The signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was itself an act of protest. The famed signatories — Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the members of the Second Continental Congress — understood this as they broke from British tyranny and launched a new nation.
As the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, Adams imagined the signing would “be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival … [and] Day of Deliverance … with Pomp and Parade.” He guessed right. Since then, Americans have assembled on the holiday to reflect on what it means to be American and to commend the signatories who criticized poor governance and chose revolutionary change rather than complacency.
Black Americans have always populated the celebrations, using these moments to reimagine America as a better nation cleansed of slavery and racism. On July 4, 1801, Continental Army veteran and black luminary Lemuel Haynes spoke of American freedom alongside American slavery. From the pulpit of his Vermont church, he lauded the “generous warriors” of the Revolutionary War yet also observed how black Americans suffered after having been “subjected to slavery, by cruel white oppressors.”
In 1827, black New Yorkers celebrated with renewed enthusiasm, as the state had abolished slavery on the holiday. In Brooklyn, in Manhattan and in Albany, newly freed celebrants took to the streets proclaiming freedom. From that day forward, as historian Shane White discovered, black Americans began to see the holiday as a political moment to show their fitness for citizenship.
July Fourth also became the ideal moment to reshape the nation. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, black Americans sparsely celebrated the day, as they were routinely shunned or attacked in public, but by the late 1840s, black abolitionists had developed genius techniques to lampoon and lament American commitments to freedom amid rampant unfreedoms and inequalities. This included celebrating independence. They understood the day of freedom festivals served as the best moment to challenge Americans, especially white Americans, to reflect on subjects too often ignored: slavery and racism.
Black abolitionists organized celebrations, mixing commonplace traditions, such as reading the Declaration of Independence to venerate the founders, with demonstrations critical of slavery and racism. They read accounts of injustices and poems. Sometimes they would even burn effigies of proslavery politicians.
Frederick Douglass joined this movement, using his newspaper, The North Star, to draw attention to these celebrations. In 1852, he famously commemorated the signing of the Declaration of Independence yet mixed cutting irony with patriotic sentiments in the hope of evoking change. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?,” Douglass asked the packed hall of white abolitionists. “I answer,” he continued: It is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless.”
Although Douglass offered an incendiary assessment of America, before he stepped off the stage, he embraced the country as a patriot. He closed his oration venerating the Constitution as a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” and pushed for reforms to end bondage and inequality. To him, July Fourth was not merely parades, barbecues or fireworks. He feted the country he cherished while rendering plainly the injustices white America refused to see.
Throughout the 1850s, black and white abolitionists assembled each July Fourth, hoping to use their celebrations to challenge Americans to change. On July 4, 1854, the onetime enslaved New Yorker Sojourner Truth demanded white audiences reflect, a theme driving black abolitionist celebrations. She decried the ongoing injustices black Americans faced and warned a crowd of white and black celebrants that “God would yet execute his judgements [sic] upon white people for their oppression and cruelty.”
While the abolitionist calendar included celebrations of Emancipation Day and August First to mark major victories in the abolitionist movement, the famed abolitionist William Wells Brown saw the abolitionist festivals of American independence to be “the most important meetings held during the year.” Even if the country had a long way to go before it mirrored the nation they yearned to live in, Douglass, Truth and Brown believed July Fourth offered a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the flaws that needed to be eradicated.
Like the Declaration’s signatories, abolitionists appreciated that protest can be a patriotic act and part of meaningful change. They remained on the fringe of the political scene, yet their advocacy compelled many white Americans to ponder the hypocrisy of slavery in a nation committed to freedom and its future.
During the Civil War, abolitionist celebrations intensified. Confederates fought to make slavery a permanent fixture in North America, so Douglass implored Abraham Lincoln to embrace abolition as part of the Union cause. As U.S. flags fluttered around the legendary orator during an 1862 festival, Douglass spoke of the meaning of July Fourth, dedicating it to the “cause of Emancipation.” Just as he had a decade before, Douglass wanted to mend the nation and guarantee it would thrive for generations; ending slavery was the only way to accomplish both.
Thanks in part to abolitionists’ protests against slavery and racial injustice, the 1865 July Fourth celebrations were the most dramatic in history. By the summer of 1865, the Union army had defeated Confederates, and nearly four million enslaved Americans walked free. Hungry to rebuild a just America, black and white abolitionists cheered on the nation, as many defeated white Southerners refused to participate in the festivities.
In the nation’s capital, black Americans paraded through the streets and exulted America. Formerly enslaved Americans reflected on what had been achieved and hoped for a brighter tomorrow. Louis Hughes captured the significance. Hughes, his wife and his child protested bondage by fleeing their enslavers during the war. In the summer of 1865, they trudged toward freedom in Union-occupied Tennessee. “It was appropriately the 4th of July when we arrived,” Hughes reflected, “and, aside from the citizens of Memphis, hundreds of colored refugees thronged the streets. Everywhere you looked you could see soldiers. Such a day I don’t believe Memphis will ever see again.” Freedpeople and soldiers unleashed victorious huzzahs. Hughes and his family merged their rejoicing with the July Fourth elation. “Freedom, that we had so long looked for,” he said, “had come at last.”
Black Americans from Haynes to Truth to Hughes knew the hypocrisy embedded within the nation’s celebration of freedom and justice. But they, like those celebrated signatories of the Declaration, grasped the country’s potential for progress and that only dedicated, persistent protests and activism could deliver the nation from the ever-present tyranny of slavery and racism. Today, as protesters again assemble to challenge injustices, it is again time to imagine how we can better the country.