Communication Currents

Fireworks "sparklers" in front of USA flag

The Fourth of July is a Day to #Resist

July 10, 2017
Current Commentary, Freedom of Expression, Political Communication

By Michael J. Steudeman, Ph.D. (originally published on Citizen Critics)

Last week, while stores sold out of miniature flags and coal for grilling, many Americans were buying poster-board and writing up calls to “Resist.” In a year marked by the largest protests in American history, a number of groups held demonstrations and marches on this year’s Independence Day holiday. In a country where refusing to stand for the national anthem can be widely renounced as unpatriotic, using the Fourth to picket and shout into megaphones predictably drew criticism. People protested anyway.

In taking to the streets, protestors joined a long tradition. Independence Day has always been a day of resistance. Signing the Declaration of Independence was, itself, an act of profound protest, a call to reject an entire system of government. In the centuries since, the holiday has been used as a foil for disgruntled citizens to express their problems with society and the government. The causes have ranged from pacifism to abolitionism to women’s suffrage and beyond. Across these agendas, Americans have consistently found that the Fourth of July provides what the Greeks called kairos: an opportune moment to advance an argument.

A History of Dissent

The first Fourth of July protest happened just a year after the Declaration was signed. As citizens of Philadelphia gathered in 1777 to enjoy fireworks and banners, a group of pacifists — the Society of Friends — resisted the festivities and the glorification of violence. While much of the city lit their windows with candlelight to show support for the war effort, the Friends left their houses dark to condemn the ongoing Revolutionary War. An angry mob of pro-war Philadelphians shattered their windows. Then, as now, pushing back against a patriotic holiday carried a risk.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia

For the first few decades of the Republic, few people took that risk. In a young nation trying to build a sense of national identity, speakers tried not to dissent. Typically, they spoke in a way that was so ornate, so specific, and so image-driven that nothing was left to the audience’s imagination. For hours, they would vividly describe battles of the Revolutionary War, with sentences like, “CORNWALLIS droops his crest. This petrified colossus that would bestride our land, crumbles into dust.” It was eloquent stuff, but not meant to challenge how audiences thought.

As Fourth of July speeches became formulaic, speakers started trying to use their platform more subversively. In 1826, for instance, the idiosyncratic orator Robert Owen declared private property, “irrational systems of religion,” and marriage to be a “Trinity of the most monstrous evils.” As might be expected, listeners were outraged. Another example came from Boston, where each year the city carefully selected a well-known citizen to deliver an official Fourth of July speech. Bucking expectations, the young politician Charles Sumner challenged the way the Fourth of July celebration glamorized warfare and violence. He even had the gall to claim that George Washington should not be honored for any of his activity in war, but only as president. Blasphemy! City authorities were not pleased.

In time, Independence Day protests emerged as a powerful way for the disenfranchised to advance their arguments. Among abolitionists and former slaves, for example, critical gatherings were held on the fifth of July to draw a stark distinction from the celebrations on the Fourth. Across the 19th and 20th centuries, the holiday became a time for civil rights activists, antiwar demonstrators, and suffragists to pursue expanded political rights. As James R. Heintze chronicles in his Fourth of July Encyclopedia, these protestors form an important part of the tapestry of the holiday’s history.

An Opportune Time to Resist

Why is the Fourth of July such an appealing time to protest? In large part, it stems from the document the holiday commemorates. Written by a slaveholder to herald the “self-evident” nature of human equality, the Declaration of Independence has always captured the obvious contradictions between American ideals and an imperfect reality. As Abraham Lincoln put it, the Declaration was written to be “constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained… constantly spreading and deepening its influence.” Every time the Fourth of July comes around, it provides a chance to highlight that distance between the Declaration’s vision and its execution.

But there’s another, perhaps more obvious, reason why the Declaration provides such an effective basis for protest. People typically remember the first few lines of the Declaration of Independence, but most of the document is not an eloquent enumeration of natural rights. It’s a list of complaints. King George III had obstructed justice, denied the rule of law, granted too much power to the military, cut off trade, imposed taxes, quartered troops — the list went on. What better template for protest than a list of political grievances?

Thanks to its format, the Declaration offers an excellent model for those aiming to express their discontent. Take, for instance, the Declaration of Sentiments written by women’s suffragists at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Rewriting Thomas Jefferson’s text to declare that “all men and women are created equal,” the authors adapted the list of grievances against King George to show how men oppressed women. Similarly, on the Fourth of July in 1915, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt invoked the Declaration and followed a similar structure for her argument. Repeating the phrase “we protest” to start several sentences, she challenged women’s unequal treatment by government.

Protesting on the Fourth also creates an opportunity to highlight contrasts between those celebrating and those who, due to injustices, cannot. This is the rhetorical power of juxtaposition: setting two images side-by-side and letting them speak for themselves. Frederick Douglass was well aware of this technique when he delivered his famous Fourth of July speech. From the outset, he made it clear that he was weary of arguing the immorality of slavery. Instead, he used juxtaposition. To the slave, he said, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.” Set beside horrific scenes of slave auctions, it was utterly perverse to hear men speaking about “liberty and equality.” Where argument would not work, Douglass made his audience feel dissonance.

Once again, this past Fourth of July, protestors created that dissonance. While others downed hotdogs and watched fireworks, they challenged police brutality, threats to health care, underfunded veterans’ benefits, and efforts to suppress voting rights. They listed their grievances, declared self-evident truths, and pronounced their causes loudly. As they will again, into perpetuity.


  • Carrie Chapman Catt. “An Appeal for Liberty – July 4, 1915.” Iowa State University: Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.
  • Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman. “This is What We Learned by Counting the Women’s Marches.” The Washington Post, February 7, 2017.
  • Megan Goins Diouf. “5th of July: An Annotated Web Bibliography.” Weeksville Heritage Center, July 5, 2015.
  • Frederick Douglass. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? – July 5, 1852.” The Ashbrook Center at Ashbrook University, 
  • Jeremy Engels. “Uncivil Speech: Invective and the Rhetorics of Democracy in the Early Republic. Quarterly Journal of Speech 95, No. 3 (2009): 311-334.
  • James R. Heintze. “Fourth of July Celebrations Database.” American University. Available online.
  • James R. Heintz. The Fourth of July Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013.
  • Hannah Keyser. “How Americans Celebrated Independence Day in 1777.” Mental Floss, July 4, 2017.
  • Cedric Larson. “Patriotism in Carmine: 162 Years of July 4th Oratory.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 26, No. 1 (1940): 12-25.
  • Abraham Lincoln. “Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857.” In Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2, edited by Roy P. Basler. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
  • National Archives. “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” 
  • “Report of the Women’s Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848.” In the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. 1, In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840 to 1866, edited by Ann D. Gordon. New Burnswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  • Megan Shepherd. “Fourth of July Protests and Marches that Are Happening Around the Country.”, June 30, 2017.
  • Charles Sumner. The True Grandeur of Nations: An Oration Delivered before the Authorities of the City of Boston, July 4, 1845, 2nd Edition. Boston: American Peace Society, 1845.
  • Brian Temple. Philadelphia Quakers and the Antislavery Movement. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2014.
  • Robert Terrill. “Irony, Silence, and Time: Frederick Douglass on the Fifth of July.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 89, No. 3 (2003): 216-234.

Online Resources & Further Reading


Media Resources: Issue Experts

  • Trevor Parry-Giles, University of Maryland
  • Jennifer Mercieca, Texas A&M University
  • Robert Terrill, Indiana Unviersity

About the author (s)

Michael J. Steudeman

University of Memphis

Michael J. Steudeman (Ph.D., University of Maryland) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Memphis. His teaching and research focus on the rhetoric of education and political identity.

Michael J. Steudeman