How The Fourth of July Should be Celebrated
( Originally Published 1927 )
BY JULIA WARD HOWE
I HAVE been invited to present some hints as to the proper observance of our great national holiday, the Fourth of July, and the false education implied by warlike celebrations in a nation whose corner stone is peace and whose freedom is a standing protest against old-world militarism.
The topic carries me back in thought to days of childhood, when, in my native city of New York, the endless crackling of torpedoes, the explosion of fire-crackers and the booming of cannon, made the day one of joyous confusion and fatigue, culminating in a distant view of the city fireworks sent up from Castle Garden. It then seemed to be a day wholly devoted to boyish pleasure and mischief, sure to be followed by reports of hairbreadth escapes and injuries more or less serious, sometimes even fatal The day was one of terror to parents, who, while deeming it unwise to interdict to their sons the enjoyment of gun-powder, dreaded to see them maimed or disfigured for life by some unlooked-for accident. It was not uncommon then, nor is it now, to read of some sudden death, some irretrievable blindness or other injury caused by the explosion of a toy cannon or the misadventure 0f some fireworks on " the Fourth," as the day has come to be called.
These were tragical events truly, but they appear less real to me in remembrance than do the laughing faces of my young brothers who were allowed to arrange a small table for their greater convenience on the pavement of ancient Bond Street, a very quiet byway in those days. From this spot went forth a perpetual popping and fizzing, varied by the occasional thud of a double-headed firecracker. Shouts of merriment followed these explosions. The girls within doors enjoyed the fracas from the open windows, and in the evening our good elders brought forth a store of Roman candles, blue lights, and rockets. I remember a year, early in the thirties, in which good Gideon Lee, a democratic Mayor of New York, issued an edict prohibitive of all home fire-works. Just as we had settled ourselves in the de-termination to regard him thenceforth as our natural enemy, the old gentleman's heart failed him, and, living next door to us, he called to say that he would make a few exceptions to the rule for the day, and that we should count among these.
Removing to Boston some ten years later, I found the night of the third of July rendered almost sleep-less by the shrill gamut of gunpowder discharges. The ringing of bells and the booming of cannon destroyed the last chance of an early morning nap, and in self-defense most people left their beds and went forth to see what could be seen. This was some-times a mock procession of the Antiques and Horribles, so called in parody of the Ancient and Honor-able Artillery, so well known in and about Boston. Or, one might join the throng on the Common, where a brass band performed popular airs, American and Trish-American. I do indeed recall certain notable performances connected with the usual observance of the National Festival. I was a dweller in Boston when Charles Sumner, then chiefly known as a rising lawyer and incipient philanthropist, was appointed to deliver the Fourth of July oration, and chose for his theme the true grandeur of nations. This grandeur he found entirely in the conquests of peace as opposed to the popular worship of military renown. His audience, composed in part of men in soldier's garb, were but little in sympathy with his views, and I remember the performance as having called forth more irritation than approbation.
These prophetic glimpses of good which seem far from the practical questions of the time do visit earnest souls in this way, like some ray of light from an undiscovered star. The same train of thought, at about the same time, took shape in Mr. Longfellow's fine poem on the Arsenal in Springfield. It may be remembered that the poet was Mr. Sumner's most intimate friend. While the two men held the same views regarding the great questions of the time, Mr. Longfellow's bonhomie rendered him very inapt to give offense, while Sumner seemed destined to arouse violent opposition in those from whom he differed.
I remember another Fourth of July at which Ed-ward Everett's measured rhetoric and silver voice held the attention of a numerous assemblage. Mr. Everett was certainly master of the art of graceful oratory, and was always heard with appreciation, even by those who felt little satisfaction in his public career.
One of Ralph Wald0 Emerson's finest poems was written for the celebration of the Fourth in his own town of Concord. The two opening lines of this dwell always in my memory
"Oh! tenderly the haughty Day Fills his blue urn with fire."
But, beautiful as they are, the solemn lesson of the poet exceeds them in interest.
"United States ! the Ages plead, Present and Past in under-song; Go, put your creed into your deed, Nor speak with double tongue.'
" Be just at home, then write your scroll Of honor o'er the sea, And bid the broad Atlantic roll A ferry of the Free."
Here is a thought picture which we may love to dwell upon. Emerson, the descendant of the Puritans, himself a transfigured Puritan, reading these stanzas of his, whose fire is tempered by the weight of thought, in that old town of Concord, where, in his own phrase :
"— the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world."
A fiercer fight was then before us, whose issue is simply prefigured in the words : " Be just at home." Surely, we might take this saying for a national motto, its reminder still needed, though the slave is freed from the whip and fetter. Of the day on which our Independence was declared John Adams said :
" It ought to be commemorated as the day 0f deliverance by solemn acts of devotion t0 God Almighty. It ought to be celebrated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore."
These words show how comprehensive was the view which the old statesman took of a Nation's holiday. He desired that all classes and all ages should participate in the joy expressed. The time which has elapsed since his memorable utterance has brought nothing to diminish this joy. It has however brought into being a new society for which " pomp and parade, bells, guns and bonfires " are less available for g00d than pleasures of a more elevated character. We now desire a celebration which shall speak less to the bodily sense and more to the inner sense. This is because the historic development of the race goes ever forward. John Adams would have had both sober and wild rejoicing over the birth of a new state, representing a new order of things. We stand face to face with the question : How shall we maintain 0ur deliverance from old-world trammels? This freedom which was declared in 1776, what are its conditions, what its true uses?
History is full of paradoxes whose meaning does not lie upon the surface of what we see. Many of these recall the riddle of Samson : " Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." Even so, the things that make for peace often come out of contests full 0f violence and blood-shed, while the elements of anarchy ripen best in the submission enforced by autocratic despotism, the ominous quiet which is sure to be broken by some terrific social cataclysm. In the first instance, which alone concerns our theme, we must remember that the bloodshed came, not of the peaceable principles of eternal justice, but of the effort on the part of tyrants to gainsay and oppose these. It follows from this that in commemorating the events which have had most to do with the liberation of mankind from the yoke of despotism and superstition, we must keep in view these underlying truths which in themselves involve no violence, but the vindication of which may involve great sacrifices of devoted lives.
The fact that our heroes fought for freedom against almost hopeless odds should be brought to mind, and their names should be hallowed in perpetual remembrance. But, if we would crown their conquest, we must give more attention to the good for which they died than t0 the mere circumstance of their death. The ordinary procedure of mankind is quite the opposite of this. They are proud of the military success, careless of the civic and ethical gain. Even the Christian church accentuates too much the death of its Founder, is too little concerned with the truth for which he really gave his life. A Lent of prayer and fasting, with dramatic repetition of the betrayal and crucifixion of the Blessed One, may merely bring with it suggestions of devotion and gratitude. But far more important would be a Lent of study of the deep meaning of his words and works. It makes one sick at heart to think of the formal rehearsal of great events by those who have no understanding of their true significance, and can therefore claim but a small part in their real benefit.
The parallelisms too of history are very instructive. In the confusions and difficulties of our own time it is useful for us to learn that men in other times have had similar problems to solve, and have found their solutions. It is helpful for us to know that our pure and blameless Washington was, in his day, the subject of malignant slander and mischievous cabal. Our own best public men are liable to the grossest misinterpretations of their utterances and of their measures. Unworthy demagogues to-day will present very dangerous evils in a light attractive to the multitude. This has always been so. No man marches to victory over a bed of roses. The roses crown his perseverances, but the thorns lacerate his. bleeding feet. But, with these sad recollections, we must keep in sight the immortal hope sung by the poets, reasoned out by the philosophers, and acted out by earth's saints and heroes, the hope which is justified by the great progress of the ages, the elevation of the natural man into the dignity of the spiritual man.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who saw one 0f the great Italian festivals in which the poet Dante was especially commemorated, saw also the pressing need of wise counsel and brave action throughout the struggling country, and asks what will become of the new Italy if her young men shall " stand still strewing violets all the time?" We may ask too what will become of 0ur new Republic if the hours of its highest festival continue to be occupied with fustian oratory, gunpowder enthusiasm, and the exercise of every poor and mean trade, the sale of toys, bad food, and worse liquor ?
Now, I would by no means abridge the childish pleasure of the day, if I could do so. We must allow children the explosion of animal spirits, and they will delight, as some grown-up people will, in much that is irrational. But the day itself is too important to be made one of mere noise and parade. It should be made highly valuable for impressing upon the minds of the young the history of their national liberty, and its cause. Besides 0ur own young people, we have with us the youth of many nations, whose parents have come to our shores, drawn by various hopes of gain and benefit. These children will form an important part of our future body politic, in whose government to-day, their parents are, too, easily able to participate.
The question will be, how to make the Fourth of July a true festival, a national solemnity, without forgetting the claims of the young to be amused, as well as to be instructed. In the first place, I should think that the day might fitly be made one of reunion, by different clubs and associations of culture and philanthropy. Those whose thoughts go deep enough to understand the true conditions of human freedom, might meet and compare their studies and experiences. Very fitly, after such a meeting, each individual of them might seek a group, to whose members he might present a popular statement of the philosophy of freedom. Mothers, who should be the true guardians of peace, might well come together to study all that pro-motes its maintenance. In gatherings of older children, prize essays might be presented and discussed. I can imagine civic banquets, of a serious and stately character, in which men and women might sit together and pledge each other, in the exhilaration of friend-ship and good feeling.
I would have processions, but I would have them less military in character, and more pacific in suggestion. Congregations of the various religious confessions might walk in order, headed by their ministers, who should all exchange the right hand of fellowship with each other. I would have no monster concerts, which cannot be fully enjoyed, but divers assemblages, at which music of the highest order should be presented. Letters of greeting should be exchanged between cities and states, and the device of the day should be, " In the Name of the Republic." The history of the war which culminated in 0ur national independence should be amply illustrated by graphic lectures, and possibly by living pictures. Mr. John Fiske has an admirable talent for bringing the past and its heroes as vividly before us as if he himself had seen them but the day before. If it were possible to multiply his valued personality, I would have many sketches given in various places, of the brave struggle of 0ur forefathers and of those who were foremost in it.
" Going out of town to avoid the Fourth," has been a phrase so common in my time that it ceases to awaken attention, and is taken as a matter 0f course. I cannot indeed wonder that people of refined tastes and sensitive nerves should seek to free themselves from the noise and crowd of the usual observance. The question is whether, with a wiser administration, the same people might not be led to gather, rather than to disperse for the celebration.
How would the following programme answer?
On the evening of the third 0f July, quiet gatherings in halls or churches, in which the true love of country should be explained and illustrated. How many a name, half 0r wholly forgotten, would then be recalled from oblivion, and with it the labor and sacrifice of some noble life, some example precious for the community !
The morning of the Fourth to be ushered in by martial music, and a military display sufficient to recall the services of the brave men who gave our fathers liberty. At ten o'clock orations in various public buildings, the ablest speakers of the common-wealth doing their best to impart the lesson of the day. At one a Spartan feast, wholesome and simple. No liquor to be served thereat, and none to be sold during the day. From twelve to half past four in the afternoon, I would have exercises for the children 0f the public schools, examination of classes in American history, prizes given for essays on historical and patriotic subjects. Later, a gathering in public gardens, and a tea, with fruit and flowers, served for the children of the city. In the evening, the singing of national anthems, tableaux vivants and fireworks, and in some form, a pastoral benediction.
To these exercises I would add the signing of a pledge of good citizenship. We take much pains, and not unwisely, to persuade men and women to sign a pledge of total abstinence from alcoholic liquors. But why should we not go further than this, and lead them to pledge themselves to some useful service in the community? This pledge might be either general or particular in its terms, but the act of signing it should imply a disinterested public service 0f some sort, a participation in some work useful for the health, beauty, or order of the city, without other reward than the badge or button which would represent the agreement entered into. I would have the history of other Republics brought forward on this day, and especially, the heroic struggles of our own time. Among these, I would certainly accord a place to the story of the great-hearted men to whom Italy owes her freedom. And I would if I could compel the attendance of our men and women of fashion upon lectures in which the true inwardness of European society should be exposed, and the danger shown of the follies and luxurious pomp which they delight in imitating, and which, however sthetically adorned and disguised, are for us to lead in the pathway of moral and intellectual deterioration.
I would have the great political offenses of the century fitly shown, the crimes of Louis Napoleon, the rapacious wars of Germany, France and England, the wicked persecution of the Jews. Now that we are nearing the close of our nineteenth century, it becomes most important for us that its historic record should be truly rehearsed, its great saints and sinners characterized, its wonderful discoveries and inventions explained.
The very meager programme suggested here for our great day may appear to many Utopian and impossible. I shall be glad if it can .serve to pave the way for kindred suggestions, to which individual minds may give a broader and more varied scope. Let us unite our efforts in behalf of a suitable and serious honoring of the day in such wise that every heart, old and young, shall have therein its especial joy, and every mind its especial lesson.
I had at one time a plan of my own, of setting apart one day in the year as a Mother's Day. This festival was to be held in the interest of a world's peace, and for quite a number of years it was so observed by groups of women in various parts of the country, while in England and even in far-off Smyrna friends met together, with song, prayer, and earnest discourse to emphasize the leading thought, which was that women, as the mothers of the race, knowing fully the cost of human life, should unite their efforts throughout the world to restrain the horrors of war, and to persuade men to keep the sacred bond of peace. It now occurs to me that we should make our Fourth of July a Mother's, as well as a Father's day. In the public programme of every town throughout our vast Commonwealth, women should have some word to say and some part to play. What we have already seen of their culture and ability is enough to assure us that their participation in such proceedings would intensify their good features and discourage their objectionable ones. And as in the forms of oratory with which we are familiar, much is made of what the world owes to America, we might suggest that our women speakers might especially bring forward the antithesis of this question, in another, viz., What America owes to the world.