To 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.