Happy Independence Day! While we celebrate with fireworks, picnics, and other festivities, nineteenth-century Americans often attended public speeches by popular religious and political figures. The Fourth of July Orations Collection, made up of over 450 sermons and addresses, documents the issues that mattered to the American people from 1791 to 1925, and allows us to recapture some of the spirit of Independence Days Past.
On Independence Day* 200 years ago, the United States was 13 months into the War of 1812, and the outlook wasn’t good. The American military, cobbled together from state militias and lacking professional leadership, lost battle after battle to smaller but better trained and equipped British forces. By the end of the summer of 1813, the Americans would be forced to flee in disarray from the advancing British. Public sentiment had never been in favor of the war (as we saw in last year’s Independence Day address); heavy losses and the looming possibility of defeat made the war even less popular, especially in New England.
This year’s featured speech comes to us from Abiel Holmes, a clergyman and author from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is perhaps best known to us today as the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (the author) and the grandfather of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (the Supreme Court justice).
Holmes presented his speech before the Washington Benevolent Society in Washington, D.C. As was common in his time, the first half of the speech is a lengthy panegyric on the virtues George Washington. However, midway through the address, Holmes changes direction. He condemns the current war and calls for a return to Washingtonian values, principles and policies, particularly that of neutrality.
That most wars are unnecessary, and therefore unjustifiable, the history of the world plainly shows us. … Republics, no less than despotic governments, have been addicted to war, from the lust of gain, a passion for glory, or some unhallowed motives, equally hostile to their prosperity, and dangerous to their liberties. (21)
Holmes goes on to draw a parallel between warlike Sparta and the United States, suggesting that the new republic would be pulled apart by foreign and civil conflict. He adds, “Whether he [Washington] would ever have sacrificed our peace, or hazarded our liberties, from any considerations, not far more imperious than those alleged as the grounds of the present war, you may conclude, with moral certainty, from his avowed principles, and his pacific administration” (22).
You can read more of Holmes’ speech online. The entire Fourth of July Orations Collection is available at the University of Missouri Digital Library, and also in traditional format in the Special Collections Reading Room
*July 4, 1813, was a Sunday. To avoid conflict with religious observances, Independence Day festivities in many communities were moved to July 5, the following Monday.