Spirit of ’31

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Dana D. Kel­ley

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.

—–––––❖–––––—

Dana D. Kel­ley is a free­lance writer from Jones­boro.

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