Commemorating American Independence Day in Mid-19th-Century Europe

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Paul D. Quigley, Virginia Tech
For Americans overseas, the Fourth of July quickly became an important holiday. This was certainly evident in mid-nineteenth century Europe. Whether long-term expatriates or short-term sojourners, Americans in cities such as London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin came together to demonstrate that being away from home did not negate their Americanness. Like their counterparts in the United States, they held banquets, delivered speeches, recited the Declaration of Independence, and gave patriotic toasts. In many respects, these celebrations functioned just like the ones back home: they defined American nationalism and they delimited the borders of the American national community.

Yet, due to the specific place and time in which they occurred, they took on additional connotations. The Fourth became implicated in international relations, both formal and informal. Typically involving foreigners as well as Americans, diplomats and consular staff as well as businessmen and other citizens, these celebrations generated consequential expressions of American interests and identity overseas. They offer fascinating insights into cultural diplomacy—especially during this distinct phase of transatlantic relations, in which the United States was moving beyond its postcolonial relationship with Britain, and asserting new forms of political and economic power in interactions with other European countries.

July 4 celebrations also provide revealing perspectives on the wider impact of the American Civil War. References to French aid during the American Revolution, to provide just one example, were tinged with pleas for France to either offer similar aid to the fledging Confederacy or to stay out of the conflict altogether. Furthermore, Americans from the North and the South advanced different interpretations of the crisis with special intensity every Fourth of July. Throughout the Civil War era, this holiday provided distinctive opportunities for Americans abroad to address tensions among themselves as well as their relationship with the host country.

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