It’s July 4th weekend, for many Americans a time for celebration, fireworks, and grilling. But it’s also an opportunity to think about what it means to be American, the meaning of independence, and what the “union” implied in “United States of America” really entails.
These were all questions that Americans were pondering deeply during the first, suspenseful summer of the Civil War in 1861.
ACWM Curator Chris Graham has assembled some contemporary newspaper editorials which provide a look into how Americans were thinking about their precarious Union as they observed their nation’s birthday. In this piece he speaks with Gabriel Hunter-Chang, ACWM’s Digital Coordinator.
Give it a listen, or scroll down to find the transcript below.
On the stakes of the conflict
The present anniversary of our country’s birth-day is celebrated under circumstances such as have never before occurred in our history and such as could not have been anticipated by the founders of the government.Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Bangor, Maine) Thu, Jul 4, 1861
On the revolutionary inheritance
“All men are created equal.” In that brief sentence was the germ of a national prosperity and a career of wealth and honor.Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) Thu, Jul 4, 1861
On the blessings of the republic
Through long years the tide of prosperity rolled on as if backed by resistless force. The old world looked on with wonder and awe. The slow coaches of superannuated European dynasties could not comprehend the vastness of the change.Davenport Daily Democrat & News (Davenport, Iowa) Thu, Jul 4, 1861
On the costs of preserving the union
It cost rivers of blood, and consumed the treasure of a generation to assert successfully the principles of the Declaration and found a nation to carry them into practice, and that nation and those principles can only be preserved by another sacrifice of life and property. But they are infinitely more than they will cost the people to preserve.Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) Thu, Jul 4, 1861
GABRIEL HUNTER-CHANG: Hi, I’m Gabriel Hunter-Chang
CHRIS GRAHAM: And I’m Chris Graham.
HUNTER-CHANG: This weekend is July 4th, for many Americans a time for fireworks, grilling, and sweaty summer nights. But it’s also a time to think about what it means to be American, the meaning of independence, and what the “union” implied in “United States of America” really entails.
These were all questions that Americans were pondering deeply during the Civil War era.
GRAHAM: Right, and if you have heard anything about July 4 in the Civil War era, you’ve heard one of two things: first is that Confederate Vicksburg fell to the U.S. Army on July 4, 1863, and white southerners in that place were loathe to observe independence day for several generations afterward. And second, you’ve no doubt heard Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” And it’s certainly worth a listen.
HUNTER-CHANG: So Chris, there’s more, right? We were talking about this subject and you made the point that there is value in seeing how folks in the loyal states thought about Independence Day.
GRAHAM: Yeah. People at this time celebrated July 4 in much the same way as we do today: it was a holiday with community gatherings, music, speeches, and even fireworks. One difference between then and now is that then the party usually included a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, and local newspapers reprinted that document every holiday. You can see reports on these celebrations in newspapers across the nation, and we have some of those reports here with us.
HUNTER-CHANG: Definitely. Well, why don’t I read this first quote from the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier. “The present anniversary of our country’s birth-day is celebrated under circumstances such as have never before occurred in our history and such as could not have been anticipated by the founders of the government.”
So that phrase, “Circumstances such as have never before occurred.”
GRAHAM: That’s the key here: this is 1861. This is the first summer of the war. At this point, eleven slave states had seceded. Armies mobilized. Some skirmishing had already happened but no major battle had taken place yet. The two major United States and Confederate States armies were poised in Northern Virginia for a major fight and everyone waited in suspense as they marked the nation’s birthday.
And so loyal Americans used the opportunity of July 4th, 1861 to take stock of what the nation meant to them in the midst of the crisis… and this is an insight into a surprisingly underreported aspect of the conflict: what did loyal Americans in the free states think was at stake in the conflict that was unfolding? What did they value about the nation that they felt was worth fighting for, and dying for?
HUNTER-CHANG: Here is the Hartford Courant: “‘All men are created equal.’ In that brief sentence was the germ of a national prosperity and a career of wealth and honor.”
GRAHAM: There’s a couple things in their commentary on that that we see repeated over and over again in these newspaper clippings. First of all of course is the absolute deification of the revolutionary generation and its legacy, particularly the idea that “all men are created equal.” Now, we can look back with historical perspective and note that of course Black people, Native Americans, and women were not regarded as equal and many people then noted that as well. But for the vast majority of White Americans this was the most democratic form of government in the western world at the time. And it wasn’t just a matter of degrees… but a matter of form. Elsewhere in Europe were monarchies, autocracies, and what they regarded as religious dictatorships under the Catholic church. America was premised on the idea that sovereignty derives from the people, not an authority… and these American knew it.
They knew it had been largely successful. But they also knew it was fragile, and could fail.
HUNTER-CHANG: Yeah, we see this in the next quote, from the Quad City Times of Iowa. “Through long years the tide of prosperity rolled on as if backed by resistless force. The old world looked on with wonder and awe. The slow coaches of superannuated European dynasties could not comprehend the vastness of the change.”
GRAHAM: There are two things in this. They regarded this nation as a still active experiment in self government, and they really believed that other nations in the western world were watching closely if it were to succeed or not. And they imagined that monarchs and autocrats in Europe were just waiting to point and laugh when the experiment failed. These people really wanted democracy to succeed, but not only just for the success of democracy.
And that’s the second thing in both of these quotes. They regarded democracy as already proven its success, evidenced in the steady expansion of voting rights over time, the general economic successes, and ability of ordinary citizens to improve their lot in life. We can look back and see the problems with this: dispossession of native lands, slavery, bad economic collapses. But they saw the good things accruing to them and regarded them not as a result of historical contingency, but as something that came with democracy. There were tangible benefits to democracy.
HUNTER-CHANG: You can see that in this quote, from the Hartford Courant, right? “[The sound of the liberty bell] crossed the broad Atlantic, and pierced the prisons and the workshops of Europe, whispered, to the captive, of a land that was to be free from oppression, and bade the son of toil to look to this new field where was recognized, in the deepest, noblest significance, the dignity of labor.”
GRAHAM: It’s all there. The US and her citizens have a duty to the world to continue the democratic experiment. But there’s a thing right there in the end… “the dignity of labor” that sticks out to me because it references the internal divisions that threatened the democratic experiment.
It’s between a free labor ideology and slavery. They regarded free labor–the ability for each man to make his own choices and make his own way–as the singular benefit of democracy. They may not have cared all that much about Black lives, but they absolutely understood that slavery was anathema to core values of democracy. And they absolutely viewed slaveholders as behaving like the European aristocrats, the nobility, the monarchies that they despised.
Why not just let the slave states go? Because to them, the United States operated as an organic whole and for it to fail–and fail because aristocrats with slaves broke it up–would mean a failure of the democratic experiment… that it wouldn’t work… that it would just continue to devolve into more and more chaos.
The Union, then, was worth fighting for.
HUNTER-CHANG: As the Chicago Tribune said, “It cost rivers of blood, and consumed the treasure of a generation to assert successfully the principles of the Declaration and found a nation to carry them into practice, and that nation and those principles can only be preserved by another sacrifice of life and property. But they are infinitely more than they will cost the people to preserve.”