Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic

Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic – Review

Mary Saracino Zboray

Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. By Len Travers. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Pp. x, 278. $29.92.)

This book is as much a history of Independence Day as it is a study of early American nationalism. On the one hand, Len Travers chronicles how in three cities–Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston–Independence Day constructed a “mythos of national identity” from its first celebration in 1777 to the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration in 1826 (6). On the other hand, he uses yearly snapshots taken on July Fourth to trace the nation’s passage from its “separation phase,” through “liminality” during the Revolution, into “aggregation” as a young republic (29).

Travers begins with an overview of cross-cultural studies on ritual and relevant anthropological theory to frame his argument that the Fourth “helped to mask disturbing ambiguities … with a conceptual veneer of shared ideology” (7). While his earnest interdisciplinarity and care in providing operational definitions of often recklessly used terms like “culture” and “ritual” is admirable, this book truly accelerates when, through historical methodologies, Travers reconstructs actual experience rather than the ideational coding that structures it. When doing so, Travers points out how gender, ethnicity, religion, regionalism, and partisanship shaped various interpretations of a holiday that, ironically, served to unite. During the Revolution, Quakers in Philadelphia, for example, excepted themselves from celebrating, and Charlestonians alternatively honored “Palmetto Day” Later, partisan battles were enacted upon a cultural field as Federalists and Republicans for their own ends usurped and manipulated symbols of the Fourth such as black and blue cockades, the liberty tree, militia toasts, and even the Declaration of Independence itself. Travers vividly describes rites culled from newspaper columns, personal papers, and contemporary accounts: ice cream and turtle soup as “ritual food” illuminations, fireworks, and occasional disorder (121). The sprinkling throughout the study of often poignant statements, some by women giving testament to their subjective political engagement, is also noteworthy. In a section about “The American Fair” Travers argues for a more significant role for women in public activities than Mary Ryan avers in Women in Public (135-145). Another portion of the study devoted to the “incongruity” of celebrating liberty in the slave-holding South provides an incisive reading of Edward Hooker’s diary as primary evidence (145-54).

With the demise of the first party system after the War of 1812 went much of the solemnity of the holiday as people increasingly turned to “festival” (209). As mid-century approached, national growth, democratization, sharper regional differences, and, finally, sectional crises challenged the Fourth’s ability to maintain communitas. “Independence Day” Travers writes, “increasingly revealed not so much what [Americans] held in common as what separated them” (222). This reader nevertheless yearned to follow the Fourth into the Age of Jackson and wondered if the day indeed continued to be solemn not only for its more personal associations, but also as contested ground for various groups.

For its lucid, entertaining, narration alone, Celebrating the Fourth will appeal to almost anyone with an interest in the history of the early republic. What is best about the book is that it breaks new ground in recovering common people’s political experience, while making a convincing case for a broader definition of political history–one in which material and symbolic culture are essential components.

Mary Saracino Zboray

Atlanta, Georgia

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group