally proclaimed the end of the Philippine-American War and granted amnesty to many who participated in the “insurrection,” provided that they first swear this oath:

I, ________________ , solemnly swear (or affirm) that I recognize and accept the supreme authority of the United States of America in the Philippine Islands and will maintain true faith and allegiance thereto; that I impose upon myself this obligation voluntarily, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion. So help me God.

In 1946, forty-eight years after the Philippine Declaration of Independence invoked “the protection of our Powerful and Humanitarian Nation, the United States of America,” the U.S. relinquished sovereignty over the Philippines. However, the Treaty of Manila signed on July 4 that year guaranteed the U.S. continued economic privileges and control of military bases on the islands. The U.S. would also relinquish a measure of control over Puerto Rico on July 4, 1950, when President Truman signed Public Act 600, allowing Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution and eventually transition to commonwealth status with limited self-government over domestic affairs.

Within the U.S., there have been numerous instances of violence targeting racial groups perceived to be laying claim to too much freedom in public. The 1876 Hamburg Massacre in South Carolina originated in an altercation between black members of the National Guard, who were drilling on Market Street on July 4, and two white farmers who claimed they were obstructing the road. When a black judge was hearing the case on July 8, hundreds of armed white men confronted the militia company, and in the ensuing conflict six or seven black men, and one white man, were killed. On July 4 1910, the “Fight of the Century” -- in which the African American world heavyweight champion John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson defeated James Jeffries (a former champion who had come out of retirement intending to “demonstrate that a white man is king of them all”) -- precipitated race riots in over 50 cities across the U.S., in which some twenty-five people -- twenty-three of them African American -- were killed. Strengthened by increasing membership resulting from the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s pro-Klan film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and rising anti-immigrant sentiment, the Ku Klux Klan held organized events and even participated in some towns’ official Independence Day parades during the 1920s. Among the most significant of these were massive Klan rallies in Kokomo, Indiana (1923; estimated attendance 200,000) and Long Branch, New Jersey (1924; estimated attendance 15,000). More recently, July 4 has been the occasion for numerous racist hate crimes, including white supremacist Benjamin Nathaniel Smith’s 1999 shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, the (allegedly homophobic) 2000 murder of African American Arthur “J.R.” Warren in West Virginia, and Christopher Kinson’s July 4, 2000 attack on Minh Duc Hong and Hong’s brother in Ocean Shores, Washington.

Another tragic instance of violence -- this time directed against the working class -- occurred on July 4, 1894, when President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops to Chicago to restore order during the Pullman Palace Car Company strike, justifying his decision by claiming that the strike interfered with the U.S. mail, violated anti-trust legislation, and represented a threat to public safety. At least twelve people were killed in the following days. The strike and national boycott -- which eventually involved over 125,000 workers -- had been directed against lowered wages, sixteen-hour workdays, and inflated prices in the company town of Pullman.

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But if our nation’s birthday has been an occasion for seizing territory, suppressing racial minorities, and making immigrants more patriotic, over the centuries groups have also leveraged the Declaration to expand the scope and meaning of freedom. Before the Civil War, slavery gave rise to bitter debates and struggles over the liberty and rights of African Americans. Echoes of the antislavery passage edited out of the rough draft of the Declaration can be heard in abolitionists’ frequent appeals to that document, which draw attention to the glaring contradiction between its principles and the institution of slavery. In 1829, the Boston-based black abolitionist David Walker published an Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and had copies smuggled to slaves in the South. This radical pamphlet argued for either immediate emancipation or slave revolt:

See your Declaration Americans! ! ! Do you understand your own language? Hear your languages, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 -- ‘We hold these truths to be self evident -- that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL! ! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! !’ Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us -- men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation! ! ! ! ! !

Nat Turner’s revolt, which terrified slaveholders throughout the South, was originally planned for July 4, 1831 but postponed until August 22. Inspired by prophetic visions -- such as drops of blood on corn, a solar eclipse, and the Savior with outstretched arms -- Turner and his followers killed over fifty-seven white men, women, and children before they were suppressed by the Virginia military (Turner’s firsthand account was recorded and published by his lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, as The Confessions of Nat Turner).

July 4 was also the occasion for fiery antislavery newspaper editorials, abolitionist rallies, and fiery speeches by the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass. In the most famous of these, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?”, Douglass explained why he and the African Americans he represents cannot fully join in Independence Day festivities:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

Over a century later, on July 4, 1970, the “Black Declaration of Independence” issued by National Committee of Black Churchmen drew attention to continuing discrepancies between the nation’s egalitarian principles and the disadvantaged conditions of African Americans still contending with the legacies of slavery, segregation, and other racist institutions. Calling for the end of institutionalized forms of racism, the document declares:

...that we shall be, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT FROM THE INJUSTICE, EXPLOITATIVE CONTROL, INSTITUTIONALIZED VIOLENCE AND RACISM OF WHITE AMERICA, that unless we receive full Redress and Relief from these Inhumanities we will move to renounce all Allegiance to this Nation, and will refuse, in every way, to cooperate with the Evil which is Perpetrated upon ourselves and our Communities.

Native American groups also leveraged the legacy of the U.S. revolution to protest Indian Removal and to strengthen their own national affiliations. On July 4, 1827 the Cherokee Nation adopted the Cherokee Constitution. A controversial document both for Georgians advocating Indian Removal and Cherokees who preferred traditional forms of governance, the Cherokee Constitution drew on the U.S. Constitution to create a sovereign and centralized national government which its framers hoped would be capable of resisting U.S. incursions. In 1829, tribal leaders submitted the Cherokee Memorials to Congress, just before both houses of Congress began debating Indian removal bills. While the Memorials draw on language from the Declaration of Independence to argue for self-determination, they also explain “how our right to self-government was affected and destroyed by the Declaration of Independence, which has never noticed the subject of Cherokee sovereignty.” William Apess, a Pequot leader, Methodist minister, and outspoken critic of Indian removal, made a similar point in an 1836 speech eulogizing Metacomet or King Philip, who had been beheaded and drawn and quartered for leading a Native American war against New England colonists in 1675-76. Implicitly connecting the Puritans’ mistreatment of Native Americans with U.S. injustices towards other “people of color,” Apess mourns the dates of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth and the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22nd of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy.”

In 1890, after most Native Americans had been displaced to reservations, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan issued instructions for government boarding schools to incorporate various holidays -- including the Fourth of July -- in programs of Indian education and assimilation. But Native Americans often took advantage of the holiday to gather and perform rituals -- such as the Kiowa Sun Dance -- that were otherwise prohibited by government officials. This strategic appropriation of the holiday continues into the current era: on July 4, 1991, William Meadows reports that an emcee at the annual July Gourd Clan encampment in Oklahoma announced, “This is not a Fourth of July celebration. The occurrence is due to free time from jobs. We are in no way promoting or celebrating the American Fourth of July.”

Others have invoked the democratic principles of the American Revolution to call for a general redistribution of wealth and the radical reorganization of social relations. In “A Declaration of Mental Independence” addressed to the utopian settlement of New Harmony, Indiana on July 4, 1826, the Welsh reformer Robert Owen urged his audience to liberate their minds from a


In 1829, the radical reformer and trade unionist George H. Evans published the “Working Men’s Declaration of Independence” in the Working Man’s Advocate of New York and the Mechanic’s Free Press of Philadelphia. Noting that “The laws and municipal ordinances and regulations, generally[,] have heretofore been ordained on such principles, as have deprived nine tenths of the members of the body politic, who are not wealthy, of the equal means to enjoy ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which the rich enjoy exclusively,” Evans calls for reform by “lawful and constitutional measures.” On July 4, 1839, tenant farmers gathered in upstate New York gathered to organize resistance to exorbitant rent payments demanded by aristocratic landowners. This led to a protracted “Anti-Rent War” in which tenants dressed as Indians in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party and declared “We will take up the ball of the Revolution where our fathers stopped it and roll it to the final consummation of freedom and independence of the masses.”

Two classic works of American literature voiced similar concerns about a culture that placed too much emphasis on private property and material wealth and, as a result, intensified the inequalities between rich and poor. Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845 to begin his experiment of living (primarily) off his own labor on the shore of Walden Pond. In Walden, Thoreau reports that his intention in withdrawing from conventional values, practices, and perceptions was “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855. Associating America’s independence with the dignity of workers, his celebrated “Song of Myself” slips a celebration of the Fourth of July between descriptions of everyday labor:

The floormen are laying the floor -- the tinners are tinning the roof -- the masons are calling for mortar,
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gathered .... it is the Fourth of July .... what salutes of cannon and small arms!
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs and the mower mows and the
winter-grain falls in the ground…

At the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed “A Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” which Elizabeth Cady Stanton had modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence. After listing the injustices that the male framers of U.S. laws had imposed upon women (for example, “He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead”), the declaration proclaims:

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.

Agitation for sexual equality took another form on July 4 in 1965-1969, when East Coast Homophile Organizations staged Annual Reminders, picketing for gay and lesbian equality at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. After the Stonewall uprising of June 28, 1969, the annual reminder was combined with LGBT pride events on the last Saturday in June.

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If the U.S. has used July 4 to garner support for aggressive and often imperialist actions in colonized territories such as Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, the Declaration of Independence has also influenced to a dizzying range of anticolonial claims for freedom and self-determination -- claims often spurned by the United States. The earliest of these was the Haitian Declaration of Independence proclaimed on January 1, 1804 at the end of a thirteen-year revolutionary war conducted by former slaves and the descendants of slaves. Afraid that Haiti’s example would influence its own slaves to rise up, the U.S. responded by ceasing trade with Haiti and refusing to recognize its independence until 1862. The Commonwealth of Liberia, founded by the African Colonization Society in 1821-22 to provide free blacks with a space to settle outside of U.S. borders, issued the Liberian Declaration of Independence in 1847. Although Liberia’s declaration of independence and constitution drew on the democratic principles of the U.S. versions of these documents, the U.S. would not recognize Liberia’s independence until 1862. In 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence from France in an impassioned speech that begins by quoting the first lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”) and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The speech concludes: “we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country -- and in fact is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”

Although the U.S. government did not heed Ho Chi Minh’s declaration, many Americans have publicly emphasized the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence and aggressive foreign policy. At a July 4-5, 1969 conference in Cleveland, Ohio, activists formed the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, a broad but short-lived antiwar coalition. On July 4, 1983, the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice began an eight-week protest against the military buildup of the Reagan administration, camping outside the Seneca Army Depot in New York. Invoking the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and noting that the Seneca Army Depot -- where a neutron bomb was stored -- was once Iroquois territory, the encampment’s organizers declared: “The existence of nuclear weapons is killing us. Their production contaminates our environment, destroys out natural resources, and…our human dignity and creativity. But the most critical danger they represent is to life itself. ” The base was formally closed in 2000. On July 4, 1999, up to 50,000 people rallied outside the U.S. Navy’s Roosevelt Roads base in Puerto Rico to protest live fire exercises on the island of Vieques. These had been linked to Vieques’s unusually high cancer rate (27 percent greater than the rest of Puerto Rico’s population), as well as the death of David Sanes Rodríguez, a security guard killed by an errant bomb in April 1999. Civil disobedience incursions into the bombing range and international protests led to the US Navy’s withdrawal from Vieques in 2003.

Connecting the patriotic sentiments of July 4 with progressive change, political leaders have sometimes used the date as an occasion to enact legislation that protects and expands the rights and liberties of Americans. On July 4, 1827, New York State abolished slavery, freeing over 10,000 slaves. When Iowa abolished the death penalty on July 4, 1965, Governor Harold Hughes commented that the ban would be “clearly in the interests of more effective and realistic correctional procedures.” On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act, which (despite its marking off of nine categories of exemption including classified documents and “trade secrets”) considerably increased federal agencies’ accountability to the public. As Johnson explained, “This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits.”

We should not allow conservative interpretations of the Revolutionary War to overshadow these radical histories of July 4. The meaning of the Fourth of July encompasses all these struggles for independence waged by citizens, slaves, colonial subjects, union leaders, and philosophers. If the Revolution is about resisting inequality and struggling for freedom, not just celebrating something that happened long ago, then we should look to the People’s Bicentennial Commission (PBC) as an alternative to the populist patriotism of the Tea Party. Formed by activist Jeremy Rifkin in 1971, the PBC attempted to revive the egalitarian principles of the American Revolution by declaring independence from the influence of corporate capitalism. On the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the PBC organized the “Boston Oil Party” in which protestors threw oil barrels into Boston Harbor. In 1976, the announcement of a July 4 PBC counter-demonstration in Washington, D.C. read: “Declare your economic independence from ITT, GM, and EXXON. Send a message to Wall Street. Rededicate yourself to the democratic principles of 1776. Join the Movement for Economic Democracy.”

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