Not Self-Evident: Fourth of July Orations in Charleston, South Carolina, 1820–1840

Stacy Davis

Stacy Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College.

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Stacy Davis, "Not Self-Evident: Fourth of July Orations in Charleston, South Carolina, 1820–1940," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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In the antebellum period, no city shaped the development of southern civil religion more than Charleston, South Carolina. Living in the only major southern city with a majority black population, white Charlestonians found themselves at the center of a rhetorical debate that had both theological and political implications: how to live as American Christians in a culture heavily dependent upon the legal subjugation of another group of people. Civil religion succeeded in places where biblical interpretations for a pro-slavery theology fell short for whites in Charleston. While the easy option would have been an acceptance of scientific racism, which argued that black people were naturally inferior or even had been created separately from whites, the vast majority of Southerners were biblical literalists. Therefore, scientific racism seemed to be a direct violation of Genesis 1, in which all people came from one man and one woman. The most common biblical argument for African slavery was based on an interpretation of Genesis 9, in which Noah’s curse of Canaan extends to Ham, the ancestor of African peoples according to Genesis 10. Such an argument, however, would be less persuasive in a political context. Civil religion, or a secular/political framework that could bind a community together, proved more useful in political arguments. In Charleston, and by extension the rest of the South, civil religion was secondarily a belief in white supremacy but primarily a belief in the necessity of African slavery. This article demonstrates how those beliefs integrated themselves into Declaration of Independence orations. These orations helped to shape how white southern audiences thought about their roles as citizens. In this context, southern civil religion glorified patriotism and American values as gifts for whites only.

The establishment of the Confederacy in 1861 hastened the beginning of a military conflict that revolved around two existential questions: who is a human being and who is an American? The colonies became states through revolution, formally announced in the Declaration of Independence, but the document contained a clause that cast a growing shadow over pro-slavery Southerners and their allies in the two generations before the Civil War: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”[1] In context, the statement privileged the views of soon-to-be ex-colonists over George III and Parliament.[2] And the statement echoed the sentiment of George Mason’s 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights: “All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” But such sentiments rang hollow in a slave-owning country, as the debates about the Constitution and the eventual three-fifths clause demonstrated.[3] A declaration that argues for equality and justifies revolt became increasingly problematic in a region increasingly anxious about slave revolts and abolitionist agitation.[4] In such a context, the clause could not be taken literally.

Every Fourth of July, white Americans held parades, set off fireworks, and delivered orations, all while fearing the explosive implications of the equality claim in the Declaration of Independence. Southern orators in particular either had to ignore the claim or explain it away.[5] Speakers did both between 1820 and 1860.[6] Why take an American celebration of independence as occasion to mention a French revolt?[7]

Because by connecting the ideal of human equality to a later bloody failure of a revolution, pro-slavery advocates could argue that the phrase in the Declaration of Independence was an unfortunate aberration that could not be used to determine the validity of the American Revolution or justify an end to slavery but could be used to explain the positive conservative elements of the French Revolution, and not its bloody failures. In the South, the Fourth of July therefore became a day in which revolution could be cautiously celebrated,[8] with the peculiar institution of slavery sometimes combined with Christianity in order to mitigate or redirect the civic religion of American pride and patriotism.[9] Independence Day orations from South Carolina, and specifically Charleston, will demonstrate this point.[10] Twenty-four published orations came from South Carolina, more than from any other state. Twenty of the orators spoke in Charleston, so examining those speeches will shed light on the rhetoric that became popular in the state and the region, particularly before the Compromise of 1850, when the prospect of a civil war began to loom.

The available sources indicate that Charleston orations established the rhetorical template for the rest of the region. Orators in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and the District of Columbia delivered thirty-one published orations between 1820 and 1860. Unlike Charleston, which had only five orations printed after 1840, only eight orations in the rest of the South appeared before 1840 and only one before 1834 (New Bern, NC, 1827).[11] Two mentioned neither the French Revolution nor the Declaration of Independence (Maryland, 1837, and Mississippi, 1837), three mentioned both documents (North Carolina, 1837, Kentucky, 1834, and Maryland, 1836), and the rest mentioned one or the other. Only two texts made an argument not found in a Charleston oration. In 1827, James W. Bryan told his North Carolina audience that Thomas Jefferson “expended his princely fortune in the establishment of free and equal rights.”[12] Discussing the Boston Tea Party in 1838, Thomas D. Mitchell of Kentucky declared, “The transaction was a glorious commentary on the rights of man, an announcement to the world, in anticipation of the Declaration of Independence, that all men were born free, and equal.”[13] While the 1856 oration in Jacksonville, Florida used a similar phrase (“‘that all men are created free and equal’”), it appeared to be a misquoting of the Declaration of Independence used positively, which often was not the case in other southern rhetorical contexts. Significantly, the remaining regional orations utilized arguments that appeared in Charleston years before, with the exception of the nullification controversy, which was unique to South Carolina.[14] The misquoting could be a consequence of the way people remembered the Declaration of Independence. As Guy G. Stroumsa writes, “Memory is in nowise a static conservatory of things past. Rather, memory actively reconstructs the past.”[15] Texts allow for such reconstruction, and the conflation of texts from the American and French Revolutions became an intentional part of southern collective memories.[16]

The orators not only deliberately downplayed any universal egalitarian implications of the Declaration of Independence; they insisted that to be a true American Christian citizen, one must use political ideology and structures to reinforce social and racial inequalities.[17] The celebrations strengthened the resolve of those who believed that their way of life depended upon freedom being a blessing for whites only. “All men are created equal” was neither self-evident nor desirable.

The later debates around 1776 happened precisely because the Declaration and the Revolution created a nation, and identity creation is part of nation building. In the late eighteenth century, how and what one celebrated said much about one’s political and social worldview. David Waldstreicher “[argues] that American nationalism emerged from the conjunction of local celebrations and their reproduction in the press,” creating “an ideology that made consensus the basis of patriotism.”[18] Upon the Declaration’s signing and publishing in July 1776, some new Americans hung or burned George III in effigy. Public readings of the Declaration led to spontaneous celebrations. In the war years, “the overwhelming intent of these rites was unity.” Not only did the celebrations confirm the establishment and solidarity of the United States, even the French in America gave their support to Independence Day events.[19]

But the meanings of equality and the Fourth of July became contestable almost as soon as the Revolutionary War ended. As the new United States became divided among Federalists and Republicans in the 1790s, what to do with “all men are created equal” was a political issue. Federalists opposed the implications of the phrase because of its association with revolutionary political activity, including in France. In contrast, the French Revolution had not dampened Republican enthusiasm for the Declaration. Instead, Republicans had described the French Revolution as a positive event that eliminated a harmful aristocracy. As Waldstreicher notes, “Not until 1798 did most Fourth of July orators distance the American Revolution from the French Revolution.”[20] The 1800 Republican revolution, however, made the Declaration even more popular. The Reign of Terror’s bloodletting no longer had to be associated with the Declaration’s call for human freedom, and eventually in the North, separate Federalist and Republican Fourth of July celebrations ceased.[21] Once the Federalists died out after the War of 1812, the Declaration of Independence’s popularity increased further, and the document began to be described as “a sacred text.” Philip Detweiler concludes that “the stimulus of the slavery controversy” revived conflict about the Declaration, with “some few to deny their [the Declaration’s principles] ‘self-evident’ truth.”[22] The phrase is a diplomatically worded understatement.

The politicization of the Declaration of Independence paralleled the political rise of Thomas Jefferson, who eventually becomes credited as the author. In the post-1776 generation, the Declaration was politically useful first because of presumed anonymous authorship and then because of Jefferson’s association with the document. The Republicans played up his role as author while the Federalists downplayed it. During his presidency, Republican southerners generally withheld criticism of the document and its presumed author.[23] In the years following Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, however, his image as an equality-advocating slaveowner became more challenging for southerners.

Once abolitionists began to use the Declaration as a proof text, pro-slavery southern Christians began to reject it. They argued “that many God-given institutions opposed the rationalist doctrines of freedom and equality, because they were ordained to control mankind’s natural inclination to evil.”[24] Beginning in the 1820s, some southerners returned to the law and order Federalist arguments of the 1790s when commenting on the Declaration. According to Kenneth S. Greenberg, “Revolutionary Carolinians” argued that while all had “the right to equal independence,” men exchanged some independence for stable political and social institutions. This sacrifice, however, did not mean that the governed became slaves. Instead, free men followed the law and did not use freedom as an excuse to do whatever they wanted. Such arguments did not form in a historical vacuum. Thomas Jefferson embodied the tension between political liberty and social inequality, supporting both as a Republican slaveholder from Virginia. Later, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun would insist that natural human equality and the guarantee of human freedom do not exist.[25] Calhoun rejected the concept of universal human liberty, arguing in A Disquisition on Government (1851) that inferior people should not have liberty. Further, “inequality of condition, while it is a necessary consequence of liberty, is, at the same time, indispensable to government.” The idea “that all men are born free and equal” was false, because it violated the natural human state of submission to parental and legal authority.[26] Calhoun repeated this argument in A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States (1851). He warned that if the Union were to collapse, the false idea “that ‘all men are born free and equal’” would be to blame. Babies live under parental control; God created woman inferior to man. The superfluous error of the Declaration of Independence’s equality claim would lead to anarchy.[27]

As Len Travers has argued, “The ritualized celebration of the Fourth of July helped to mask disturbing ambiguities and contradictions in the new republic.”[28] Slavery embodied all of those ambiguities and contradictions. In Charleston, slaves could not participate in the celebration. By 1808, no blacks, free or slave, could gather on the Fourth. While the celebrations during the War of 1812 supported the military effort, when the war ended in 1815 Charleston’s celebrations became less generically American and more specifically southern. By the Civil War, “Independence Day lost nearly all relevance for the people of Charleston.”[29] This might be why the majority of published Charleston orations appear before 1840.

The rejection of the holiday paralleled a dismissal of its founding document. Pro-slavery southerners argued that God ordained their way of life and nothing, not even their country’s Declaration of Independence, could change a divinely ordained society. Any other point of view could be branded as irreligious and rejected out of hand by any Christian, northern or southern. Mark A. Noll writes, “In the days before the Civil War, John Hughes, Roman Catholic bishop of New York, was distressed by what he regarded as the atheistic republicanism of extreme anti-slave groups.” Before the party’s demise, some Whigs “[combined] abhorrence of French infidelity with allegiance to Real Whig political principle.”[30]

As evangelicalism, with its emphasis on biblical authority, became the primary American expression of Christianity in the nineteenth century, the earlier Republican enthusiasm about the French Revolution began to disappear. Instead, the Revolution became associated with any and all political and social disorder.[31] As early as 1822, Charleston resident Edwin Holland, in the aftermath of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, called blacks “Jacobins,” the group associated with the French Reign of Terror. Holland wrote, “Let it never be forgotten, that our negroes are truly the Jacobins of the country; that they are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.’”[32] Holland overlooked the fact that the endangered whites brought their troubles on themselves in the name of economic opportunity. Beginning in the 1830s, “American proslavery writers pictured abolitionists as anarchists, infidels, and sons of the French Revolution,” and the picture became a commonplace one.[33] In contrast, “the American war for Independence differed from the later Revolution in France in part because American Protestants aligned faith in reason with, rather than against, faith in God.”[34] That alignment allowed pro-slavery southerners to cheer on the Fourth of July without undermining their society as they knew it. White solidarity eventually developed out of the common insistence upon black inferiority and the righteousness and necessity of slavery, and that thread of civil religion slowly made its way through the Charleston Independence Day orations, regardless of speaker or subject.[35]

David Ramsay’s 1820 oration to the ’76 Association[36] praised American valor while noting French democratic failures. The founders, inspired by God, “beautified the vigour of action with the purity of principle; not merely regardless of self, but pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honour to redeem their country from oppression.” The men who signed the Declaration fulfilled its promise. In a possible allusion to the document, Ramsay pointed out that America “has not only acquainted us with truth, and convinced us of the equality of all men and their right to self-government” but also demonstrated that men could create a fully democratic system. In contrast, the French revolutionary experiment “was manifest in power, resistless, and uncontroulable [sic]” and could not be used as an example of effective democracy—“the ‘rights of man’ is a tragedy.”[37] Orators who chose to make a comparison commonly argued for the American Revolution’s superiority and the French Revolution’s inferiority.

John Berwick Legaré’s 1822 oration mentioned both the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, with emphasis on the former as a foil to the American Revolution. Legaré praised the conservatism of the American Revolution: “Unlike those schemes of reform, which sprang out of the ignorance, and are founded on the excitements of popular feeling, the Revolution of America, exhibits the interesting spectacle of a brave and gallant people, contending for their essential rights, with all the moderation of remonstrance and generosity of action.” In contrast, “genius has consecrated the deeds, and eternized the fame of sanguinary revolutionists, who, in the paroxysms of civil tumult, have ascended the throne, and exchanged the crimsoned dagger of assassination, for the glittering scepter of tyranny.” Legaré’s allusion here to the French Revolution became explicit a few pages later. While initially and rightfully limited to constitutional reform, the meddling of other nations into France’s affairs led to a continental war.[38]

Legaré made no mention of the legislation that supported African slavery or the spell of pro-slavery argumentation. Reading his oration, one would never guess that Denmark Vesey had been executed just two days before. But the failed Vesey rebellion of June 1822 shaped Charlestonians’ responses to the Declaration of Independence in the next decade. In 1822, Robert Hayne was the attorney general and later part of the second court that investigated the Vesey incident. Robert J. Turnbull was on the initial city court, and Henry Laurens Pinckney, along with Turnbull, was a founding member of the South Carolina Association, “a citizens’ organization devoted to insuring aggressive enforcement of the laws for the ‘better government’ of slaves and free blacks passed by the legislature in 1822.” When the Association decided to defend the Seaman’s Act against the claim of a free black British sailor detained in Charleston, they worked with lawyer Benjamin F. Hunt.[39] All of these men gave pro-nullification Independence Day orations in Charleston during the 1830s.

Peter J. Shand’s 1830 oration was the calm that hinted at the nullification storm in Charleston. On the fifth of July (“the Fourth falling on Sunday”), Shand spoke to the Revolution and Cincinnati Societies.[40] Shand, a member of the Revolution Society, praised the Declaration of Independence without reservation. He argued, “Surely we can regard no act of the important era of the Revolution with more sincere pride and gratification, than that imperishable monument of human intellect.” Guided by God and “principle,” the United States led the world, and “through our instrumentality, the cause of justice and virtue has been successfully maintained and secured—the inherent rights of mankind determined and promoted.”[41] This allusion to the Declaration did not indicate what “the inherent rights of mankind” might be;[42] however, Shand later stated a few of them, based on principle. They included no taxation without representation, “a principle whose absence is inseparable from slavery, and whose value is worth immensely more than all the blood and treasure that have been lavished in maintaining it.” Shand used the word slavery in a slaveholding state without irony. The slavery that the colonists resisted bore more significance than the slavery they and their posterity maintained. Resistance to the Stamp Act occurred “in the cause of national right and equality.” In response to such injustice, the new American leaders wrote the Declaration of Independence, an immortal document, and then the Constitution, the standard of equality: “No monopolies—no sacrifice of one portion on the altar of another’s aggrandizement—no leading one section like sheep to the slaughter, and fleecing them of their dearest immunities, that others might be enrobed ‘in purple and fine linen,’ were ever contemplated by the authors of our venerable Constitution.”[43] Clearly, all Americans were equal under the law, and yet Shand feared that fact would be ignored to the South’s detriment.

His fear stemmed from the tariff controversy, which threatened unity and equality and had to be resolved. A selfish violation of noble principles and American values, the tariff embodied the opposite of the Revolution. Shand lamented, “Has not the South—the high-minded and chivalrous South—that bled at every pore, and consecrated every energy to secure the fruits of independence, not only to herself, but to all, who with her, had embarked in its cause, been despoiled of every thing but her lofty and generous character?” The poor yet righteous South resisted “these sacrilegious invasions of her rights,” and it had virtuous allies, such as President Andrew Jackson, who would help to “bring back the uncorrupted and single-eyed patriotism of our ancestors—until it shall restore the principles of ’76—the principles of our Constitution.”[44] Shand concluded his oration with a call for a return to past unity, “when throughout all America, no boundary lines were heeded, save those which distinguished between slavery and independence,” and when “those exalted apostles of liberty” who died on July 4, 1826 helped birth their nation.[45]

Just one year later, responses to the tariff controversy resulted in separate Independence Day celebrations in Charleston. The Union and State Rights Party delivered its oration at the First Presbyterian Church, and speaker William Drayton used the Declaration of Independence as a proof text for secession. Drayton noted that the revolution began because the founding fathers “refused to yield to taxation without representation; and in defense of an abstract principle, their citizens mutually [pledged] ‘to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors.’” The Declaration, and not the Constitution, however, gave citizens the right to leave the Union, due to the Declaration’s equality clause.[46] Because there was no constitutional right to secede, the Union Party rejected secession as a legitimate form of resistance to the tariff.

Robert Y. Hayne delivered the 1831 oration for the State Rights and Free Trade party. Bypassing both the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, Hayne instead emphasized the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and justification for manly Christian patriotic resistance to the oppressive tariff and what he called the “American system.”[47] He argued that the 1776 “Revolution had its origin, not so much in the weight of actual oppression, as in the great principle—the sacred duty, of resistance to the exercise of unauthorized power”: the men rejected “‘voluntary slavery’” even in the form of small and seemingly insignificant taxes, out of principle.[48] Like previous orators, Hayne rejected slavery for white men, who could own property but could not allow themselves to be treated as property. Because the tariff would destroy the southern economy, it had to be opposed. Such an economy had divine roots: “God, in giving us a fertile soil, and genial climate peculiarly adapted to those great staples which supply the world with food and raiment, has marked out this pursuit for us too plainly to be mistaken, and, accordingly, all our habits, as well as our inclination, irresistibly impel us to the cultivation of cotton and rice, for exportation.” “Under the old System” and in “those good old times,” free planters’ efforts benefited all southerners, regardless of social class. Hayne does not mention dependence on black slave labor as a prerequisite for white economic independence. Under the tariff, however, prices in the South had declined precipitously, for rice, cotton, “lands and negroes, houses and lots.” Free trade therefore must be restored, and the South must be allowed to manage its own affairs: “For if the power claimed by Congress in this case be conceded, then there is an end to all limitation on the powers of the Federal Government… They may tax you at pleasure, render your property worthless, overturn your institutions, and reduce you to slavery.”[49] Without resistance, the 1776 revolution meant nothing.[50] Hayne feared and wanted to resist metaphorical slavery. At the same time, he glorified an economic system based upon literal slavery, making his argument an indirect support of the civil institution upon which he thought white southern economic uplift depended.

Resistance, however, must not lead to secession, so nullification became a crucial concept. Since South Carolina’s economy could not survive without agriculture, the state called for maintaining its rights over and against the federal government. Hayne insisted that no one would put the federal government above the will of a state and the maintenance of the Union.[51] He urged his audience to fulfill their religious obligation and protect state rights, but he warned that if need be, they should follow Thomas Jefferson and advocate for nullification of the tariff as a way to avoid secession. Thanks to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, nullification had a long and clear rationale.[52] Hayne praised them “‘as a light to our feet and a lamp to our path,’”[53] inspired by Jefferson, “all radiant in the glowing armour of liberty and truth.” The Supreme Court could not be the arbiter between a state and the federal government: “How can you bring before a Court the question of the constitutionality of a protective Tariff, in relation to a bill which on its face fraudulently purports to be for revenue? Or how will you test the validity of any appropriation for Internal Improvements—Colonization—Emancipation or anything else?” According to Jefferson, “whose words…come in the garb of wisdom, invested with authority,” the majority did not rule.[54]

Instead, when a serious conflict arose between the states and the federal government, the states must call a convention to resolve the dispute. Hayne remained convinced that because the government would not war against a state, nullification asserted a state’s right without leading to military conflict.[55] He concluded that nothing should be placed above freedom: “Dear as is the Union, the Constitution is dearer to my heart, and Liberty dearest of all. The love of the Union, without a corresponding devotion to Liberty and the Constitution, is like faith without works, it is dead; and however we may deceive ourselves or delude the world, he who loves not the Constitution more than the Union, and liberty above all, is no disciple of the true faith.”[56] Thirty years later, South Carolina decided to put their freedom and independence above the Union.

Robert J. Turnbull’s 1832 oration to the State Rights and Free Trade Party lamented the Constitution’s focus upon individual freedom and not property rights, which led to the nullification crisis.[57] As free men and citizens of a state, they had the right to serve as a check on federal power. The basis of this power came from state sovereignty, described in the 1798 Virginia Resolutions: “the right of a State Legislature to arrest the progress of usurpation within its limits, is most distinctly placed upon the ground of the compact, and not on the ground of the right of revolution.”[58] Not even the Supreme Court had the authority to arbitrate between a state and the federal government. Turnbull praised Thomas Jefferson for establishing the concept of nullification, which enabled South Carolinians to avoid enslavement and “to stand at once upon our sovereign rights as becomes men and freemen.”[59] The concept would not lead to civil war, as the example of Georgia’s rejection of federal laws about Cherokee lands suggested.[60] Turnbull expressed confidence that Georgia, as well as Kentucky and Virginia, the states responsible for the Resolutions, would support South Carolina in any protracted struggle with the federal government. He concluded that just as during the American Revolution, South Carolinians must resist unjust taxation as “voluntary slavery” and act as men: “let us do our duty, and leave the consequences to god.”[61] For Turnbull and those who followed him, equality was not an abstract concept, but a civil right of white southerners who could therefore reject what they claimed were unjust laws.[62]

Perhaps as a thank you for his 1831 efforts for the State Rights and Free Trade Party, Henry L. Pinckney delivered the 1833 oration in Charleston’s Independent (Congregational) Church.[63] Pinckney addressed “the State Rights & Free Trade Party,” the Cincinnati and Revolution Societies, “the ’76 Association, and the State Volunteers.”[64] In keeping with his audience and his political views, Pinckney praised the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution only within the context of state rights and the nullification convention. His hero, Thomas Jefferson, also insisted in 1798 that “‘Nullification is the rightful remedy.’” Those listening to him were his true heirs, and the heirs of the 1776 revolutionaries. Madison and Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, “those immortal documents—those imperishable monuments of political liberty and wisdom,” maintained the freedom that the men of 1776 declared.[65] Following Jefferson, South Carolina used the Constitution to defend state rights and free trade. And that action, solidified in the 1832 nullification convention in South Carolina, was the greatest of all time, greater even than the Second Continental Congress’ passing of the Declaration of Independence.[66] The participants in the nullification convention were the true protectors of liberty and the Union: “Yes, fellow-citizens, the day on which our State Convention nullified the Tariff Acts, was a proud day for South-Carolina. It should ever be honoured as the day of her second declaration of independence.” The Fourth of July became a celebration of November 24, 1832.[67]

Pinckney called for southern slaveowners to resist their own enslavement through a two-pronged defense against African slavery. The first was radical revolution. In discussing the nullification controversy, he noted that the tariff, if unopposed, “would leave them no alternative but voluntary slavery.” By ending John Adams’ “reign of terror,” embodied by the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson acted as an inspiration for the nullifiers’ resistance. Such acts truly were in the spirit of the French Revolution, as opposed to the unfair characterization of the State Rights party: “What orator spoke who did not denounce the most distinguished members of our party as Catalines, Dantons, and Robespierres, and our State Rights Associations as nurseries of rebellion and Jacobinical Clubs?” In contrast, nullifiers were freedom fighters. The convention was “a beacon by which the oppressed will be directed to the peaceful preservation of their rights: a lamp from which suffering humanity will relume its hopes.” The suffering humanity consisted of South Carolina men, who must remain free and not slaves. If the Force Bill remained a law, then South Carolina would not be completely free. Nevertheless, its people would not yield to slavery, either: “Slavery exists in the mind and not in the body. He is no slave, however bound in chains, who still retains the unconquerable spirit of a free man.”[68] Someone not legally in chains could speak of slavery in metaphysical terms.

Second, Pinckney warned his audience against being enslaved by abolitionists, “who would delight to see every southern city a St. Domingo”; they embodied “the spirit of political hostility, flying like a fury, from city to city and from State to State, proclaiming destruction to our local institutions, and the spirit of fanaticism, redress to the injured and liberty to the captives.” Pinckney refused to acknowledge that slaves may be captives. Instead, he insisted upon the supremacy of the local institutions, criticizing northerners for “legislative interference with our rights,” distaste for “our policy,” and harm to “our rights and liberties.” While abolitionism came from “the wild delusions of false benevolence and mistaken duty” and “the demon of fanaticism,” slavery was “the sacred rights of property.” Rejecting abolitionism’s “false notions of philanthropy,” the South must defend its “properties and liberties.” “No! The South may be assailed, but never overcome. No people can be enslaved who are not ready for a master. No power can conquer freemen who are determined to continue free.” Pinckney not only insisted upon the free status of his white audience; he implied that the slaves they held naturally belonged in that category and were ready for a master. He concluded that southerners must choose freedom; the alternative was “to be called a freeman, yet know that you are not free—to speak of your property, yet know that you are not suffered to enjoy its fruits.” In contrast, liberty for white slaveowners meant knowing “that you are a man with all the rights of man.”[69] No doubt remained that American humanity belonged to whites who celebrated and fought for their freedom from tyrannical masters while being masters.

While state politics would continue to dominate the 1835 Fourth of July oration,  the Declaration of Independence at least had regained some of its luster. Speaking to the Whigs and the Cincinnati Society, Edward R. Laurens, a Cincinnati member, praised the Declaration as a gift from “the Goddess of Liberty… The desire of freedom is an essential attribute of humanity, and glows in the bosoms of all who are endowed with the moral functions of nature.” Any resistance to federal overreach that South Carolinians showed was because of the lessons of 1776 and not in spite of or above them.[70]

By 1839, the nullification crisis had passed. Speaking to the Washington Society, Benjamin Faneuil Hunt alluded to the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.[71] He stated that the 1776 revolution happened because “our fathers, [believed] with religious faith in the ability of the people to govern themselves.” Because this revolution was second in significance only to the rise of Christianity, Hunt refused to give a partisan speech: “This day has too often been desecrated by pouring forth the phials of political wrath and exasperating the ferocity of party animosities. The American people have too often exhibited the revolting spectacle of converting the temple into an arena for sectarian strife, and the birthday of national freedom into an occasion for mutual reproaches and vituperation. The day, the place are suited to other and higher themes.”[72] While politically non-partisan, the speech praised white superiority and purported non-white savagery.[73]

The courage of the white men of 1776 inspired other freedom movements, including the French Revolution. Every new state supported the Declaration of Independence and fought for “the vindication of its domestic institutions.” The new Constitution, with its “great conservative principles” guaranteed state rights, and it inspired the French.[74] Sadly, their revolution got out of hand, “And however humanity may weep over the excesses of the Revolution, it is not unnatural that maddened by the contrast of sudden emancipation they should have inflicted an indiscriminate vengeance upon all who were connected with those, who opposed their efforts, or attempted to interrupt their progress.” Fortunately, France had recovered and had a better government, “and for this she is indebted under God to the principles promulgated on the 4th of July, 1776.”[75] But Hunt noted that initially the revolution’s violence delayed the spread of republicanism, which was a right. The United States led the world in rejecting political hierarchy.[76] Instead, it “proclaimed to the world as ‘self-evident truths’” the right of self-government, republicanism, and social equality. Hunt left no doubt that Europeans should enjoy these civil rights, and he complained about tyranny in Austria, Siberia, and Poland.[77]

Charleston’s citizens’ complicated relationship with the Declaration of Independence was a microcosm of the much larger questions of race, class, and American identity that have haunted the United States since 1776. Most of the orators spoke in local churches, combining a religious location with a secular argument. The combination may not have been arbitrary. In his discussion of religious memory, Guy G. Stroumsa notes that “ritual patterns are reinforced by thought patterns, while theological conceptions are reinforced by ritual behavior.”[78] The specific ritual activity of expounding the Declaration of Independence, the primary document in American civil religion, in a church gave the exposition the power and authority of a sermon. The Declaration of Independence did not problematize questions about slavery and liberty. The claim of equality was never a universal one. Combined with the reality of African people being legal property, the establishment of the United States and subsequent interpretations of that establishment included a design flaw that neither a war nor a social movement has been able to fix. The Fourth of July orations bring that design flaw to the surface, but they also suggest that the tension between black slavery and white freedom began long before 1861. The Civil War was a consequence of southern civil religion, not its foundation.

Yet, while white Charleston residents praised their liberty in the 1820s and 1830s, African-American abolitionists spoke, too. In 1827, Nathaniel Paul celebrated New York’s abolition of slavery on the Fourth of July. Arguing for human equality as a divine gift, Paul condemned slavery as the opposite: “It is so contrary to the laws which the God of nature has laid down as the rule of action by which the conduct of man is to be regulated towards his fellow man, which binds him to love his neighbor as himself, that it ever has, and ever will meet the decided disapprobation of heaven.”[79] The combination of the Declaration of Independence’s God of nature with Mark 12:31 was a common abolitionist proof.[80] Paul, however, recognized the contradiction inherent in the Declaration of Independence’s words and the United States’ deeds: “Strange, indeed, is the idea that such a system [slavery], fraught with such consummate wickedness, should ever have found a place in this the otherwise happiest of all countries—a country, the very soil of which is said to be consecrated to liberty, and its fruits the equal rights of man.” Paul saw the design flaw. But he also used the Declaration’s “Nature’s God” to argue that blackness did not naturally embody inferiority. Paul concluded that “the God of Nature has endowed our children with intellectual powers surpassed by none; nor is there anything wanting but their careful cultivation in order to fit them for stations the most honorable, sacred, or useful.”[81] The test for citizenship need not include color.

But the test often did. The Declaration of Independence did not easily lend itself as a proof for universal equality, in spite of free blacks’ best efforts. Writing in 1813 to oppose a bill that would have restricted the liberty of Pennsylvania’s free blacks, James Forten, a “man of colour,” began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that god created all men equal, and is one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabrick of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African.” While the Pennsylvania Constitution repeated the Declaration’s argument, Forten saw clearly the challenge for free blacks. He wrote, “It appears as if the committee who drew it up mistook the sentiment expressed in this article, and do not consider us as men.”[82] The last phrase was precisely the problem, because humanity is a prerequisite for citizenship. If blacks were not people, then they could not be citizens, and the United States was not their country. Therefore, the Fourth of July remained contested and contestable. While slaves typically received the day off, free blacks divided over whether to celebrate or boycott the holiday. Even in the North, those who did celebrate faced segregated gatherings and white backlash.[83] The message remained the same: citizenship and its privileges belonged to whites only.

This historical reality should challenge any rose-colored-glass reading of the Declaration of Independence and the country it created. In 1981, Lawrence M. Jones argued “one of the strengths of American society is its commitments to the Declaration of Independence and to the Judeo-Christian tradition so that they have functioned as primary authorities in social and political arrangements. They have been less potent in changing racist attitudes and the actions which flow from these attitudes.”[84] American society’s commitment to the Declaration, however, remains debatable—as only a document with a statement about equality written by a slaveowner can be.[85] African Americans and other minority groups have read themselves into an American story that initially did not include them.[86] “All men are created equal” is not self-evident; the claim must be appropriated and re-appropriated by those initially excluded from the American experiment.


[1] As Paul A. Rahe concludes, “It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the secession which took place was an express repudiation of the truths declared to be self-evident in 1776.” Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 767.

[2] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 110–111.

[3] Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, 558–559; 619, 632–633, 649.

[4] Carl Becker states that the Declaration became unpopular in the nineteenth century “because it had been and could again be, so effectively used as a justification of revolutionary movements.” Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence (Gloucester: Dodo Press, 1922), 133.

[5] An example of the former may be found in John B. Bloomfield’s 1825 oration in the Catholic Cathedral Church of St. Finbar. Speaking almost exclusively about immigration and religious freedom, particularly for the Irish, only in his last sentence did he say that his audience should fight to maintain the American freedoms they possess and “shall be always willing to lay down ‘our lives, our fortunes, and all—but our sacred honor.’” John B. Bloomfield, An Oration, delivered in the Catholic Cathedral Church of St. Finbar on the Fourth of July (Charleston: Gray & Ellis, 1825), 24. The addition of “all” and “but” is puzzling, because it suggested that unlike the founding fathers, today’s patriots would not give everything for their country, no matter how much they love it. One example of the latter occurred in Robert J. Turnbull’s 1832 oration to the State Rights and Free Trade Party. While crediting the United States for inspiring the French Revolution, he also quoted the equality clause in the Declaration of Independence, one of the only orators to do so. Robert J. Turnbull, An Oration, delivered in the city of Charleston, before the State Rights and Free Trade Party, the State Society of Cincinnati, the Revolution Society, the ’76 Association, the Young Men’s Free Trade Association, and several volunteer companies of militia, on the 4th of July, 1832, being the 56th anniversary of American independence (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1832), 4. But he also quoted the sentence immediately following it and argued that the Declaration’s “imperishable truth” was “that all power is essentially in the people,” giving them the right to control their own political destiny (Turnbull, An Oration, 5, 30). Unfortunately, the Constitution focused on individual freedom and not property rights, leading to the great nullification crisis that he spends the rest of his oration discussing (Turnbull, An Oration, 10–11). Equality was not an abstract concept, but a right of white southerners who could therefore resist what they concluded were unjust laws.

[6] These dates are intentionally chosen. The 1820 Missouri Compromise attempted to settle the question of slave and free states, and it led to increased rhetoric from pro- and anti-slavery advocates. While Lincoln’s election in 1860 may have been the final straw for southern states that wanted to maintain slavery, only five Charleston orations exist in print after 1840. Pauline Maier states that reading the Declaration as a statement of human equality became popular beginning in the 1820s and eventually the primary reading, but she also notes that as the Civil War approached, some questioned the Declaration’s equality statement and tried to use it instead to support slavery. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997), 191, 199–208. See also Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, 770.

[7] Occasionally, a Fourth of July oration mentions the French Revolution without any reference to the Declaration of Independence. For example, in his 1821 oration to the Charleston Rifleman, Robert Elfe insisted that anyone “who has read the history of the French revolution… [has] mourned over the fatal effects of depravity,” the bloodshed, “the scene of religion despised—of justice defamed—of laws turned into ridicule—and truth into falsehood.” Robert Elfe, An Oration on the forty-fifth anniversary of American independence, delivered before the Charleston Riflemen, and published at their request (Charleston: William Cox Young, 1821), 12. He did not mention the document that justified his speech. And in a few cases, such as Arthur Middleton’s 1824 oration, neither the Declaration of Independence nor the French Revolution appeared. Instead, Middleton called for resistance to any act that challenged republican egalitarianism, including the excessive glorification of public officials. Arthur Middleton, An Oration, delivered in St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, South-Carolina, on the Fifth of July, 1824 (Sunday being the Fourth) before the ’76 Association (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1824), 12, 15–20.

[8] One example of cautious celebration may be found in Henry Bailey’s 1836 oration at the Medical College, given to the Whig Association. Bailey praised the Declaration of Independence because it “appealed to nature’s God.” Thanks to the document, he and his audience were the beneficiaries “of the great principles, which were incorporated in our institutions at their source, infused by them into the spirit and character of our people, and identified with our very existence as a nation.” Henry Bailey, An Oration, delivered at the Medical College, Charleston, So. Ca. before the Whig Association, and the State Society of Cincinnati, on the 4th July, 1836, being the 60th anniversary of American independence (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1836), 4, 5. Based on natural law, the Declaration of Independence fully justified the colonies’ separation from Great Britain and changed not only the colonists’ fate for the better but the fate of the world (12, 15). Every member of the audience, Bailey argued, should be filled “with the consciousness that he is an American citizen” and “pledge to the perpetuation of her [the United States’] liberties ‘our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.’” Even within this unqualified praise of the Declaration of Independence, which is a bit rare for the time period, one finds a small undercurrent of anxiety surrounding the subject of liberty. Bailey insisted that “we threw off no political shackles at the revolution, for our soil had never been the abode of political slavery. Our fathers were freemen from the beginning.” So, the document that started the Revolutionary War was not really revolutionary. In a slave state, any discussion of revolution, political or otherwise, had to take into account the thousands of men, women, and children who legally were property. While Bailey concluded that “we are not ripe for servitude” and “never can we cease to be a free people!,” he spoke specifically to white men (20, 9, 23). And he limited the discussion to political freedom and not physical freedom. That caution was necessary, and it was a sign of the antebellum times.

[9] The absence of sustained or significant Christian religious language or biblical interpretation in the orations may be deliberate. As Mark Noll observes, the southern tradition of “‘the spirituality of the church’” discouraged “the mixture of politics and religion.” Plus, abolitionists often combined the Declaration of Independence with the Bible to support their position. Pro-slavery southerners were not going to follow their lead. See Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 18, 41–42. Also, the relationship between civic religion and theology has, historically, been a tense one. While states may need a civic religion for identity purposes, such a religion may have little theological substance. William Baumgarth suggests that the Declaration of Independence bases its claims for human equality in a God, which creates theological but not necessarily civic claims. See William F. Baumgarth, “A Religious People: Political Philosophy, Civil Religion and the American Polity,” Journal of Dharma 7 (Jan–Mar 1982): 27, 35, 40, 43–44. But pro-slavery southerners rejected any claims that the Declaration is a theologically accurate or even theologically motivated text. Their civic religion combined with a careful and politically influenced reading of the Bible. In that sense, the Declaration of Independence is like any other document—its meaning may and often does depend upon its interpreter. Southerners had no monopoly on “reading, and ‘misreading,’ the Declaration of Independence.” Barry Bell’s excellent intertextual analysis of Peter Whitney’s 1776 sermon American Independence Vindicated argues that Whitney misread a document with deistic imagery as an evangelical text. The composite imagery and diverse allusions in the Declaration of Independence lend themselves to multiple and conflicting readings. See: Barry Bell, “Reading, and ‘Misreading,’ the Declaration of Independence,” Early American Literature 18, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 71–83.

[10] Little analysis has been done on these orations. Lacy K. Ford briefly mentions two of them in his work on the nullification crisis to demonstrate white fear of enslavement. See Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 138–39. Manisha Sinha notes the 1831 Union oration because of President Andrew Jackson’s supporting letter in favor of unity, mentioning the letter but not the substance of the oration. See The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 29.

[11] The ending of the nullification crisis of the early 1830s also seems to have decreased South Carolina’s enthusiasm for Fourth of July orations at the same time as their popularity increased in the rest of the South.

[12] James W. Bryan, Oration on the Completion of the Clubfoot and Harlow’s Creek Canal, and the Fifty-First Anniversary of Our Independence. Delivered at the request of the President and Directors of the Clubfoot and Harlow’s Creek Canal Company. July 4th, 1827 (New Bern, NC: Watson & Machen, 1827), 7.

[13] Thomas D. Mitchell, The Tripod of the American Revolution, viz: Voluntary Association, Pledge, and Self-Denial; Being an Address to the Chamberlain Philosophical and Literary Society of Centre College, Kentucky, delivered by appointment, on the 4th of July, 1838, in the Presbyterian Church in Danville (Lexington, KY: Intelligencer Print, 1838), 11. The phrase “free and equal” in rights, frequently criticized by slaveowners and their allies, comes from Article 1 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man ( The conflation of both declarations was common in antebellum southern rhetoric, and the idea of human equality is often blamed on the French, although the American declaration appeared first. In the 1852 work The Pro-Slavery Argument, which reprinted texts “by the most distinguished writers of the southern states,” the condemnation of the French appears in works from the 1830s and 1840s. Professor Dew from Virginia (1831–1832) argued that the Declaration of Independence cannot be used in any discourse about slavery (354–355) and that a misguided French emphasis on freedom led to bloody chaos in Saint Domingue (288–289). The error lay in making biracial people equal to whites: “The great sin of that revolution rests on the National Assembly, and should be an awful warning to every legislature to beware of too much tampering with so delicate and difficult a subject, as an alteration of the fundamental relations of society” (465; 464). Wisely in the South, “color alone is here the badge of distinction, the true mark of aristocracy, and all who are white are equal in spite of the variety of occupation. And it is the spirit of equality which is both the generator and preserver of the genuine spirit of liberty” (462). W. Gilmore Simms from South Carolina associated the Declaration’s equality claim with “that sentimental French philosophy, then so current, which was destined to bear such sanguinary fruits in after periods” (251). Most who signed the document could not possibly have believed in the veracity of that phrase; life, liberty, and happiness are relative and not inalienable (253; 258–259). South Carolina Governor James Hammond, writing in 1845, concluded that because all societies have different social classes, the idea of human equality is nonsense. The result of the idea was the French Revolution, and its legacy must be kept out of the South (110, 150). See The Pro-Slavery Argument; as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the Southern states, containing the several essays, on the subject, of Chancellor Harper, Governor Hammond, Dr. Simms, and Professor Dew, (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968).

[14] Oration, Delivered by John P. Sanderson, Before the Citizens of Jacksonville, Florida, on the 4th of July, 1856, in Commemoration of the Eightieth Year of American Independence, 20. See: Ford, Origins of Southern Radicalism, 101–102, 125 for an explanation of South Carolina’s unique position on nullification. As Manisha Sinha argues, “South Carolina was exceptional not because it was different from, but because it was ahead of, its sister states.” The Counterrevolution of Slavery, 2. Although Lacy K. Ford’s comment is about pro-slavery rhetoric, it may be applied to Fourth of July orations: “South Carolina, with its emerging slave majority, its early and eager embrace of cotton as a cash crop, its active intellectual and cultural center in Charleston, and its precocious proslavery radicalism, often anticipated the course later followed by other states in the lower South.” Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 12.

[15] Guy G. Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 30, 31.

[16] As Michael O’Brien argues, “Having made a world, Southerners were aware that worlds could be made...when they began to think that the United States was no longer a thing they could control, many among them did not hesitate to destroy it and make another world.” Slavery motivated the creation and destruction of world views. Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860, vol. I (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3, 7.

[17] One of the earliest examples of such downplaying is in John Geddes’ 1821 oration at Saint Andrew’s Church. Geddes mentioned neither the Declaration of Independence nor the French Revolution. However, he made it clear that any ideals of liberty were restricted to whites only. In his opening paragraph, Geddes stated, “An American on this occasion [the Fourth of July] feels a pride to which the rest of mankind are comparatively strangers...No human being like himself claims him as property.” Geddes and his white audience were free humans. By definition, slaves were not. He reiterated this point later in his oration: “They [the American revolutionaries] had asserted the dignity of their race, upheld the pride of men, born to inalienable immunities. They had honorably taken vengeance for the imposition of their oppressors, by compelling them to renounce their pretensions, to govern this part of the Universe. They had settled their National Independence, and established personal liberty and equal rights on solid foundations.” John Geddes, An Oration, delivered in St. Andrew’s Church, on the Fourth of July, 1821, before the St. Andrew’s Company, and at their request (Charleston: T.B. Stephens, 1821), 3, 13. Such liberty and equal rights were for American citizens, or white men. This point will be restated in different ways in a number of the orations that will be examined here.

[18] David Waldstreicher, “Rites of Rebellion, Rites of Assent: Celebrations, Print Culture, and the Origins of American Nationalism,” The Journal of American History 82, no. 1 (June 1995): 38.

[19] Ibid., 47–49; 51, 56.

[20] David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 114–115, 138n46.

[21] Philip Detweiler, “The Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years,” William and Mary Quarterly 19, no. 4 (October 1962): 557–571, 574; and Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, 190, 205–206.

[22] Maier, American Scripture, xviii and 171; and Detweiler, “Changing Reputation of the Declaration of Independence,” 574.

[23] Robert M.S. McDonald, “Thomas Jefferson’s Changing Reputation as Author of the Declaration of Independence: The First Fifty Years,” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 171–172, 179–180, 182.

[24] Thomas Virgil Peterson, Ham and Japheth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press and ATLA, 1978), 2, 38, 20.

[25] Kenneth S. Greenberg, “Revolutionary Ideology and the Proslavery Argument: The Abolition of Slavery in Antebellum South Carolina,” The Journal of Southern History 42, no. 3 (August 1976), 370, 371; Robert E. Shalhope, “Thomas Jefferson’s Republicanism and Antebellum Southern Thought,” The Journal of Southern History 42, no. 4 (November 1976), 555–556; and Peterson, Ham and Japheth, 38–39.

[26] Ross M. Lence, ed., Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 42, 43, 44, 45; see also 567–569.

[27] Lence, Union and Liberty, 565, 566, 569.

[28] Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 7.

[29] Travers, Celebrating the Fourth, 145, 148–149, 192, 222, 225.

[30] Noll, America’s God, 63, 88.

[31] Ibid., 168, 171, 173–174, 197, 260.

[32] Quoted in Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840 (Athens: University of Georgia), 60; see also 52, 385n59.

[33] Ibid., 92; 185–186, 284–285.

[34] Noll, America’s God, 234.

[35] As Eric Williams famously noted, slavery began as an economic necessity for “large-scale [agricultural] production” in the British colonies. Cotton production became the foundation not only for the Southern economy but eighteenth and nineteenth century capitalism. Importantly, economics motivated racial ideology and not the other way around. Because black slaves cost less than white indentured servants, they replaced the servants in an already existing economic system. Williams concludes, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 6, 5, 19.

[36] Founded in Charleston in 1809, the Association was a Republican group that sponsored orations in opposition to “the Federalist-dominated Revolution Society” (Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, 225).

[37] David Ramsay, An Address delivered on the Fourth of July, 1820, by appointment of the ’76 Association, and published at their request (Charleston: W.F. Young and Sons, 1820), 5, 11, 12, 13.

[38] John Berwick Legaré, An Oration, delivered in St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, South-Carolina, on the Fourth of July, 1822; before the ’76 Association (Charleston: A.E. Miller), 7, 13.

[39] Ford, Deliver Us from Evil, 283; 208, 211, 285.

[40] The Cincinnati Society consisted of Continental army officers who met every Fourth of July (Rachel Klein, Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760–1808 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 284; Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, 69).

[41] Peter J. Shand, An Oration Delivered before the Revolution and Cincinnati Societies of Charleston, South-Carolina, on the Fifth of July, 1830 (the Fourth falling on Sunday) (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1830), 5, 6, 7.

[42] Shand was not alone in vaguely alluding to the Declaration of Independence. B.F. Dunkin’s 1834 oration to the Whigs says that the founding fathers insisted on people being able to create their own governments. Therefore, “they must be free from any hindrances to their political independence” (B.F. Dunkin, An Oration delivered in the First Presbyterian Church, Charleston, on Monday, July 4, 1834, being the 58th anniversary of American independence, by the Union and State Rights Party (Charleston: J.S. Burges, 1834), 19–20).

[43] Shand, An Oration, 9, 10, 14.

[44] Ibid., 16, 18–19.

[45] Ibid., 19. He alluded here to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Lacy K. Ford notes that “it was from this vantage point, one looking backward to the Revolution, the Constitution, and the age of Jefferson, rather than forward to secession and the Civil War, that South Carolinians made their decision to nullify.” Origins of Southern Radicalism, 125.

[46] William Drayton, An Oration delivered in the First Presbyterian Church, Charleston, on Monday, July 4, 1831, by the Hon. William Drayton, to which is annexed, an account of the celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence, by the Union and State Rights Party (Charleston: J.S. Burges, 1831), 6, 24, 33.

[47] Robert Y. Hayne, An Oration, Delivered in the Independent or Congregation Church of Charleston, before the State Rights & Free Trade Party, the State Society of Cincinnati, the Revolution Society, the ’76 Association, and Several Volunteer Companies of Militia; on the 4th of July, 1831, being the 55th anniversary of American independence (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1831), 18–19, 28, 32, 64.

[48] Ibid., 3. Hayne, however, had no problem with the involuntary slavery of blacks, even free ones. On July 4, 1822, Hayne responded to Governor Thomas Bennett’s appeal to end the secret trials taking place after the Denmark Vesey incident. Hayne argued that slaves had no rights to confront the witnesses against them. Neither did free blacks. As Lacy K. Ford concludes, “In essence, Hayne maintained that the constitutional safeguards alluded to by Bennett applied only to whites. The talented and ambitious attorney general viewed the actions of the Charleston court as justified on the grounds of white self-preservation.” Deliver Us from Evil, 220.

[49] Hayne, An Oration, 5, 6, 7, 12, 14.

[50] Ibid., 15.

[51] Hayne did not live to see the Civil War prove him wrong. The states that joined the Confederacy gambled that they could force the Union into maintaining slavery, because it was not worth “the least risk of shedding one drop of patriot blood” (Ibid., 18).

[52] Ibid., 15–16, 19–21.

[53] Hayne quoted Psalm 119:105 here.

[54] Ibid., 24, 25, 28, 29.

[55] Ibid., 30, 32.

[56] Ibid., 36.

[57] Turnbull, An Oration, 10–11.

[58] Ibid., 12.

[59] Ibid., 18; 23, 13–14, 17. Turnbull, however, had made a similar argument in the 1820s. Writing pseudonymously in defense of the Seaman’s Act, Turnbull “emphasized state sovereignty and attacked [the federal court’s] denial of the right of an individual state to void federal laws and treaties.” Ford, Deliver Us from Evil, 286.

[60] Turnbull, An Oration, 19–20. Notably, the first published Fourth of July oration in Georgia did not appear until 1840, suggesting that nullification did not interest either speakers or publishers during the years that Turnbull gives as proof for the doctrine’s use outside of South Carolina.

[61] Ibid., 27, 42, 45. Two years later, B.F. Dunkin quoted this same line in praise of nullification’s triumph (An Oration, 16). Just like the 1776 patriots, South Carolinians resisted the oppressive 1832 tariff and restored the Constitution by rejecting the tariff’s legality in the name of the Virginia Resolution of 1798: “Her’s [sic] was the victory of right over might, principle over passion, reason and justice over oppression and wrong” (An Oration, 15; 6, 14, 16).

[62] Turnbull’s insistence on white rights appeared a decade earlier. In response to the Denmark Vesey revolt, he headed a grand jury that “complained about free black artisans and mechanics taking jobs from whites and about the ‘number of schools’ in the city run by free blacks.” Turnbull blamed the failed rebellion on excessive white kindness to slaves. According to him, “‘The only principle upon which any authority over them can be maintained is fear.’” Ford, Deliver Us from Evil, 247, 239.

[63] This is another name for the Circular Church.

[64] The identity of the State Volunteers is unknown, but in context, the group may have been a militia formed in response to the nullification crisis. They received a banner from the governor as a thank you in April 1833 (Henry L. Pinckney, An Oration, delivered in the Independent, or Congregational Church, Charleston, before the State Rights and Free Trade Party, the State Society of Cincinnati, the Revolution Society, the ’76 Association, and the State Volunteers, on the 4th of July, 1833, being the 57th anniversary of American independence [Charleston, A.E. Miller, 1833], 56).

[65] Ibid., 5, 7, 19. Towards the end of his speech, Pinckney anticipated “the rapid approximation of that glorious day, when nullification will constitute again, as it did in ’98, the faith and the pride of the countrymen of jefferson!” (Ibid., 49).

[66] Ibid., 8–9, 12, 26.

[67] Ibid., 28. Because of the importance of the convention, Pinckney, a leader of the South Carolina legislature, chose to gut an 1831 and 1832 bill that would have further restricted slave mobility and literacy in response to the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in August 1831. The bill did not pass until 1834, under Edward Laurens’s sponsorship, and after the nullification crisis ended. Writing about the delay between the Virginia rebellion and the South Carolina response, Lacy K. Ford concludes, “Yet perhaps the most persuasive hypothesis is that by late 1834 the legislature certainly would have been aware that almost every other slaveholding state had already imposed or tightened a ban on teaching slaves to read and write in the aftermath of the Turner incident, and South Carolina’s failure to do so suggested an unexpected lack of vigilance on the part of the Palmetto State.” Ford, Deliver Us from Evil, 473; 464–465, 467–468, 472.

[68] Ibid., 15, 18, 22, 27, 39–40.

[69] Ibid., 42, 43, 44, 45, 55, 56.

[70] Edward R. Laurens, An Oration, delivered in St. Finbar’s Cathedral, before the State Society of the Cincinnati, and the Whig Association, on the 4th of July, 1835, being the 59th anniversary of American independence (Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1835), 4, 5.

[71] No additional information about the group appeared in the oration. Thomas Grimké’s 1833 oration to the Washington Society, however, identified the group’s purpose and work. When asked to give the speech, Grimké praised the society’s namesake, writing, “May the spirit, in which he loved and served his country, the spirit of Christian patriotism, be with us on that day, to strengthen our faith in the durability, and our hopes for the glorious destiny, at home and abroad, of our National Institutions!” (Thomas S. Grimké, Oration on the Principal Duties of Americans; delivered before the Washington Society and other citizens of Charleston; in the Second Presbyterian Church, on Thursday the 4th of July, with the farewell address of the Hon. William Drayton, to the Washington Society, Delivered on the same day, at their Anniversary Dinner [Charleston: William Estill, 1833], iii). He therefore condemned the French Revolution for its “bleeding victims of Atheism and Anarchy, and the very slaves of the Imperial Napoleon”; in contrast, God favored and protected the United States (7). While the United States peacefully developed its Constitution, the “gigantic power and demoniac spirit of the French Revolution, polluted by robberies and murders—countless in number, fiendish in character, atrocious in guilt, beyond all that is on the records of history” wreaked havoc in France (9). Grimké concluded that God enabled Washington to protect his young country “against the Jacobins and Atheists of the French Revolution” (7, 9, 10). He was less enamored of the document that gave his country the Fourth of July, claiming that the Constitution was “wiser, more sublime and affecting than the Declaration of Independence” (15; 18–19). Yet, Grimké could not completely disregard the Declaration. The Constitution and the government it established “was worthy of a people, who knew that government derives its ‘just powers from the consent of the governed’: that ‘it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government’” (19). He quoted the Declaration of Independence even while arguing for the superiority of the Constitution.

[72] Benjamin Faneuil Hunt, An Oration, Delivered by their appointment, before the Washington Society, in Charleston, South Carolina, on the 4th of July, 1839 (Charleston: S.S. Miller, 1839), 3, 6.

[73] Ibid., 8, 10, 11.

[74] Ibid., 14.

[75] Ibid., 17, 18.

[76] Ibid., 22, 24.

[77] Ibid., 25, 27.

[78] Stroumsa, The Scriptural Universe of Ancient Christianity, 36.

[79] Nathaniel Paul, “The Abolition of Slavery,” in Carter G. Woodson, ed., Negro Orators and Their Orations (New York: Russell & Russell, 1969), 65; 64. David Walker made a similar argument two years later. White treatment of blacks contradicted the Declaration of Independence, which also gave blacks the right to rebel (David Walker, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” in William Loren Katz, ed., Walker’s Appeal in 4 Articles, David Walker; An Address to the Slaves of the US of A, Henry Highland Garnet [New York: Arno and the New York Times, 1969], 85).

[80] Also see, Matthew 22:39; Luke 10:27; and the original command comes from Lev 19:34.

[81] Paul, “The Abolition of Slavery,” 69, 75, 76.

[82] James Forten, “Letters from a Man of Colour, on a Late Bill before the Senate of Pennsylvania,” in James G. Basker, ed., Early American Abolitionists: A Collection of Anti-Slavery Writings, 1760–1820 (New York: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2005), 305, 307 (emphasis mine). Forten repeats this claim in his fourth letter (“Letters from a Man of Colour,” 311).

[83] Leonard I. Sweet, “The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion within the Context of the Black Experience,” Journal of Negro History 61, no. 3 (July 1976): 258–259, 262–263.

[84] Lawrence N. Jones, “Black Christians in Antebellum America: In Quest of the Beloved Community,” Journal of Religious Thought 38 (Spring–Summer 1981), 15.

[85] Slaveowners rejected any universal application of the Declaration’s equality clause. Originally published in 1859, Fred A. Ross argued in Slavery Ordained of God that the Declaration of Independence was not God’s plan for government. While slavery was biblical, claims to equality were not. The Declaration opposed the Bible, and its paragraph about rights was an unnecessary idea drawn from the godless French Revolution (Fred A. Ross, Slavery Ordained of God [New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969], 47–48, 101–106). Ross insists, “The time has come when civil liberty, as revealed in the Bible and in Providence, must be re-examined, understood, and defended against infidel theories of human rights” (Slavery Ordained of God, 118). The American Revolution, however, predated the French by thirteen years. The dates did not matter. The French Revolution functioned as a straw man for the chaos that only slavery could hold off. And because most Americans did not view freedom as an individual right, slavery need not be antithetical to freedom (Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 18, 28, 53, 26).

[86] Danielle Allen argues that on the subject of equality, “no more important sentence has ever been written” than the one beginning with “all men are created equal” (Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality [New York: Liveright, 2014], 23). She notes that because of the Declaration’s paragraph about slavery (later removed), in which slaves were called men, the equality clause referred to everyone and that the Confederacy agreed, which helps to explain the decision to secede (Allen, Our Declaration, 154, 241). There are two counterarguments here. First, politically and legally, slaves were property and not people. Second, the Declaration of Independence was constantly being read and interpreted. While the vice-president of the Confederate States of America claimed the Declaration supported racial equality (Allen, Our Declaration, 241), the original writers might not have shared that view. The law certainly did not. And slaveowners worked in the years leading up to the Civil War to dismantle any reading of the Declaration that could challenge the peculiar institution. By definition, slavery is “a socioeconomic system centering on the use of forced laborers, who are viewed as property or as under the control of their superiors for whatever term was determined by their masters or by their society” (Hector Avalos, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011), 7). As Hector Avalos notes, “Slavery always had an inherent tension between seeing slaves as property and as human beings” (Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, 10). Rhetorically, the Declaration of Independence may argue for the equality of men; practically, who was a man limited the document’s scope.