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Napoleon, the War of 1812, and July 4, 1814

00000001Have you ever wondered what Independence Day celebrations were like like 200 years ago?  For many people, the main event at Fourth of July festivities wasn't a fireworks display or even a concert; it was a sermon. The Fourth of July Orations Collection offers a glimpse into these commemorations and provides important documentation of American politics and identity from 1791 to 1925.

On July 4, 1814, the United States was still embroiled in the War of 1812.  As we saw last year, the American military was poorly trained and equipped compared to the British forces, but by the middle of 1814, its outlook was beginning to improve.  The American navy controlled part of the Great Lakes, plagued British shipping, and captured British warships.  American army troops repelled attacks from the British and allied Native American tribes.  

Throughout early 1814, many Americans were also paying close attention to the situation in Europe. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and exiled to Elba in April of that year - an event that many Americans celebrated, even though it was a victory for their enemy.

00000002Daniel Dana noted the problematic nature of the European peace in an 1814 Fourth of July speech.  Dana was a minister in Newburyport, MA, a member of the influential Dana family, and, for a short time, president of Dartmouth College.  In his speech, he celebrates the "deliverance of suffering Europe" from "France, the scourge of other nations" (8).  However, he acknowledges the awkward position this created for the United States:

Do any object, that to rejoice in the recent triumphs of the allied powers, is to rejoice at the success of our enemies?  Let me ask: Suppose it were a known, or a highly probable fact, that these successes would terminate in our injury; still, are we on that account wholly excused from rejoicing?  Am I permitted to grieve that a great good has come to my neighbor, or to the community, because thereby some degree of inconvenience accrues to myself?  No; the great law of love calls me to rejoice. (15)

Dana goes on to note that it is impossible to tell how the defeat of Napoleon would affect the conflict between Great Britiain and the United States, but remarks, "If peace is the blessing for which above all others, our country pants, the late Revolution in Europe is calculated rather to hasten, than to retard it" (16).  Dana ends his speech with a call for the world to embrace Christianity rather than warfare, hopeful that the nations would "imitat[e] not the Prince of darkness, but the Prince of peace" (18).  Little did he know that the Burning of Washington, a humiliating and traumatic event for the young republic, was less than two months away.

Read the entirety of Dana's 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. 

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July 4, 1813

An address delivered before the Washington Benevolent Society (title page)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).

Page 21Holmes 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.

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The Fourth of July Orations Collection: Independence Day 1812

July 4, 2012, will likely see many Americans partaking in backyard barbeques and enjoying fireworks displays. However, generations of earlier Americans celebrated Independence Day in a different way: with a sermon.

On this day two hundred years ago, the young United States was preparing itself to go to war yet again with a world superpower, Great Britain. In Washington, renowned orator Daniel Webster delivered an impassioned anti-war address on the subject.  The war, he argued, would damage American business and place American liberty in peril:

Under these circumstances we believe that the War, “instead of elevating will depress the national character; instead of securing, it will endanger our rights; instead of improving, it will prejudice our best interests.”

Page from Webster's speechNot only that, but the war would in effect ally the U.S. with Napoleonic France.  What could be worse than that?  Webster can’t think of much.

If there be any among us so infatuated, or so stupified [sic], as not to shudder at the prospect of a French Alliance, let them come and behold the nations that lie mangled and bleeding at the foot of the Tyrant’s throne, in a mixture of moral and political ruin.

Webster’s speech is one of the 450+ sermons and addresses that are now preserved in the Fourth of July Orations Collection in Special Collections.  Spanning 1791 to 1925, the collection documents the issues and debates that mattered to the American people across a broad span of our history.

The collection is completely digitized.  It is available online at the University of Missouri Digital Library, and also in traditional format in the Special Collections Reading Room.

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