Friday, July 4, 2014

Featured Manuscripts: July Fourth Orations

"The Grand Jubilee of Liberty": Examining July Fourth Orations in the Early American Republic

"To rejoice amidst sorrow--to celebrate with joy and gladness of heart, national events in the gloom of national calamities, at least, has the appearance of a very difficult task."[1]

So began Edward St. Loe Livermore's oration in the city of Boston to commemorate the thirty-seventh anniversary of America's independence in 1813. This opening passage, delivered in the midst of the War of 1812, reflects how current events weighed heavily in the annual tradition of July Fourth orations. As interesting historical sources of the early republic, scholars have frequently examined these orations, as well as the entirety of July Fourth celebrations, in order to gain insights into the political culture and collective memory of the young nation.

The Lloyd W. Smith Collection contains a number of these printed July Fourth Orations from Boston, Massachusetts, here's a look at a few of them:

George Blake, July 4, 1795, Boston

"On this day, Liberty, the offspring of America, is Nineteen years old; and since the earliest moment of her existence, not one year has yet elapsed without bearing with it this customary testimonial of joy, this sacred offering of gratitude to that divine Being, from whose pure essence she at first emanated."[2]

Republican George Blake[3], a young, up-and-coming Boston lawyer and politician, marked the tension the country was facing in his 1795 oration:
George Blake's printed oration, 1795
From the late inhuman outrages on our commerce, we have a most unquestionable proof, that our former enemies [the British] have not yet become our friends.---That their fall (terrible as it was!) did only for a time choke the respiration of vengeance, and interrupt the prosecution of their designs.[4]
He called on Americans to sustain the vigilance that led them to resist the first encroachments on their rights, even in times considered peaceful and prosperous. His rhetoric recalls the popular (often mythical) discourse of the American Revolution in which the population resisted the British oppression as one. The attacks on American shipping, by Britain in this instance but France as well, were another such abomination, and Blake calls on the country to take this opportunity to stand firm and make an example of such encroachments.

John Callender, July 4, 1797, Boston

John Callender's printed oration, 1797
"The preservation of our independence is intimately connected with a preservation of those sentiments and opinions which gave birth to it."[5]

In 1797, the honorary orator for Independence Day in Boston was John Callender, a 1790 graduate of Harvard College and a lieutenant in the Boston Light Infantry. Callender would later go on to serve in the State Legislature and as secretary of the Massachusetts Society of Cincinnati. Callender spent considerable time in his oration speaking on tense relations between France and the United States at that time, largely the result of French seizures of American shipping.

Following the tradition of recognizing "the 'important and timely aid' received from the French alliance [during the revolution],"[6] Callender quickly called on his fellow citizens "to be prepared for all events," including war.[7] Utilizing rhetoric even twenty-first century Americans would recognize, Callender channeled the popular understanding of unity handed down from the Revolution to call for a preparation to defend those liberties against all European encroachment:

Callender calling on Americans to prepare for the worst.

Edward St. Loe Livermore, July 4 1813, Boston

"If the celebration of the day requires the exhibition of smiling countenances and a joyful appearance, I fear the anniversary cannot be celebrated at this time comporting with the laudable institution of the town." [8]
A page from Livermore's oration, 1813
Barely a generation removed from the American Revolution, as international events continued to seesaw, the United States saw itself at war once again with Great Britain. Somberly, the city of Boston set out in its tradition to commemorate the birth of the nation, but this year the Federalist dominated city heavily tempered the celebration. To protest 'Mr. Madison's war,' Federalists withheld many traditional events, including "public dinners, fireworks, illuminations, entertainments---everything, in fact, beyond what was required by law or decency."[9]

Edward St. Loe Livermore confronted the difficulty of celebrating during a time of war during his oration. Unlike the events that preoccupied parts of previous orations, the events taking place in 1813 in the United States could not be ignored or pushed to a secondary note in the oration. Livermore came right out and let it be known how his oration would proceed, "The disastrous state of our national affairs, and the occurrences which have led to our distresses, will my theme on this occasion."[10]

Livermore, true to his word, questioned the causes of the war maintained by the Madison administration, contrasting the "unjust and impolitick (sic) war," [11] with the common sense of the American Revolution.


The Fourth of July remains the pinnacle of the public commemoration of this country's revolutionary beginnings. The celebrations during the early republic period, especially the annual oration, frequently reflected issues pressuring the still young nation. These domestic and international tensions infused the celebrations with intense debate over the legacy of the revolution and the direction the country was heading at that moment. Each of the orations featured above illustrates how orators from both political persuasions were able to harness the pomp and circumstance of the holiday to unleash political commentary on the premier issues of the day.

[1] Edward St. Loe Livermore, An Oration Delivered July the Fourth, 1813 At the Request of the Selectmen of Boston: in Commemoration of American Independence, (Boston: Printed by Chester Stebbins, 1813), 3. Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park.
[2] George Blake, An Oration, Pronounced July 4th, 1795 At the Request of the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, in Commemoration of the Anniversary of American Independence (Boston: Printed and sold by Benjamin Edes, Kilby Street, 1795), 5. Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown NHP.
[3] All biographical information about the orators covered in this essay was gleaned from: James Spear Loring, The Hundred Boston Orators Appointed by the Municipal Authorities and Other Public Bodies, from 1770 to 1852; Comprising Historical Gleanings Illustrating the Principles and Progress of Our Republican Institutions (Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1853).
[4] Blake, An Oration, 21.[5] John Callender, An Oration, Pronounced July 4, 1797 At the Request of the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston, in Commemoration of the Anniversary of American Independence (Boston: Printed and sold by Benjamin Edes, Kilby-Street, 1797), 5. Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park.
[6] Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 49.
[7] Callender, An Oration, 14.
[8] Livermore, An Oration, 3.
[9] Travers, Celebrating the Fourth, 194.
[10] Livermore, An Oration, 6.
[11] Ibid., 7.
This blog entry by Bruce Spadaccini, Thomas Edison National Park.

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