All hail the Fourth of July — in lofty words and deeds
Try a little Charles Sumner on them:
“Honor to the memory of our Fathers! May the turf lie gently on their sacred graves! But let us not in words only, but in deeds also, testify our reverence for their name. Let us imitate what in them was lofty, pure and good; let us from them learn to bear hardship and privation. Let us, who now reap in strength what they sowed in weakness, study to enhance the inheritance we have received. To do this, we must not fold our hands in slumber, nor abide content with the Past. To each generation is committed its peculiar task; nor does the heart, which responds to the call of duty, find rest except in the world to come.”
Or you could warn your guest about the dangers of fireworks, as Mark Twain once did:
“We turn Fourth of July, alas! over to rowdies to drink and get drunk and make the night hideous, and we cripple and kill more people than you would imagine.
“I have suffered in that way myself. I have had relatives killed in that way. One was in Chicago years ago -- an uncle of mine, just as good an uncle as I have ever had, and I had lots of them -- yes, uncles to burn, uncles to spare. This poor uncle, full of patriotism, opened his mouth to hurrah, and a rocket went down his throat. Before that man could ask for a drink of water to quench that thing, it blew up and scattered him all over the forty-five States, and -- really, now, this is true -- I know about it myself -- twenty-four hours after that it was raining buttons, recognizable as his, on the Atlantic seaboard. A person cannot have a disaster like that and be entirely cheerful the rest of his life.”
What a wonderful thing Fourth of July oratory must have been. John Gardiner, an attorney and political radicalist, got it started in 1785 when he presented his Independence Day address as a literary piece and a model for the development of public orator skills. According to James R. Heintze, that 1785 oration was accompanied by 20 pages of instruction on the art of elocution.
There’s much more about the tradition of Fourth of July speeches on Heintze’s web site, including the unfortunate story of Fletcher Webster, son of Daniel, who responded the next year to Sumner’s 1845 speech. After giving due to the "memory of our Fathers," Sumner, later victim of a beating on the floor of the U.S. Senate, goes on to denounce the impending war with Mexico and war in general.
Webster argued that "war is not morally wrong" and death on the battlefield an acceptable price to pay, which he did in 1862 at the second battle of Bull Run.
One more thing: Happy Fourth!
Photo of Mark Twain (The Associated Press)
Achenblog by Joel Achenbach
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