“Independence Forever”–except in Vicksburg

AdamsStatueFaceTo commemorate 1826’s July Fourth celebrations in Quincy, Massachusetts—which marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—the organizing committee approached the town’s elder statesman, John Adams. Adams, the single most important voice of the independence movement in the Second Continental Congress, was by that time one of only three surviving signers of the Declaration (another being the document’s primary author, Thomas Jefferson).

Adams, 90 years old, was nearly blind, nearly deaf, and in feeble condition, but his boisterous spirit remained as vibrant as ever. For his “appropriate comments,” he said, “I will give you ‘Independence forever!’” When asked if he didn’t want to elaborate, he replied, “Not one word.”

I wonder how many people in Vicksburg, Mississippi, might have recalled Adams’s proclamation 37 years later—July 4, 1863.

On that Fourth of July, Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces, led by Gen. John Logan, marched into the beleaguered city along the river after a siege that had lasted since mid May. The commander of the city’s garrison, Gen. John Pemberton, had acquiesced the day before to a surrender, choosing the 4th of July because he felt he would get better terms because of the patriotic holiday. “I know their peculiar weaknesses and their national vanity,” he had told a gathering of his officers called to help him decide the matter; “I know we can get better terms from them on the Fourth of July than on any other day of the year.”

Grant, not feeling especially magnanimous on that day, offered terms little better than the “unconditional surrender” that had made him famous at Fort Donelson in the winter of 1862.

Whether anyone in Vicksburg’s populace recounted Adams’s words or not, the day’s sardonic twist was not lost on them. Their Confederacy had sought independence, yet the surrender of Vicksburg was a crushing blow against that aim. Independence might be forever, but it was not for the Confederacy at all.

Just what did independence mean? For Adams’ generation, it meant independence from tyranny from the King of England. For those pushing for Southern independence, it meant independence from what they saw as the tyranny of the central government in Washington.

But like words like “freedom” and “liberty,” “independence” is a slippery word that means different things to different people. The Founding Fathers discovered this almost as soon as the Articles of Confederation went into effect, and again when they tried to hammer out, and then ratify, the Constitution. Everyone thought they knew what those words meant, but as Adams and Jefferson themselves exemplified, there were very different, and often mutually exclusive visions of what those ideas meant.

Even during the Founding, northerners began to call out Southerners who cried out for liberty yet kept black men and women in bondage. Adams himself called slavery “an evil of colossal magnitude.” Today, Southern apologists like to say that “there was slavery in the north, too,” which was true to a point, although by the end of the 1790s, all northern states had illegalized it.

That said, it is worth noting that, in the end, the Founders thought it was more important to bring the new nation together than it was to abolish slavery, which would have sundered the country before the country ever got off the ground. I wasn’t there, so I won’t second-guess their decision or pass judgment from my comfortable seat in the present; rather, I recognize that they wrestled with the issue and came to a decision that says something important about their priorities and reasoning.

Issues of race, freedom, liberty, and independence competed for decades, wrapped in an increasingly sectional and bitter politics. By 1860, when the South sought its independence by declaring secession, what exactly did that mean? States claimed to seek independence from tyranny, but did that speak for all—and apply to—all its residents? Or really only just for its white citizens?

How did concepts of liberty, freedom, and independence really play out?

(And don’t take my word for it—look at some of the primary sources.)

Isaac Jackson of the 83rd Ohio Infantry, among those troops occupying the fallen Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, declared it “the most Glorious Fourth I ever spent.” Sgt. Charles Wilcox if the 33rd Illinois elaborated: “This day in American history is only second to the one of which today is the 87th anniversary.”

In fact, in 1776, John Adams predicted the adoption of the Declaration of Independence would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, games, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

But in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the memory of that Independence Day would stay bitter in the mouths of residents. As the story goes, townsfolk wouldn’t celebrate the Fourth of July for a hundred years, disproving, at least in one place, Adams’s prediction.

I can only wonder what the feisty old Founder would have thought.


You might also be interested in a piece I wrote on July 4, 2012, “The Fourth of July and the Death of Independence.” On that day, I happened to be working at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, which offered an opportunity for reflection on the notions of freedom, slavery, and Independence Day.

5 Responses to “Independence Forever”–except in Vicksburg

  1. The question is always circular in reasoning and result. Secession and Revolution took place in 1860 in large part because of slavery, but that in itself hardly answers the question of the fundamental right to do it. Lincoln, as was his tendency, would made firm statements containing fallacious reasoning. He would note that no government contained within it the right to dissolution. But there had never been a consensual multitiered federal republic like ours. Everything before us had been monarchies, at best limited ones, but never one with two organic founding documents. Even those like Greeley who loathed slavery hesitated to believe that the Union could be maintained by force. And it was to be white men who made that decision. If the south and the Union border states had slavery, then the Union had near complete disenfranchisement of its black population. They may have loathed slavery , but they had no real comprehension of the slave as a fellow human being. Had the Confederacy not fired on Sumter, precipitating the war for the Union, they might have pulled off a peaceful secession. But the passion forcing secession almost made the war inevitable.

  2. Very well written John. I’d like to make two points though. One: 3 of the colonies would not sign onto the Declaration until they were assured that should their citizens decide to leave the compact, that they could. The second point being that even if the Confederates had not fired on Sumpter, Lincoln would not have agreed to a peaceful seperation. Lincoln intentionally provoked the South into confrontation in part to destroy the souths political power and economy. An independent south would have been a threat, economically, to the norths shipping industry through lower tariffs. I also believe slavery would have died of natural causes as it had throughout most of the civilized world, without the loss of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

    1. Let’s try again: give us that approximate date when US slavery “would have died of natural causes”. And the Confederates did in fact fire on “Sumpter” – a US military installation housing US troops. Calling the US sustaining its own military personnel and installation “provocation” sounds like something Putin or Kim might say. .

  3. Chris: Thanks for this article. I wasn’t aware of Pemberton’s statement:

    “I know their peculiar weaknesses and their national vanity,” he had told a gathering of his officers called to help him decide the matter; “I know we can get better terms from them on the Fourth of July than on any other day of the year.”

    “Peculiar weaknesses and national vanity”? It’s called American patriotism. That’s an odd viewpoint from somebody who hailed from Pennsylvania and graduated West Point..

  4. Southern apologists have a point because the United States couldn’t have been realized without maintaining slavery. It doesn’t really matter that white male property owning Northerners abolished slavery in their states in short order. The Revolution, later reaffirmed by the War of 1812, guaranteed the liberty of the mostly white male property owning class of all the states and territories to determine their own political course. The whole of the 13 colonies and nation were needed to defeat the British. John Adams and sons couldn’t have done it by themselves. So Jefferson and his Southern neighbors could in their own time contentedly shrug their shoulders at Adams’ exultation that slavery is “an evil of colossal magnitude.”

    Of course John Adams carried an evil inside of him too. The Alien and Sedition Act was arguably “an evil of colossal magnitude”. Not as colossal a magnitude as slavery, but for shame!

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