Slavery, Freedom, and the Fourth of July

Matthew Clavin

This image from the Anti-Slavery Almanac reveals American abolitionists’ fascination with the Fourth of July and other symbols of American freedom. Courtesy New York Public Library.

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the singing of the national anthem and launched a national conversation on race and injustice, I was not surprised. I had already spent several years investigating the ways that free and enslaved African Americans and their allies regarded the national symbols of the United States in the era of slavery. Among the findings of my research was that for slavery’s opponents, the American flag, the National Anthem, and the Fourth of July mattered a great deal. Indeed, in the decades before the Civil War, these and other iconic national symbols inspired many Americans—free and enslaved—to challenge the status quo regarding racism and slavery.

In the essay that I submitted to JER, which grew out of this inquiry, I tell the nearly forgotten story of a fugitive-slave rebellion—a violent uprising of fugitive slaves—that began in Port Tobacco, Maryland, and ended more than fifty miles away in Rockville, Maryland, in the summer of 1845. What has always most fascinated me about this incident was not that it happened, for slave resistance in the early United States was constant and never-ending, but that it occurred over the Fourth of July weekend. That the fugitives passed through Washington, DC, coming within several blocks of the Capitol, the young republic’s so-called “Temple of Liberty,” made the incident even more compelling.

At the same time that American citizens were celebrating the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all men were created equal, as many as seventy-five armed bondmen fled from their owners and overseers in southern Maryland and began a long and dangerous trek north to freedom. As for why these fugitives absconded when they did, and whether they intended to make a political statement by traveling through the nation’s capital over the Fourth of July weekend, we can only speculate—though the archives reveal that enslaved people often reserved the national holiday for both individual and collective acts of resistance. All that can be said for certain is that when antislavery advocates learned of the daring escape attempt from Port Tobacco and subsequent rebellion at Rockville in July 1845, they interpreted it as much more than an ordinary act of slave resistance. Instead, they understood it, and depicted as, a revolutionary act of civil disobedience that belonged to the American tradition of resistance to tyranny.

Throughout the summer of 1845, abolitionists defended the Rockville rebels, and in newspapers, pamphlets, and public speeches made a national argument for slavery’s immediate and permanent demise. Taking the republic’s founding fathers at their word, these antislavery activists argued that the text of the Declaration of Independence was to be taken literally—that all men were, in fact, created equal. In their minds, if the American Revolution meant anything, then the bondmen who fled from captivity in Port Tobacco and eventually fought for their freedom at Rockville were not fugitives at all. They were freedom fighters whose heroic sacrifices evoked those of the nation’s founders.

As this brief article from the Liberator demonstrates, the fugitive slave rebellion at Rockville allowed abolitionists to highlight the shame and hypocrisy of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Among the ideas that my study of the Rockville rebellion illuminates is the synergy of enslaved southerners and their free northern allies. Though historians have long recognized the prominent and often preeminent role that free and, in many cases, formerly enslaved African Americans played in the antebellum abolitionist movement, they have yet to fully acknowledge the place of enslaved people in inspiring antislavery activism. Armed with lecterns, pens, and printing presses, abolitionist speakers, writers, and publishers eagerly exploited instances of slave resistance. Among the types of they frequently drew attention to were fugitive-slave rebellions, as they demonstrated the extraordinary lengths that enslaved people would go collectively to be free. The fugitive-slave rebels from Port Tobacco preferred to seek freedom peacefully, but they were willing to employ violence to obtain their objective.

Slave resistance that occurred or was intended to occur on the Fourth of July also attracted a great deal of attention from abolitionists. By demonstrating white Americans’ failure to extend the Declaration of Independence’s ideals to their Black countrymen and women, it raised growing concerns about the fate of the nation. As long as slavery continued, the United States could never fulfill its promise of freedom and equality as stated by the Founding Fathers on July 4th, 1776.

Abolitionists connected the fugitive-slave rebellion at Rockville to the annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all men were created equal. They also linked it to the national tradition of revolutionary resistance to tyranny. In so doing, they openly acknowledged the political power of enslaved people. Through an outpouring of public support for the Rockville rebels, abolitionists galvanized both the supporters and opponents of slavery and thus brought the nation ever closer to an historic reckoning over the nature and meaning of American freedom.

The Civil War eventually ended slavery. Even so, the struggle for freedom and equality for Black people continues. Not surprisingly, the symbols of American freedom continue to play an important role in the movement to end all forms of racial discrimination, including police brutality. Every time that professional or amateur athletes kneel during the national anthem, I am reminded of the people who throughout the antebellum era appropriated the American flag, the national anthem, the Fourth of July, and other national symbols, to help bring an end to slavery and racism. Though discouraged and often dismayed by the pace of change, there is some comfort in knowing that in a nation dedicated to liberty, there have been, and will continue to be, men and women who are willing to fight to make freedom and equality a reality for all people.

2 July 2021

About the Author

Matthew Clavin is professor of history at the University of Houston.

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