“The Day We Celebrate:” Contesting Independence Day in the Deep South, 1820-1906

Andrew Salamone

Advisor: Cynthia A. Kierner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Jennifer Ritterhouse, C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa

Online Location, Zoom Link Forthcoming
November 12, 2020, 03:30 PM to 05:30 PM


This dissertation examines the process of why and how citizens in Alabama and Mississippi adapted the form and content of Independence Day celebrations in their states between 1820 and 1906.  The study seeks to explain what the citizens of these states were celebrating during Independence Day as well as to illuminate what contests were fought over and within these public festivities.  It ultimately argues that the story of Independence Day in Alabama and Mississippi is inextricably tied to the broader racial and political dynamics that shaped these states during this period. 

Drawing on newspaper descriptions of Fourth of July celebrations, diary entries, and political speeches, the dissertation reveals that three distinct phases in the contest for Independence Day occurred over this eighty-six-year period.  The first, lasting from the middle of the 1820s until the middle of the 1840s, saw local politicians employ Fourth of July speeches and toasts to denigrate their political opponents and buttress their republican credentials.  In the second phase, spanning from the late 1840s until approximately 1875, white Southerners used their Independence Day remarks to build and sustain a Southern nationalism on the symbols and rhetoric of the revolutionary generation, which they deployed to defend the region, first from Northern opponents and later, with the advent of Radical Reconstruction, from the entry of black men into politics.  The third period of contestation lasted from the centennial until roughly 1901.  White and black Alabamians’ and Mississippians celebrated Independence Day through the 1880s, but as Democrats regained control over state and local governments, eventually rewriting the constitutions in both states to codify black disfranchisement, the latter group had little reason to publicly celebrate.

In a time when the collective memory of the nation’s past, especially the Civil War, has become more politicized than ever, unearthing the forces that shaped what and why has been remembered and forgotten is essential for understanding how American identity has evolved.  Further, understanding this evolution requires a look into the role that conflict and compromise played in resolving regional differences on issues of citizenship and economic opportunity in nineteenth century America, topics that remain at the center of political debate today.