by Eric Morgenson
The celebration of America’s day of independence has long been an opportunity for activists to showcase where the country has not succeeded in bringing freedom to all its citizens. Various groups and organizations have placed their own views and experiences on the annual ritualized celebration of the day that the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence in 1776, re-framing celebrations to matters of slavery, discrimination, and the limits of American freedom. Celebrations of American independence ultimately reflect the Americans celebrating. In today’s politically and racially fraught climate, where basic rights are under threat, and where conservative Republicans and the Trump administration unveil new and horrifying policy propositions seemingly every day, today’s activists would be wise to take a page from history and use the Fourth of July holiday to illuminate the ways in which American society is becoming ever more unequal.
The Fourth of July has come to stand for much more than just American independence. The holiday has become a rallying point for American civil religion, and the ideas that America ostensibly represents have an almost religious fervor. In many cases, God, along with American ideals of liberty and freedom, are referenced when leaders make pronouncements about the meaning of July Fourth. President George W. Bush exemplified this when he declared on the Fourth of July 2002: “On the Fourth of July we count our blessings. And there are so many to count: We’re thankful for the families we love, we’re thankful for the opportunities in America, we’re thankful for our freedom, the freedom declared by our founding fathers, defended by many generations, and granted to each one of us by almighty God.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the existence of the institution of slavery hampered American claims of freedom. While the context was very different, Fredrick Douglass also used religious imagery in a famous speech given in Rochester, New York in 1852. In his speech, he described the Fourth of July as “the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.” These ideas, put forth by George W. Bush and Fredrick Douglass 150 years apart, demonstrate how much the holiday of July 4th is a celebration of the American civil religion. It is not merely a celebration of the Continental Congress’ approval of the Declaration of Independence, but it stands symbolically as a day to celebrate American freedoms, or in the case of Douglass, point out America’s shortcomings.
While America was built on high-minded Enlightenment ideals, the foundations of the American capitalist economy are racialized slavery and oppression.
Abraham Lincoln placed the battle over slavery at the center of his 1861 Fourth of July speech given to Congress on July 5th. At the time Congress was debating the President’s request for more funding to fight the Civil War. In his speech, Lincoln outlined the causes of the Civil War and the events leading up to his request to Congress, including his own election. He then described the arguments for and against secession, arguing “if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so, it may also discard the republican form of government.” Lincoln used the day set aside to honor the idea of freedom to argue against the idea that secession by southern states was an act of a people asserting their rights. Instead, Lincoln framed the burgeoning crisis as an attack on the republican form of government in which Americans prided themselves.
Though Lincoln deployed the language of common republican values, many activists view slavery itself as a subversion of the liberty associated with the 4th. In 2012, comedian and provocateur Chris Rock tweeted “Happy white people’s independence day. The slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed the fireworks.” Rock’s tweet demonstrates the lasting impact that slavery has on celebrations about America’s independence. For many, it is impossible to discuss the idea of freedom that the day ostensibly embraces without also discussing the inherent contradictions on which the United States was founded. While America was built on high-minded Enlightenment ideals, the foundations of the American capitalist economy are racialized slavery and oppression. One of the most prominent writers on race today, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written on the need for reparations for the institution of American slavery, republished an essay by historian W. Caleb McDaniel on the Fourth of July 2013 which specifically linked the Confederacy with the conservative anti-democratic ethos that exists in the United States. These attacks on the legitimacy of the Confederacy are important. Many on the far right have attempted to re-frame the Civil War as a fight for states rights and symbols of the white supremacist Confederacy as symbols of freedom. While progressives should push back against false ideas about the Confederacy whenever they have the opportunity, July Fourth and its celebration of freedom offers the perfect time to explain why the Confederacy was anything but free and that racial oppression in the U.S. represents a deeply-ingrained inequality that fails to live up to the spirit of the Fourth of July.
Race and ethnicity in the United States extend beyond a black-white paradigm, and past celebrations of the Fourth of July have exposed the racism and hatred that various groups experienced in the United States. The Fourth of July 1918 held at the height of the First World War saw the nationalism that gripped the country manifest itself in the form of a Loyalty Day Parade in 1918. The event caused controversy based on rumors that Hungarian immigrant groups would be celebrating the state of Hungary, a country with which the United States was at war. Hungarian representatives dismissed this saying “there will be no possible glorification of Hungary or of any other nation with which the United States is at war.” The director of the parade, Dr. George Kunz, said that representatives from all countries would “not appear as Hungarians at all, but as loyal Americans of Hungarian decent.” The late nineteenth century had seen an influx of new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and this wave of immigration brought with it a nativist backlash. This backlash manifested itself in anti-immigrant attacks and a climate of general racism in the United States. Most notably, the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States caused many school districts to ban the teaching of German during the war. The celebrations of Independence Day that took place during the war years were another manifestation of the climate of racism that gripped the United States, as the stories of the first generation were erased or altered to fit the narrative of American wartime unity and supremacy.
In 1930 the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico… published a resolution declaring that the holiday had no significance to the island except “in the history of a nation which now imposes a de facto government on Puerto Rico.”
While the holiday has at times been a celebration of racist nationalism, the Fourth of July has also been the source of anti-imperial protests. In 1930 the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, which had been an American territory since 1898, published a resolution declaring that the holiday had no significance to the island except “in the history of a nation which now imposes a de facto government on Puerto Rico.” This legacy of American colonialism, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, extended to other celebrations as well. During World War II, the island of Cuba was still very much under the influence of the United States, having been taken into the American sphere of influence as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War. While the country was officially independent, the United States imposed strict treaty terms on it in order to keep it under American control, most famously the 1903 Platt Amendment, which read in part “ the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene [in Cuban affairs] for the preservation of Cuban independence.” Cuba was so completely controlled by the United States that it “celebrated [the 4th]…as if it were its own national holiday” in 1943. These celebrations show the extent of America’s colonial influence. While some Puerto Ricans resisted American oppression, the American-backed dictatorial government of Cuba observed a holiday commemorating American freedom. A decade and a half later, Cuba would not be celebrating their connections to the United States, but instead violently throwing off their colonial masters in the 1959 Revolution. And while many in Puerto Rico continue to push for freedom, the island remains a territory of the United States.
In a multicultural twenty-first century United States, where ethnic and national groups work to integrate their own stories into the story of America, celebrations of Independence Day take on different meanings. In 2013, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran an article written by an American Jew, Yael Miller, who felt divided in her loyalties and debated which holiday held more significance to her American Independence Day or Israeli Independence Day. For some American Jews, America’s Independence Day offers a study in contrasts. On the one hand, they consider themselves fully Americanized and connected to the United States. On the other hand, the Jewish state of Israel offers many a source of pride in themselves and their ethnic identity. This dilemma, coming a century after Hungarian immigrants faced vicious attacks at the mere suggestion that they might incorporate their national identity into a celebration of freedom, shows the evolution of American identity. People of European descent are accepted, while others, especially African Americans, those of Latin American heritage, or those who are perceived to be Muslim are still discriminated against on a wide scale. For some, the holiday offers an opportunity to celebrate progress. For others, it is an opportunity to showcase the ways in which the United States continues to struggle with the idea of freedom, and who is allowed to have their story told as part of the broader American story.
“Happy 4th of July to everyone, including the haters and losers!” -Donald Trump
The idea of freedom and independence has taken on a new meaning since the election of Donald Trump. A threat of Muslim bans and potential restrictions on citizens’ right to protest have many liberals and leftists calling the actions of Trump and his supporters downright un-American. While many historians would point out that restrictions on rights are nothing new in American history, many of Trump’s actions, as well as the demagogic nature of his ongoing rallies, are legitimate causes for concern. Some of Trump’s own statements made on the holiday would be comical if the President of the United States did not make them. On July 4, 2014, Trump tweeted: “Happy 4th of July to everyone, including the haters and losers!” This pronouncement, complete with Trump’s favorite slurs against those who oppose him, lays bare the issues that exists in celebrations of the Fourth of July: the celebration exists for Americans who are willing or even eager to look past the nation’s many flaws. This version leaves out “the haters and the losers” who are the victims of race and gender discrimination and it also downplays the existence of slavery and the role that enslaved peoples played in creating “the land of the free.”
Liberals and leftists will have much to protest this Fourth of July. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Trump’s case on his Muslim travel ban, allowing some aspects of the order to stay in place and restricting even further who is allowed into the United States. In addition, the Senate’s promise to vote on ending Obamacare after the Fourth of July recess brings a certain symbolism to liberals’ fight to maintain healthcare for an estimated twenty-two million people. These decidedly undemocratic restrictions would do significant damage to the most vulnerable among us if they were successfully implemented. Those of us who are involved in activism would do well to take a lesson from history and use the Fourth of July holiday to educate others about the rights that Americans are at risk of losing under the Trump administration. While the decades and centuries continue on, the importance of using the Fourth of July to discuss institutional discrimination remains.
This Fourth of July, be sure to take some time to celebrate by making others aware of the discrimination that still exists in the United States. Using your freedom to help others achieve freedom is the ultimate celebration of the July Fourth holiday.
Eric Morgenson is a PhD student at SUNY-Albany. He is writing a dissertation on the idea of antisemitism in the Black Nationalist Movement and American Jewish identity in the 1960s. He can be contacted here.
 “Us Celebrates First Fourth After 9/11” CNN.com http://edition.cnn.com/2002/US/07/04/homeland.fourth/
 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” Speech by Fredrick Douglass July 5 1852 accessed at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/
 Abraham Lincoln Message to Congress in Special Session July 4, 1861 http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/message-to-congress-in-special-session/
 For a full study of the effects of capitalism on the institution of American slavery see Ed Baptist The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books) 2014.
 Hungarians Cause a Fourth of July Protest” New York Times June 26, 1918.
 David N. Kennedy Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press) 54.
 “Protests Marking Fourth of July: Puerto Rican Nationalists Say Day has Significance only to Americans” New York Times July 3, 1930
 For a full text of the Platt Amendment see http://loveman.sdsu.edu/docs/1903PlattAmendment.pdf
 “Cubans Celebrate July Fourth Holiday” The New York Times July 4, 1943.