July 4th, 1861

We have little idea how the Brome family celebrated the fourth of July each year. It is likely that there were events healed in Leonardtown that they attended, or perhaps they held a party at their own home or at the nearby Trinity Church or Female Seminary. The material record is of no use to us in regards to identifying a specific day, and, for the most part, the material record leaves us without any clues. We can safely assume that Brome and his family celebrated and approved of the holiday: there is little doubt that Brome held the importance of the American dream in high regard, as he considered himself a caretaker of the 17th century first capital of Maryland.

There is, however, one reference to July 4th, 1861: it is the listed date on the slave runaway advertisement that John Brome posted in search of William Washington Walton.

While Walton himself had escaped, “on the 29th ultimo”, meaning the 29th of June, the contradiction here is stark: Brome placed an ad to curb a man’s effort at independence on the very day that celebrates his own independence. While this is likely coincidental, it provides us with a striking reminder that the Fourth of July was a holiday that was celebrated amongst the greatest of ironies: that for the first portion of our nation’s history, it celebrated an independence day while enslaving millions of people. For African Americans, particularly those held in bondage, the holiday was seeped in cruel irony.

Read more about what we can learn from Runaway Ads

Frederick Douglass issued the most eloquent admonishment of July 4th in his speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”. He gave the speech on July 5, 1852 at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In it, he takes aim at the holiday, and presents a scathing critique of the hypocrisy that he, and most African Americans, saw:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

For Douglass and for Walton the Fourth of July served as a reminder that they were being kept from their own freedom. As Douglass states, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must morn.” Perhaps Walton escaped at this moment because he understood this hypocrisy, and wanted to make a statement to Brome: after all, it was Brome who had to pen an advertisement on Independence Day providing a reward for the “delivery” of his slave.

Learn more about how slaves at St. Mary’s Manor took their Freedom

We hope you will take the opportunity of the Fourth of July to consider its complicated history, and to remember that it has different meanings for different people. For Walton, it was the day that his attempt at independence was met with resistance. It is worth considering the complex nature of independence in the United States, and to remember people like Walton and Douglass and the others who not only worked to build this country, but also strove every day to find pieces of their own freedom despite their conditions of slavery.

What does the Fourth of July mean to you? Please share with us below!

To learn more:

Rethinking the Fourth of July

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