The Last Fourth of July

An anxious celebration, 150 years ago

Many who watched the weird, twisty parade on the streets of Knoxville on July 4, 1860 may have suspected it was the last Fourth of July they’d ever celebrate. In some Southern minds, the United States was just about over with.

It was a hot day for a parade. No one remembered a hotter week in 10 years. “We have not been favored with frequent showers, and we have no gulf breezes, no cool nights, and consequently we are all suffering from the heat,” reported the Whig. “The ladies, poor creatures, find some consolation in the institution of hoops.” A dutiful reporter noted that “if you are inconsiderate enough to look” into the window of a woman’s residence, “you will see them either fanning themselves or waving their hoops, with a view to catch every passing breeze.”

Led by the Mounted Fire Police, and followed by Mayor James Luttrell and the Board of Aldermen, with musicians and fire engines in the train, the parade wound around downtown, looping back and forth, as if lost and trying to find its way out of this crazy, hot town. It started that Wednesday at 10 a.m., “precisely,” on Market Square. It went north to Asylum Street, then jogged east to Gay Street. It went all the way down Gay to the courthouse, then turned right and proceeded to Locust. It took Locust a block to Cumberland, and then Cumberland one block to Crooked, at St. John’s Episcopal. Then turned left a block, then right on Church, and Church all the way to State, crossing its former path on Gay, to First Presbyterian. Then a right on State to Hill, then Hill back to Gay again. Then Gay two blocks north, redoubling in the opposite direction they’d just marched, but this time turning west on Cumberland, and marching all the way to Henley, and the Female Institute, where they stopped for orations.

The disorderly patriotic knot tangled around the oldest parts of Knoxville, likely accommodating well-connected businessmen and parishioners who wanted their favorite landmarks on the route. The blufftop city of 5,300, suddenly growing after the arrival of railroads and new factories, could now brag: “The pure mountain air we breathe, and the cold springs of water that burst out of our romantic hills and hollows, must contribute to our health as long as time shall last.” New things were arriving. A Boston entrepreneur named Marsh was opening a musical-instrument shop near the courthouse. But the fun spot to be in the summer of 1860 was Italian immigrant John Ricardi’s “Refreshment Saloon!” on Gay Street. The exclamation point was Signor Ricardi’s; it was an emphatic place. He carried much that you’d expect to find in a fine saloon, “Lager Beer, Scotch Ale, and London Porter,” plus brandy, gin, rum, whiskey, and “French liquors to suit the tastes of the greatest epicure.” But he also sold “Ice Cream! Ice Cream!” and “Soda Water! Soda Water!” And exotic fruits: figs, currants, dates, and citrons. And French Candies. And, unlike most saloons, Ricardi’s did a large business in toys.

The parade blew by his place. At the Female Institute, near the estate that would later be known as Maplehurst, there were some speeches. The main orator of the day was James W. Humes, a local politician soon to be elected alderman. We don’t know what he said to mark the patriotic holiday, but he was at the time thickly involved in the presidential campaign of the Constitutional Unionist Party.

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The parade route was less contorted than Knoxville’s political ideology. The city was home to a few abolitionists and many secessionists, but the typical point of view was a tortured centrism: the United States wasn’t ready to give up slavery, but the expansion of slavery wasn’t worth splitting up the Republic over. John Bell, the 64-year-old Nashville Whig long familiar in Knoxville—Parson Brownlow, editor of the Knoxville Whig, had named his son for him—was running for president. A slaveowner, Bell had nonetheless opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories. He ran on a ticket with Everett, the elderly, mild liberal from Massachusetts who had tried in vain to find common ground between the South and the North.

At conventions in Baltimore days before, the Democratic Party had split between those committed to merely preserving slavery represented by Stephen Douglas, and those committed to expanding it, represented by Kentuckian John Breckinridge. Brownlow rejoiced, printing on the Whig’s front page a Funeral Notice: “It is with a grateful heart that we record the death of Rotten Democracy” due to “gangrene of its huge Pouch and Bowels, more generally known in public circles...as Rot Gut.... others of large experience assert that it died of a disease which has prevailed as an epidemic for years, called Negro Phobia.”

Mourners of the Democratic Party should “return home in silence, holding their noses,” and in homage “burn a mixture of dog fennel and dry manure in their fireplaces....”

It’s hard to know what any politician believed in 1860. A Southern politician who didn’t regularly speak out in favor of slavery would get pilloried as an “Abolitionist.” With John Brown’s bloody raids a recent memory, Southern voters equated abolitionism with terrorism and anarchy. While ridiculing the Southern Democrats’ “Negro Phobia,” Brownlow was careful to point out Bell’s pro-slave qualities.

Five years later, Brownlow would be a civil-rights man. But in 1860, he was on a mission to get his friend Bell elected president, and save the Union. “Now that the Democratic farce is played out...now that the show is over...people are turning to Bell and Everett by the thousands. We claim for them a majority of the Southern states.”

That was a fantasy, of course, as Brownlow may have suspected. Moderates had no chance in 1860. The festivities of the last antebellum Fourth ended that evening; the banquet at the Lamar House was likely less festive than previous ones.

For four decades afterward, many bitter Southerners would refuse to celebrate the holiday

© 2010 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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