Spirit of ’31
There is something momentous about a large and diverse population aligning along a universal plane of thought.
That’s what still happens every Fourth of July in America.
It was visible in Facebook feeds from sea to shining sea, which featured quotes, photos and videos honoring our national birthday. Posts were as varied as people themselves, and all highlighted what so proudly we hail. Some posted snapshots of their families adorned in red, white and blue. Some filmed fireworks. Some shared famous speeches or essays.
Every expression centered around the same theme, whether comic or romantic or dramatic. The love of liberty evokes the full spectrum of spillover emotions; the tear erupting from joy and hope is no less damp than that born of sympathy for struggle and sacrifice.
All were encompassed in achieving our Revolution; all are enshrined in our remembrances.
Nearly two-and-a-half centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was adopted, Independence Day still harmonizes us to the common chorus of patriotism on parade.
John Adams predicted as much, with uncanny accuracy. He foresaw a national anniversary festival “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”
The only smudge on his crystal ball obscured the date; Adams thought it would be July 2, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t technically adopted until July 4.
One notable and unexpected observer of a Fourth of July celebration in 1831 was a young French fellow who would, seven years later, publish a book chronicling his stay in America and his observations on our democracy.
The pen of Alexis de Tocqueville was not idle during his visit, and in addition to abundant notes Tocqueville also wrote numerous letters to his family in France. Those personal messages, contemporary to his daily activities as a visitor, are easier reading than his scholarly masterpiece work detailed with analytical scrupulousness and annotation.
The voyage across the Atlantic took 35 days, and a month at sea in those days and conditions is essentially incomprehensible for us today.
Tocqueville kept up his spirits, however, and shared stories of the adventure. Writing to his mother, he described his fellow passengers: “We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. … I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew.”
When Tocqueville arrived in New York, he immediately began sharing his revelations regarding American propensities about work ethic, hospitality and food consumption.
He noted that the typical day began early with a couple hours of work before breakfast at 8.
“[W]e were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day,” he wrote on May 14 to his mother. “We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper. …
“[W]e are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets,” he added. “Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack.”
In another letter the next day he reported the “incredible contempt” Americans had for distance on this sprawling continent.
Navigation on “immense” rivers and canals in America made travel consistently possible at “4 leagues an hour [12 knots],” he wrote. “Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.”
In June, while visiting Sing Sing (Tocqueville’s official purpose in visiting America was to study prisons), he wrote to his father that “this population is one of the happiest in the world.” He credited American contentment to a universal spirit of industry that left no time for “troubling the State.”
“The more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth,” he said, “that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied.”
On July 4, 1831, Tocqueville was visiting Albany for administrative meetings, and encountered the state capital’s celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence.
The parade and ceremony culminated in a large church, where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in its simple language (he characterized the reading as “in no way a theatrical performance”). But the effect he beheld awed and astonished him.
“It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there,” he wrote in a letter.
“In this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with [a previous] one … with which, for a moment, it shared all these generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”
Goosebumps in July continue to be a uniquely American tradition. May it always be so.