The other 4th of July: Slavery’s defeat was second American Revolution
A scene from the PBS Ken Burns documentary, "The Civil War," depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. | PBS

The Fourth of July really marks two celebrations of independence. Firecrackers, bottle rockets, sizzling grills, cold beer, and kids running around with sparklers all remind us of the day “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary…” But at the end of the day of that first revolution in 1776, four million African people—now African Americans—remained in chains. Independence from Britain meant nothing to their families except endless, unpaid toil for the benefit of dandies and the freedom to be sold like so much cotton.

The other celebration seldom gets attention, although it is more recent than the first. One hundred and fifty-five years ago, 51,000 Americans, those who fought to end slavery and those who fought on the side of human bondage, died or were wounded at Gettysburg, Pa., and 59,000 suffered the same fate in the siege of Vicksburg, Miss.

The stakes of the second American Revolution were as great as those of 1776. After slavery’s shock troops limped back from Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, the super-exploitative plantation owners suffered a mortal wound. When General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union troops marched into Vicksburg the next day, July 4, 1863, placing the Mississippi River firmly in anti-slavery hands, they definitively broke the back of slavery.

The achievement of the Union’s yeoman farmers, mechanics, bookkeepers, professors, and immigrants was truly a shot heard round the world for human freedom.

The cost was staggering. Lincoln eloquently acknowledged this bloody cost—“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”—as he expanded the meaning of the Civil War from a fight to save the Union to a battle to end slavery, “a new birth of freedom,” the second American Revolution. It was a death struggle of social systems: slavery vs. emergent capitalism.

Just as the plantation owners and dealers in human flesh did not go quietly into the night, today those few who squeeze profit from human labor in eastern Kentucky or Los Angeles or Miami or New York or Chicago or Dallas, or around the globe, are not retiring.

The battleground is not the high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River or the rolling hills of south central Pennsylvania. It is the factory and office tower gates, the picket lines, the town halls and statehouses across the country, and the halls of Congress. Here, freedom and dignity remain a question, a subject of debate and struggle. Our people have shed a lot of blood and want no more. Today, we wage a massive political war, armed with patience, political balance, and perseverance.

The clock is ticking on the Trump administration, reactionary successors to the 19th-century slave owners. This Fourth of July, we’ll have some burgers or ribs, dip into potato salad, kick back a cold one or try to hit our second cousin’s pitching, but we recharge batteries for the contest ahead—the “elephant,” as Black and white Civil War soldiers called it. We will be tested. We will get aggravated. United we can win.

Originally posted in People’s World on July 6, 2007, slightly edited.

Denise Edwards is a member of the Wilkinsburg, Pa., Borough Council.


Denise Winebrenner Edwards
Denise Winebrenner Edwards

Denise Winebrenner Edwards is a long-time trade union and community activist. She lives in western Pennsylvania.