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"What are you doing for the 4th of July?" is often heard about this time; or on getting back to work, "What did you do for the 4th of July". So today, for my (late) July 1 piece, I've hunted through 20 or 30 published diarys, old "lives and letters", etc., to take a sampling of what Americans were doing and thinking on this day of the year, in the days when Revolutionary War veterans were still walking around.
"Pop--pop--bang--pop--pop--bang--bang--bang! Mercy on us! How fortunate it is that anniversaries come only once a year. Well, the Americans may have great reason to be proud of this day, and the deeds of their forefathers, but why do they get so confoundedly drunk? why, on this day of independence, should they become so dependent on posts and rails for support? The day is at last over; my head aches, but there will be many more aching heads tomorrow morning!
"What a combination of vowels and consonants have been put together! What strings of tropes, metaphors, and allegories have been used on this day! what varieties and graduations of eloquence! There are at least fifty thousand cities, towns, villages, and hamlets, spread over the surface of America -- in each the Declaration of Independence has been read; in all one, and in some two or three, orations have been delivered, with as much gunpowder in them as in the squibs and crackers."
The extraordinary events of just 20 years ago, and the more recent events in France inspire Francis Blake to a cosmic vision: "The grand POLITICAL MILLENNIUM is at hand; when tyranny shall be buried in ruins; when all nations shall be united in ONE MIGHTY REPUBLIC!" This hope and expectation of a worldwide revolution made him slow to criticize the French Revolution, and its three decades of rumbling aftermath, and zealous to defend it from its critics.
"On this day, therefore, religiously devoted to the consecration of our independence, it becomes us, as the votaries of freedom, as friends to the rights of man, and bound to support them whenever invaded, to turn our attention, with a grateful enthusiasm, to the scenes of their sufferings, their revolt, and their victories. While exulting in the full enjoyment of peace and tranquillity, shall not a tear for the unexampled distresses of this magnanimous nation, check, for a moment, the emotions of our joy?
"They have sworn that they will live FREE or DIE! They have solemnly sworn, that the sword, which has been drawn in defence of their country, shall never be returned to its scabbard, till it has secured to them victory and freedom. Let us then breathe forth a fervent ejaculation to Heaven, that their vows may be remembered; that the cause of our former allies may not be deserted, till they have scourged their invaders, till they have driven them back in confusion to the regions of terror, from which they emerged.
"While we remember with horror the continued effusion of blood, which darkened the morning of their revolution, let us not forget that their vengeance was roused by the champions of despotism, whose lives have since justly atoned for the crimes they committed. While we lament the sanguinary scenes, which clouded its progress, let it not be forgotten that they arose from the bloody manifesto of a band of tyrants, combined for the hellish purpose of again rivetting the chains they had broken.
"The league of Pilnitz, like the league of Satan and his angels, revolting against the Majesty of heaven, was professedly fabricated, to arrest forever the progress of freedom; to usurp the dominion of France, and divide the spoil among this band of royal plunderers. Have we not heard, that the noble, the generous, the grateful monarch of the forest, that fawned at the feet of Androcles, when remembering his former friendship, will ever turn with fury on his pursuers; and when robbed of his whelps, rests not til his fangs are crimsoned in the blood of the aggressor?
"Shall then the fervour of our friendship be abated, by remembering the transitory frenzy of a people distracted with the enthusiasm of freedom, and irritated to madness with the dreadful prospect of losing what they had enjoyed but for a moment? Let it never be said of us, as of Rome and of Athens, that ingratitude is the common vice of republics. Was it to the crowned monarch, named Louis the Sixteenth, or to the people of France, that we are indebted, for the blood and treasure that were so profusely lavished in our cause? Shall then their services be forgotten, in the remembrance of their momentary excesses? or shall we refuse our most cordial concurrence in the feelings which impell them to the present contest with the ruffian potentates of Europe?
"Can we doubt, for a moment, which is the cause we are bound to support with our sanction, when we behold the winds and the seas, those dreadful ministers of Heaven's vengeance, commissioned to advance their progress, and deluge their enemies? When we behold Ariel, with his attendant spirits, gently hovering over their navies, and wafting them to victory on the bosom of the ocean; while Neptune and Boreas have combined against the league of their oppressors, to overwhelm in the deep these deluded followers of Pharaoh! Have we not seen them fed, as with manna from heaven; the waters divided, and the walls of Jericho falling before them, while the fair prospect of liberty has led them in triumph through the wilderness, as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night?
"AMERICANS! Let us join in a fervent supplication, that the sacred charters of humanity, which we have once sealed with our blood, may be forever preserved from the deadly grasp of tyrants.
"FRENCHMEN! Be firm; be undaunted in the struggle you have thus miraculously supported. Evince to the world, now gazing with admiration at your exploits in the field of battle, that you have virtue equal to your courage; that you are friends to the friends of humanity; that your arms are nerved only against the enemies of man. Let not the sacred name of LIBERTY be polluted by the frenzy of licentous passions; but may your present glorious constitution, while it protects your freedom from the unhallowed ravages of tyrrany, remain an unshaken bulwark against the destructive fury of faction.
"TYRANTS! Turn from the impious work of blood in which your hands are imbrued, and tremble at the desperation of your revolting subjects! repent in sackcloth and ashes. For behold, ye, who have been exalted up to heaven, shall, ere long, be cast down to hell! The final period of your crimes is rapidly approaching. The grand POLITICAL MILLENNIUM is at hand; when tyranny shall be buried in ruins; when all nations shall be united in ONE MIGHTY REPUBLIC! when the four angels, that stand on the four corners of the globe, shall, with one accord, lift up their voices to heaven; proclaiming PEACE ON EARTH, AND GOOD WILL TO ALL MEN."
Two other extracts of July 4 speeches from the Columbian Orator are more conventional celebrations of America's accomplishments.
From a speech given in Boston in 1794 by "Phillips" (no first name given, but perhaps Samuel, the founder of Phillips Andover Academy):
"We indulge the sanguine hope, that her equal laws and virtuous conduct will hereafter afford examples of imitation to all surrounding nations. That the blissful period will soon arrive when man shall be elevated to his primitive character; when illuminated reason and regulated liberty shall once more exhibit him in the image of his Maker; when all the inhabitants of the globe shall be freemen and fellow-citizens, and the patriotism itself be lost in universal philanthropy. Then shall volumes of incense incessantly roll from altars inscribed to liberty. Then shall the innumerable varieties of the human race unitedly "worship in her sacred temple, whose pillars shall rest on the remotest corners of the earth, adn whose arch will be the vault of heaven."
"On the contrary, Americans had but one object in view, for in Independence are concentrated and condensed every blessing that makes life desirable, every right and every privilege which can tend to the happiness or secure the native dignity of man. In the attainment of Independence, were all their passions, their desires, and their powers engaged. The intrepidity and mannanimity of their armies; the wisdom and inflexible firmness of their Congress; the ardency of their patriotism; their unrepining patience, when assailed by dangers and perplexed with aggravated misfortunes, have long and deservedly employed the pen of panegyric and the tongue of eulogy.
"Through the whole revolutionary conflict, a consistency and systematic regularity were preserved, equally honorable as extraordinary. The unity of design and classically correct arrangement of the series of incidents, which completed the Epic story of American Independence, were so wonderful, so well wrought, that political Hypercriticism was abashed at the mighty production, and forced to join her sister Envy, in applauding the glorious composition.
"It is my pleasing duty, my fellow citizens, to felicitate you on the establishment of our national sovereignty; and among the various subjects for congratulation and rejoicing, this is not the most unimportant, that Heaven has spared so many veterans in the art of war; so many sages, who were versed in the best politics of peace; men, who were able to instruct and to govern, and whose faithful services, whose unremitted exertions to promote the public prosperity, entitle them to our firmest confidence and warmest gratitude. Uniting in the celebration of this anniversary, I am happy to behold many of the illustrious remnant of that band of patriots, who, despising danger and death, determined to be free, or gloriously perish in the cause. Their countenances beam inexpressible delight! our joys are increased by their presence; our raptures are heightened by their participation. The feelings, which inspired them in the "times which tried men's souls," are communicated to our bosoms. We catch the divine spirit which impelled them to bid defiance to the congregated host of despots. We swear to preserve the blessings they toiled to gain, which they obtained by the incessant labours of eight distressful years; to transmit to our posterity, our rights undiminished, our honor untarnished, and our freedom unimpaired.
"On the last page of Fate's eventful volume, with the raptured ken of prophecy, I behold Columbia's name recorded; her future honors and happiness inscribed. In the same important book the approaching end of Tyranny and the triumph of Right and Justice are written in indellible characters. The struggle will soon be over; the tottering thrones of despots will quickly fall, and bury their proud incumbents in their massy ruins!
From chapter 3, describing events of 1816,
"...All creation appeared to be independent on this day; some of the horses particularly so, for they would not keep "in no line no how." Some preferred going sideways like crabs, others went backwards, some would not go at all, others went a great deal too fast, and not a few parted company with their riders, ... let them go which way they would, they could not avoid the squibs and crackers. And the women were in the same predicament: they might dance right, or dance left, ... you literally trod upon gunpowder.
"When the troops marched up Broadway, louder even than the music were to be heard the screams of delight from the children ... "Ma! ma! there's pa!" "Oh! there's John." "Look at uncle on his big horse."
"Unless you are an amateur, there is no occasion to go to the various places of public amusement where ther fireworks are let off, for they are sent up everywhere in such quantities that you hardly know which way to turn your eyes. It is, however, advisable to go into some place of safety, for the little boys and the big boys have all got their supply of rockets, which they fire off in the streets -- some running horizontally up the pavement, and sticking into the back of a passenger, and others mounting slantingdicularly and Paul-Prying into the bedroom windows on the third floor or attics, just to see how things are going on there. Look in any point of the compass, and you will see a shower of rockets in the sky: turn from New York to Jersey City, from Jersey City to Brooklyn, and shower is answered by shower on either side of the water. Hoboken repeats the signal; and thus it is carried on to the east, the west, the north, and the south, from Rhode Island to the Missouri, from the Canada frontier to the Gulf of Mexico. At the various gardens the combinations were very beautiful, and exceeded anything that I had witnessed in London or Paris. What with sea-serpents, giant rockets scaling heaven, Bengal lights, Chinese fires, Italian suns, fairy bowers, crowns of Jupiter, exeranthemums, Tartar temples, Vesta's diadems, magic circles, morning glories, stars of Columbia, and temples of liberty, all America was in a blaze; and, in addition to the mode of manifesting its joy, all America was tipsy.
In 1823, he reports more of a formal celebration, but "There being considerable division, the parties divided and the Federalists had this meetinghouse and the Republicans the Brick Meetinghouse at the Meadow. I of course joined the Republicans. The Brick Meetinghouse was very neatly and handsomely decorated. The clerical services were performed by Rev. Job Washburn. The Declaration of Independence was read by William Farley of Waldoboro and an oration by John Ruggles, Esq. which was received with universal applause. [later] a company of about 300 took dinner with all the usual ceremonies. The party brok up about four o'clock and every one retired to their homes, well pleased with what they had seen, heard, and tasted."
1824: On the 5th (the 4th having been a Sunday) "We had a stage erected in front of the pulpit [of the Brick Meetinghouse] ... The first performance after the reading of the Constitution was an oration by Demerrick Spear, next a written disputation between ... and another between ... we went to the Shore to a dinner provided by the Widow Spear. About 50 set down to dinner after which some appropriate toasts were drunk. [about 3:30 pm] I came home in the chaise I had hired for the day -- Mrs. Hasting's chaise and Mr. Jourdain's horse. ... About seven o'clock ... tackled my horse and chaise and carried Miss Henrietta Marsh and Miss Fanny Sprague (two young ladies from Bath and fine agreeable ones, too) over to a ball ... [meeting a party of about 12 couples] ... we spent the evening or rather night in dancing and very pleasantly till about two o'clock when I came away with Miss Marsh and Sprague. Some of the party continued till three o'clock."
"4th July, 1826, National Jubilee. A fine morning was ushered in by the roar of cannon in all parts of the town, by a salute of 24 guns from a brass six pounder on the hill and by the ringing of bells. It is the fiftieth anniversary of that joyous day which we hail as our nation's birthday. It was a glorious day to our country -- it was so to the world, for it declared that "all men are born free and equal" and this principle of equality is gaining upon the old notions of imperial, kingly and lordly characters and as it gains ground, the world becomes enlightened and refined ... After the services at the Meetinghouse the procession formed again walked to the new ropewalks lately erected where a table of 300 plates was spread and a dinner in ample order. Mr. Ruggles presided assisted by five vice-presidents. ... After the cloth was removed and the wine was placed before us, some fine sentiments were drank to and a fine flow of soul seemed to pervade the whole company in number over 200. ... A Mr. Brown sung some fine patriotic songs and towards the last some comic songs in fine style. All was life and spirit, yet all was orderly and harmonious. In the evening a fine display of fireworks was had, procured from Boston ..."
Eight days later, on the 12th, "Papers brought the news that Presidents Old Adams and Jefferson both died on the 4th of July past."
Another African American named William Johnson lived in Natchez. A free man, a barber, and a quite successful businessman (and slaveholder, it must be added), he kept a diary of short entries, hardly missing a day between 1836 and 1851. It is published in William Johnson's Natchez, the Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro, ed. William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis (1951, 1979, and Louisiana State University Press paperback - 1993). Here are some of his entries:
1837: To day was the most splendid day I have Ever witnessed on the fourth of July.
1840: Business was Quite Dull, this being the 4th of July. I did not Keep open more than half of the Day but walked out into the Pasture to see How the Citizens were Engaging themselves and I found them all in find Humor and in good order.
1841: Greate many persons are Frollicing to day, tho to morrow is the set day for the Celebration, and a Large parade is Expected, Good many of Our Citizens have gone over the River to take a Frollic. I've since herd that it broke up without affording much pleasure to the Company ...
1842: Two of the Companies turned Out to day and of all the Music that I Ever herd in my Life. Mr. Sorias Jonh and some other Boy, oh it was dreadfull indeed, past anything that I Ever Herd in my Life.
1846: I was at the Race track to day and saw the Race between Mr. Crizers Josephine & Mr. Rabeys Horse & Winstons Bay Mare Ellen True and the Bird of the world. The horse Blue Dick paid the forfeit ...I won $28 in all and came back home.
1847: Nothing going on very Lively to day altho tis the 4th. Old Roan and the SOrril mare wran off from the Commons to day Some time.
1848: I went out to the tract and made Several Bets on the Race ...
1849: [after describing what sounds like a full business day] I was out to the Race tract to day and Saw the Race between the Mardice Fily and Dorkertys Filly & ... The Mardice Filly won Easy in 1.51...
1850: [He describes activity at the race track in some detail, and gave this reckoning of the outcome of his bets:
5.00 with Jeff that Elizar Beeman would winn.
1.00 Stranger, Dr. Branums Horse VS. The Field
1.00 New Combs Same way
5.00 Cash with Mr. Icum Winn
I won a Bet of Mr Mardice of 5.00
and one Mr Cal Collins 5.00
& One of Jeff 2.50
& One of Bob .25
& One of Jack .50
& 1 of Capt. Pomp, 1/2 Bl Sugar 4.00
"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocricy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages."