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Our Barbarous Fourth

( Originally Published 1927 )


(From The Century Magazine, June, 1908.)

IN his first book, Marcus Aurelius gratefully acknowledges his obligation to Sextus of Chaeronea for having taught him to " express approbation without noisy display." Alas ! in all the centuries which have elapsed since the time of this emperor-philosopher, we have not yet learned to appreciate the wisdom of his counsel ; and every holiday, in our country, at least, is made the occasion of a strident outburst of hoodlumism. Hallowe'en, Election Day, Christmas, New Year's, Inauguration Day, and Fourth of July, each witnesses our thoroughfares thronged with shouting and disorderly crowds, provided with every noisy de-vice from the tin trumpet to the dangerous pistol, while shrieks of whistles shrill maddeningly above the street clamor and the booming of bells. Accidents occur, the sick are made worse by these frenzied demonstrations, and the young fail to appreciate the significance of the day which is being so unbeautifully celebrated.

Of all these " noise-fests," the most shocking is the Fourth of July, and its grim statistics probably furnish a sadder commentary on human folly than that afforded by any other celebration in the world.

I often wonder what would be the emotions of a stranger, quite ignorant of our institutions, if he arrived in our country —" God's Country," as we affectionately call it — just before midsummer, and glanced over our great newspapers. After reading some items, such as the following, would he be apt to await a great and glorious anniversary, or the ad-vent of a day of strife and terror?

The horrible Fourth will soon be here. . . . In all the big cities the Fourth of July is now looked forward to with apprehension and looked back upon with a shudder, and even with horror.


The Board of Health has established supply stations of tetanus antitoxin throughout the city. The National Volunteer Emergency Service has established field dressing stations in the thickly populated sections. The hospitals also expect their usual busy day.

And then he would read head-lines like these :


After 0ur stranger had grasped the fact that this was not the record of a battle or other public calamity, but merely some details regarding the manner in which a great nation commemorates the most solemn event in its history, I doubt whether he would have an exalted opinion of a people who could desecrate so noble a memory by so barbarous an observance.

The fitting celebration of Independence Day is a question on which patriotic Americans are separated into two widely divergent parties, one claiming that it ought to be observed as noisily as possible, the other believing that our national birthday is too glorious an occasion to be marred by din and disorder. Of course we know that even among those who favor a boisterous observance there are many who cannot tolerate it themselves, and escape to the country in order to avoid the tortures of the " awful Fourth"; just as we know that a large proportion of the noise-makers, including the small boy and the big boy, too, is heedless, if not ignorant, of all that our holiday stands for, and thinks of it only as a time when clamor may reign unrestrained?

The figures which indicate the price that we pay for each of our yearly celebrations are so appalling that one would suppose a knowledge of them would be the most powerful deterrent to our annual massacre. This, unfortunately, is not the case. For the past five pears, the Journal of the American Medical Association has endeavored to collect statistics setting forth what the celebration of the Fourth costs in life and human usefulness; and although these are admittedly incomplete,— compiled, as they are, almost entirely from newspaper reports instead of from records of hospitals, dispensaries, and physicians,—they form the gravest possible arraignment of the recklessness which is willing to pay such a price for a " jolly day." They show that during the celebration of five national birthdays, from 1903 to 1907 inclusive, eleven hundred and fifty-three persons were killed, and twenty-one thousand five hundred and twenty were injured! Of the injured, eighty-eight suffered total, and three hundred and eighty-nine partial, blindness ; three hundred and eight persons lost arms, legs, or hands, and one thousand and sixty-seven lost one or more fingers. But these figures, startling as they are, convey only a faint idea of the suffering, both physical and mental, which went to swell the total cost of these five holidays; in this we must also include the weeks and often months 0f anguish of the injured, the suspense of entire families while the fate of some loved one hung in the balance, the horror of a future of sightless years, the pinching poverty now the lot of many because of the death or maiming of the breadwinner.

But putting aside the question of fatalities, of invalidism, of blindness, of penury, the effect on the sick of a long continuance of explosive noises, varying in intensity for days, or even weeks, and deafening for twenty-four hours at least, merits serious consideration. That the return of our "glorious Fourth " is looked forward to with dread by our hospital-sick, as well as by those who are concerned in their care, was made pathetically clear to me last summer when I interviewed the superintendents of almost all our municipal institutions. One and all deplored the needless suffering inflicted on their patients by our barbarous manner of celebration, and begged me to bring the matter to the attention of the Police Department.

In this connection, a letter from Dr. Thomas Darlington, Commissioner of Health, is of interest:

I agree entirely with you in regard to the serious in-jury inflicted upon patients in the hospitals occasioned by the common practice of exploding firecrackers and torpedoes in the immediate vicinity.

Professor William Hanna Thomson took the same stand when he stated :

I rejoice to hear that your Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise proposes to have measures taken to lessen the explosions of firecrackers and firearms in the neighborhood of our city hospitals on the Fourth of July. Such noises are particularly injurious, both from their nature and their being of an unusual kind, to patients with any high fever, such as typhoid, and it will be a great service to humanity to have them suppressed, if not altogether, as most sane people will acknowledge, yet at least near institutions harboring a variety of patients.

One feature of our celebration which has not yet been touched upon is the cost. Last year, New York City boasted of an outlay of four million dollars, while the country as a whole burned up the huge sum of twenty million dollars in fireworks. Finally, we must add the vast sum lost by conflagrations before we are in a position to realize the whole price that we pay for our day of jollity.

It is interesting to remark how strongly the press is beginning to voice its protest against our "noisefest "— a protest now largely seconded by public opinion, although a few years ago it would have been regarded as woefully unpatriotic. Here are a few excerpts gathered last July from widely scattered papers, which are unanimous in decrying our present-day observance:

The most ridiculous and senseless celebration of any great national event.— New York Commercial.

What the connection is between explosives and patriotism, no one has ever undertaken to describe. Utica Press.

The people must be educated to appreciate the folly of dynamite as a factor in patriotism.— Chicago Daily Tribune.

Time to consider how our annual worship of the God of Noise is to be abolished. This blatant and death-dealing Divinity long ago usurped the shrine occupied by Patriotism. Every year we carry and lay on his bloody altars human sacrifices, like the tribute of maidens to the Minotaur — only they are mostly boys. And so, year after year, the " Glorious Fourth" becomes more and more a dread festival of blood and fire and noise, of death and mayhem.— Minneapolis Journal.

The traditional gunpowder and dynamite orgies of In-dependence Day are wrong. Firearms and explosives have no place in any sane scheme of city life.— Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The day on which human folly too frequently runs amuck. . . . That the achievement of our national independence, brought about through the necessary spilling of great quantities of blood, should be commemorated by the very general loss of life and limb is as unnecessary as it is deplorable.— Union (Manchester, N. H.).

Americans are realizing that noises, maimed and wounded children, and big conflagrations should not be the sequence of the Nation's birthday.— Toledo Blade.

What ought to be the most enjoyable day in the calendar, is made a day of general carnage and a day toward which adults look forward with dread and whose passing they look back upon with a sense of mighty relief.—Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).

It is the money burned up in useless and dangerous ex-plosives that is wasted, serving no better purpose than to leave the city with a headache the morning after.—Republic (St. Louis).

The din . . . is hideously vulgar and utterly uncivilized . . . discreditable to those who make it and to the civil authorities who permit it.— Evening Wisconsin (Milwaukee).

I fain would haul down the red flag of our modern Fourth of July and, in its place, run up the flag of peace, quietude, rest, contentment, and personal safety.— Life (New York).

The total results of our last " jolly celebration" of Independence Day were 164 killed and 4,249 injured, many of them being maimed for life! Is this method of celebration really worth while? — Journal Amer. Med. Assn. (Chicago).

How can any satisfaction be taken in the perversion of a holiday to purposes of disorder and destruction, and how can any pride be felt in methods of observance which inevitably condemn hundreds—if not thousands—to be shot, burned, maimed, and otherwise disfigured and tortured in propitiation of the great god of senseless uproar? — New York Tribune.

As for those who are in favor of continuing our present mode of celebration, I can find but one who has written openly in its defense, and even then there is a suspicion that the article is ironical.

It is better to shock the sensitive nerves of a few grown people than to have the boys and girls grow up molly-coddles, with the fear of gunpowder in their hearts and no appreciation of a boisterous holiday, rich in patriotic appeal, and full of the "rough house" spirit of healthy Americanism.

This, if seriously meant, reaches the height of absurdity; for if there is one thing of which little children should have a wholesome dread, it is gunpowder, and I know of no other country in which such a weapon is put into the hands of babes.

It is customary with us to excuse ourselves for Fourth of July accidents by putting all the blame 0n the small boy. This, however, seems scarcely fair. The blame for much of the annual massacre rests not upon the careless small boy, but upon the careless big parent who places in his hand the instrument of destruction. And an even greater share of the blame is due to public apathy, which not only allows the annual suspension 0f sane and safe ordinances regulating the use of firearms and explosives, but also permits the disorderly few to injure the health and disturb the repose of the orderly many.

As proving that noise is the great desideratum in fireworks, a few extracts from various catalogues will prove interesting. Here, for instance, is a piece the figures of which, according to the thrilling description, move about " whistling and screaming in fantastic, wild, unearthly furore, terminating with a fusillading report," and another which bursts " with terrific reports that can be heard for miles," while a third explodes " with reports equal to six- and twelve-pound cannons," and a fourth like " an imitation rapid-fire Gatling-gun." An appreciative testimonial lauds a " Salute of LYDDITE SHELLS, nothing giving such a tremendous report having ever before been heard in our celebration," while other goods are emphatically praised as being " loudest and best," or " big in noise." One particular piece is noticeable because it consists of a string of fifty thousand firecrackers. As corroborative of all this, which tends to show that noise is what is desired above all else in fireworks, comes this published interview with a dealer, which is certainly illuminating :

The exploding cane is always a winner so long as it is not suppressed by the police. Blank cartridges come up at the head of the list. Nothing gives a celebrator so much pleasure as flourishing a pistol and shooting several times in rapid succession. There is just one thing that determines the efficiency of any contrivance designed for celebrating the Fourth, and that is, the volume of sound it makes. For that reason the cannon firecrackers are popular, and always will remain so.

This, then, is what excites the patriotic fervor of the partisans of a strident Fourth, though it does seem as if their enthusiasm would be somewhat lessened in placing side by side with the above this extract from the Journal of the American Medical Association, which considers the causative factors of the after-math of last Independence Day:

Of the 102 deaths aside from tetanus, gunshot wounds caused twenty, giant crackers caused thirteen, and thirteen deaths were due to explosions of powder, torpedoes and dynamite. Ten deaths were due to falls or runaways caused by firecrackers. . . . The limit of tolerance is reached, however, when we know that thirty-one per-sons were burned to death. . . . The principal cause of the most mutilating wounds is by far the giant cracker. . . . This year 1,489 injuries, including thirteen deaths and eight cases of lockjaw, were due to the giant cracker.

It is a reflection scarcely calculated to gratify our national pride that the United States is the only civilized country which observes the greatest of its fete-days in such an uncivilized fashion. Our sister re-publics, France, Switzerland, and Brazil, rejoice full as heartily as we over their national birthdays, but they celebrate them in a sane, safe, wholesome, and happy way, and not in our barbarous manner. As regards the observance of the French fete, July 14th, Marcel Prevost, the eminent writer, has kindly de-scribed it for me in the following letter :

The fete of July 14th is, above all, in France, a day of popular rejoicing; politics do not enter into it. It affords an opportunity of illuminating the town-halls and public buildings, and of indulging in the pleasure of dancing in the open air. In a word, it is a huge kermess. It has always taken place in order and tranquillity. Accidents are rare, even in Paris. And since the review at Longchamps has humanely been arranged to take place at nine in the morning, instead of at noon, the troops do not run the risk of sunstroke, which sometimes saddened the early fetes of July 14th.

The following touchingly beautiful account of the observance of Switzerland's birthday was sent me by Dr. Eugene Richard, Member of the Council of State :

Year by year the people of Switzerland keep the anniversary of 1291, which was in real truth the foundation of the Confederation. Does that treaty —founded by the inhabitants of the Forest Cantons, borrowing from justice her most equitable principles (even down to that of arbitration between states), and guaranteed by the rigid energy of its signers — receive a commemoration worthy of its splendid simplicity?

No clamorous ceremony, to drown the voices of the past, instead of blending with them. We give proof of our remembrance of the First of August by a few brief manifestations during the closing hours of the day.

This national solemnity, surprising as it may seem, finds no place in the list of legal holidays. No one interrupts his daily tasks, for such was the way with the men of 1291, who, returning to their homes, took up again the care of their herds.

As night descends, the bells on all the churches are set to pealing in a sublime concert of gratitude, rising with penetrating poetry through the serenity and softness of a summer night. Shortly afterward bonfires are kindled along the heights. Here and there will be a modest illumination or rare display of fireworks. Occasionally an orator reminds the people of the significance of their rejoicing and holds up for imitation the character of our ancestors.

Whoever witnesses this spectacle realizes the strength and the sincerity of a patriotism that, without clamor or ostentation, draws fresh life by reverting to its original sources. Switzerland lives in the heart of her citizens. A noisy demonstration would take from us the benefit of a thoughtful mood.

In order to produce an impression both profound and salutary, national celebrations must needs have a pervading tranquillity, which enhances their dignity, and leads mankind to earnest thought.

According to a very charming letter from his Excellency, Senor Joaquin Nabuco, Brazilian Ambassador, it appears that although his countrymen do not observe their festivals with that calm, patriotic fervor which characterizes the Swiss, and although they rejoice in noise as well as in color, there is nothing to show that their holidays are marred by that disorder and by those horrible lists of casualties and accidents which disgrace the celebration of our great anniversary.

The following delightful description of Germany's greatest festival, the Emperor's birthday, has been given me by Professor Hugo Munsterberg of Harvard University :

When I look backward to my boyhood days in Germany and ask myself from what sources my young patriotism was steadily supplied, I cannot value highly enough the influence of the patriotic celebrations in my school and my native town. The dearest memory be-longs to the Emperor's birthday. I know quite well that the present Emperor was born in January; but when I hear the word " Emperor's birthday," it still always awakes in me first the date of the 22d of March—the old Emperor's day.

Long before, the school planned everything for the grand day; patriotic and religious music, songs and patriotic declamations by the younger pupils, short dramatic plays with motives from German history, given by the older boys, and always an enthusiastic oration by one of the teachers. In Sunday clothes we gathered in the school ; everything was decorated with flowers and gar-lands and flags, and the whole school continuously, year by year, was lifted up in a common pride and enthusiasm. Two or three of the happiest morning hours were devoted to the celebration, and the jubilant hurrah for the beloved Emperor at the end of the historic oration was the only sound of the day.

Then we streamed out into the decorated streets, enjoyed the picturesque parades and went to the concert at the market-place, where patriotic marches kindled our youthful emotions. The afternoon belonged to parties at home, where school friends gathered and enjoyed their games with a historic flavor and the chocolate with a patriotic abundance of cakes. Quiet, mellow days they were, and any loud noise would have appeared to us boys as a desecration of the festivity ; and yet the loyalty which I stored up in those March days of my boyhood still sup-plies me amply when I have, year for year on the 27th of January, to make my Emperor's birthday orations to the German-Americans.

An interesting account of the manner in which Japan celebrates her fetes was kindly written for me by his Excellency Viscount Aoki, recently Japanese Ambassador to the United States :

In Japan we have three great national holidays. They are November 3d, the present Emperor's birthday; New Year's Day; and February 11th, the Day of the Accession of the Emperor Jimmu, the first ruler of the Empire of Japan.

An illustration of the Emperor's birthday celebration in Japan will be sufficient to give a general idea as to how our national holidays are celebrated at home, for there is little difference in the way of its celebration between the above-named three holidays, except in minor details :

On the Emperor's birthday all offices, schools, banks, and large business houses are closed. The national flag is hoisted on all public buildings, schools, and on most of the private houses all over the country. High dignitaries, both civil and military, who are present in the capital, proceed to the Palace of Tokio to present before the throne their congratulations for the occasion, while those in the country and abroad send their congratulatory messages by mail through the Minister for the Imperial Household. In every school all over the country the day is observed in a form appropriate to the occasion. One hundred and one salutes are fired from every fort in the empire. The imperial review of the army is in regular order of the celebration of the day, when hundreds of thousands of the enthusiastic public gather around the drill-ground and all along the imperial route to cheer their august and beloved sovereign and to witness the glorious military parade of the day, while all of his Majesty's ships fire twenty-one salutes (otherwise known as the national salute) and appear in full dress. The Emperor entertains in the palace at breakfast all the foreign representatives and high dignitaries of the empire.

And now let us listen to what some of our prominent Americans, whose patriotism none can assail, . have to say about our present-day observance. First " Mark Twain," in whose heart of hearts the small boy is enshrined, and who certainly would not needlessly curtail even one of his little pleasures. Does he approve of our day of " burning " patriotism? No; for he has written to me :

I am with you sincerely in your crusade against the bedlam frenzies of the Fourth of July.

And William Dean Howells :

I am glad that you have added to your noble and beneficent ambition to suppress all unnecessary noises the wish especially to deal with the barbarous and obstreperous celebration of the Fourth of July. I am sure that Confucius did not invent gunpowder, and that it was not Chinese wisdom which gave us firecrackers. Until we cease to glorify our national birthday like a nation of lawless boys we shall have no right to claim that we have come of age, and the civilized world must regard us as savages until we stop behaving like them.

And one of our poets :

It is good news that you are turning your attention to the subject of the irrational manner in which Americans celebrate their independence. I am sure you will not merely advocate the suppression of meaningless noise, and that you will indicate such fetes, ceremonies, pageants, and celebrations in general as are rational and instructive ; also, that you will hint at a broader and more inspiring use of the day than either arousing old and debasing international enmities or the display of indecent self-glorification.

As to the suppression of Fourth of July noise, with its dangers to nerve, limb, and life, the whole sensible population will wish you a continuance of that success which has followed your efforts on a narrower scale in the metropolis. I am reminded that in the sweet and peaceful valley from which I write the national holiday is looked forward to with apprehension, on account of the dreadful, sleep-scattering noises of the night and dawn before. On the Fourth, why should we not have music instead of noise, art, instead of gunpowder? Every community in the United States will have occasion to bless your name and memory if you can do something substantial toward making more quiet and more ennobling the anniversary of the day that gave the Republic birth.

Here, too, is a letter from Dr. Weir Mitchell :

If anything can be done to lessen the noise of the Fourth of July celebrations, it will also be efficient in lessening the amount of injuries inflicted by the desire of man and boy to make meaningless noises. Not only does it leave the Fourth of July as an annually recurrent unpleasant memory, but there is the same absurd tendency to extend the nuisance of noises into other days. Thus at present in this city, and I presume elsewhere, the first of the year is ushered in by a vast chorus of idiotic noises produced by steam-whistles, firecrackers, and horns, accompanied by a solemn bell-ringing, such as in old times called those who watched for the coming of the New Year to prayer.

That our Commissioner of Health fully recognizes the necessity of bringing about a saner mode of celebration is shown by the following letter :

Your plan to include, as part of the activities of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, the question of a more sensible celebration of the Fourth of July, meets with my most hearty approval. The long list of killed and wounded, which comes as the result of what should be a day of patriotic inspiration, is certainly appalling, and indicative of how far we have strayed from its true spirit.

Your efforts to induce the people of this country to celebrate its most joyous anniversary in a manner fitting and appropriate, provide an object which should enlist the sympathy and cooperation of all who have the welfare of their country at heart.

And finally . I offer this letter from the Hon. Henry L. West, Commissioner of the District of Columbia, which shows that even officialdom is willing to risk the charge of lack of patriotism, if by so doing our boys and girls may be saved from the horrors of a day of catastrophes:

I am thoroughly in sympathy with any movement which will result in decreasing the habit of carelessly using gun-powder on the Fourth of July and which will also result in a more quiet celebration of the day.

In Washington the authorities have already taken a step in the right direction in forbidding the explosion of the so-called giant firecrackers, nor is it allowable to place torpedoes on the street railway tracks.

I believe that the Fourth of July can be celebrated with as much patriotism and more sanity if the wanton use of gunpowder on that day is condemned.

And now, before taking up the question of what might be suggested as a more reverent and appropriate mode of honoring our day of days, let us look back a hundred years or so, and see how our first national birthdays were kept. Here it is encouraging to learn that nothing resembling in the least our wild orgy of noise was dreamed of. Indeed, had such a suggestion been breathed to the sons and daughters of our Revolutionary heroes, they would probably have felt that the plan savored more of China, the land of noise and the home of the firecracker, than of their own country, and have been profoundly shocked at the mere idea that such an anniversary could receive so murderous a recognition. A glance over the time-yellowed pages of the Evening Post, printed more than a century ago, or those of the New York Packet, which was old when the Post was young, shows how differently the Fourth was observed by those who had seen burst into full flower that glorious patriotism which had given it birth. The proclamations, announcements, poems, and advertisements which appeared in those July days of long ago are touching in their patriotic, though grandiloquent, fervor. Here, for instance, is a bit from an announcement of the Tammany Association which appeared in the " Season 0f Fruit, Year of the Discovery, 310" (July 1)

Brothers. This Day, like the Sun which illuminates it, sheds a bright and diffusive luster, and welcomes all to partake of its radiance. Once it witnessed the blood-stained field, the plundered town, the ravaged coast, the sinking warrior, the defenseless town, the despondency of our Guardian Genius. But the Great Spirit watched over the western clime, and now its approach is hailed with the incense of Peace; and the veteran rejoices in his scars, the hoary chief and his patriot sons assemble with congratulations where once the noise of battle was heard, and the Eagle towers aloft majestic and unawed.

In these days the celebration began with unfurling the flag, a salute of thirteen guns and ringing of church-bells, followed by a procession and exchange of courtesies between the Governor and the President. Then came the march to church, where odes, ad-dresses, anthems, and orations were in order with, of course, the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Next, luncheon, with more salutes and bell-ringing and then, evening having come, performances in theaters and gardens and the meeting of various patriotic societies. Everything connected with the performances was patriotically reminiscent. In the gardens, transparencies and fireworks portrayed temples of immortality, obelisks of heroes, and figures of Justice, Fidelity, Fame, and Piety, all radiantly inter-mingled with shining pictures of Washington and of the Arms of the United States, with its brilliant stars, while at the theater, patriotic plays were given, such as " Bunker Hill " or the " Death of Warren and the Glory of Columbia " or the " Retrospect of the American Revolution." This all refers to New York, but it is probable that virtually the same observance obtained in other large cities.

Let us now consider what might be substituted for our present-day mad and dangerous celebration, which serves only to keep in remembrance one feature of our great struggle, the cannonading and musketry-discharges which shook the country during the arduous days of its birth. I sincerely believe that our national birthday can be observed with heartfelt patriotic rejoicing, and yet without the slightest danger to life or limb, without any nerve-racking noise or display of hoodlumism, and without any of the extravagant out-lay which has characterized our former celebrations. Flags can float, national music be played and sung in places now given over solely to the deafening din of cannon firecrackers, the Declaration of Independence be read at all of our public buildings, where inspiring addresses may also be made, and street-displays, such as processions with floats, beautiful as well as instructive, furnish delightful object-lessons of the greatest events in our history. Then, at night, we may have illuminations, both private and municipal, and displays of fireworks in open places, where the exhibitions can be conducted by experienced men, thus avoiding all danger of the shocking accidents which now sadden our celebration. Let us, on this day, forget the noise of battle and the passions of international strife, and remember only the wonderful spirit of sacrifice, and patriotism, and brotherhood which animated our Revolutionary heroes. Let us, who know what the day means, endeavor to make it both memorable and illuminating to those who do not, by opening the hearts of the children, of the poor and ignorant, of the distressed and disheartened alien within our gates, to at least a partial significance of what we honor in our glorious festival. Let us enter personally into the work, giving tender endeavor as well as means to the task of making the occasion the happiest of all the year to the ignorant and the wretched. Let us give them a day of liberty in the country or in the parks, where they will see our beautiful flag floating everywhere about them, and where their untrained ears will become accustomed to the ringing rhythm of our national melodies. Let us give them mementos of the Fourth, such as flags and pictures of our heroes and of those whom we love as well as honor. There let them listen to the story of the birth of our Republic, and have it told simply and, if necessary, in their 0wn tongues, so that all can feel how great were those who made the country free, and how wonderful is the boon of liberty now extended to the oppressed of other countries.

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