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Chapter 28: the city Oration,—‘the true grandeur of nations.’—an argument against war.—July 4, 1845.—Age 34.

In civic pride Boston has been conspicuous among cities. This distinction, now modified by expanded territory and miscellaneous population, she inherited from the earliest times. She came out of the Revolution with a history worthy of perpetual record. The British ministry and the American people alike singled her out as foremost in that struggle. The memorials of her devotion were left in halls where Liberty was born, and in graveyards where patriots slept. In the years which followed she bore a good repute for commerce, education, and public spirit. Her citizens rejoiced in her prosperity and fame, and regarded her with an affection almost personal. In thought and aspiration they identified themselves with her as individuals and political bodies have rarely been identified. She has been called—sometimes in irony—the American Athens; but whatever may be her title to that name, in this at least she may claim kindred with the leader of Greece,—that her citizens have with singular unity of spirit made her honor and well-being their own. In all her festal days,—the welcome of statesmen, the honors accorded to illustrious visitors, the burial of benefactors, the commemoration of historic events,—conducted with grace, decorum, and a common sentiment,—many a stranger has remarked how well sustained is her civic life, how abiding among her people is the thought of her history and of their duty to serve her. Among the influences which kept warm and vigorous this feeling of identity, the continuous celebration of our National Independence on the Fourth of July, during a period when there were fewer patriotic anniversaries than now, is entitled to a place. Her population in 1845 had reached 115,000; and, although then ranking in numbers as the fourth city in the United States, she was still strongly marked by the [338] individuality which had been the growth of her history,—often described by visitors as very much like an English town.

The annual oration was at first commemorative of the ‘Boston Massacre,’—an encounter between the British troops and the populace, March 5, 1770, resulting in the death of five of the inhabitants, to whom their fellow-citizens accorded the honors of martyrdom. On the first and on each succeeding anniversary the people met to listen to some orator of their choice. With the achievement of Independence in 1783, the day of the annual celebration was changed by a resolve of the citizens in town meeting at Faneuil Hall;1 which, after reciting that ‘it has been found to be of eminent advantage to the cause of America in disseminating the principles of virtue and patriotism among her citizens,’ declared ‘that the celebration of the fifth of March from henceforwards shall cease, and that instead thereof the anniversary of the 4th day of July, A. D. 1776—a day ever memorable in the annals of this country for the Declaration of our Independence—shall be constantly celebrated by the delivery of a public oration in such place as the town shall determine to be most convenient for the purpose; in which the orator shall consider the feelings, manners, and principles which led to this great national event, as well as the important and happy effects, whether general or domestic, which already have, and will for ever continue, to flow from this auspicious epoch.’

From that time to the present the orations have been delivered in unbroken succession,—in the Old South Church and Faneuil Hall, or, during recent years, in more convenient resorts, as the Tremont Temple, Music Hall, and Boston Theatre. The mayor and aldermen, common council and other city officers, have marched in procession with music and military escort to the appointed place, attended by a concourse of citizens who have filled the seats and aisles. The list of orators includes some who have left an enduring memory; but conspicuous by their absence from it are the names of Webster and Choate. Sometimes a veteran orator has been summoned from his retirement, as Mr. Everett in 1860, and Mr. Winthrop in 1876,—each speaking with undiminished vigor, and adding another to his many triumphs. But generally, from the early period to the present, young men under thirty or thirty-five have been selected [339] for the service. John Adams wrote in 1816 of these orations2:—

The town of Boston instituted an annual oration in commemoration of this catastrophe [ “ the battle of King Street, on the 5th of March, 1770” ], “upon the danger of standing armies stationed in populous cities in time of peace,” and among the first orators were such names as Hancock, Warren, and Lovell. These orations were read, I had almost said by every body that could read, and scarcely ever with dry eyes. They have now been continued for forty-five years. Will you read them all? They were not long continued in their original design, but other gentlemen with other views had influence enough to obtain a change from ‘standing armies’ to “feelings which produced the Revolution.” Of these forty-five orations I have read as many as I have seen. They have varied with all the changes of our politics. They have been made the engine of bringing forward to public notice young men of promising genius, whose convictions and sentiments were conformable to the prevailing opinions of the moment. There is juvenile ingenuity in all that I have read. There are few men of consequence among us who did not commence their career by an oration on the 5th of March. I have read these orations with a mixture of grief, pleasure, and pity. Young men of genius describing scenes they never saw, and descanting on feelings they never felt, and which great pains had been taken that they never should feel. When will these orations end? And when will they cease to be monuments of the fluctuations of public opinion and general feeling in Boston, Massachusetts, New England, and the United States? They are infinitely more indicative of the feelings of the moment, than of the feelings that produced the Revolution.

The ex-President's criticism of the orations which preceded the year in which he wrote applies equally to many which followed. Those which belong to the quarter of a century immediately succeeding the Revolution are, as a class, vapid, elegiac in tone, and delighting most in tributes to Greek and Roman heroism. The historian who seeks in them materials for illustrating our own heroic period—the sifting of traditions, the fixing of sites where deeds worthy of note were done, and narrations of what individuals and communities did for the common cause— will find his search unrewarded. This was too prosaic a task for young orators who were revelling in the first ecstasies of patriotic eloquence, and has been reserved for their successors, who have well performed it on recent centennial anniversaries.

When the generation which shared in the Revolution had passed away, there was no considerable improvement in the [340] substance of the orations. There were well-rounded periods on the self-sacrifice of the Fathers, the beneficence of diffused knowledge, the conscientious exercise of the right of suffrage, the dangers of innovation, of party spirit, and of extended territory. While the anniversary itself helped to maintain the sentiment of nationality, he whose place it was to express its significance contented himself too often with mere commonplaces of patriotism. What was said was not vigorous or pointed enough to stimulate citizens to earnest reflection and good deeds. During the decade preceding 1845, the orators themselves, in opening sentences, sometimes confessed a decline of public interest in the festival; and they strove to revive it by the selection of a more impressive theme. The three city orators who immediately preceded Sumner were Peleg W. Chandler in 1844, Charles Francis Adams in 1843, and Horace Mann in 1842. They each spoke with earnestness and power; the first two on historical subjects, and the last on popular education, to which he was then devoting himself with extraordinary industry and enthusiasm. But among the orations which were delivered during three quarters of a century, Sumner's was the first which attacked a custom and opinions approved by popular judgment and sanctioned by venerable traditions. The others, even when speaking well for the country or summoning to some important duty, never jarred on popular thought and sentiment, but were, as John Adams described them, ‘conformable to the prevailing opinions of the moment.’

The committee of the city government, charged in 1845 with the duty of selecting the orator,—of which the Mayor, Thomas A. Davis, was chairman,—formally notified Sumner of his appointment on April 24. By whose nomination he was chosen is not now known; but it appears from his correspondence that he undertook the service reluctantly, and only after considerable pressure. While his name had very rarely been mentioned in the newspapers, and he had made no mark as a public speaker, he was well known among leading citizens for his learning and accomplishments. The theme he chose grew out of convictions held for some years, and dwelt upon in his private correspondence. The substantial doctrines of his oration are briefly developed in letters written in 1839 and 1843-44, already printed in these pages;3 and while in Europe, and after his return, he wrote [341] earnestly against any war between the two kindred nations, England and the United States.4

He delayed the preparation of his oration; and Felton, who took as much interest in his success as if the occasion were to be his own, urged him more than once to set himself diligently to it. ‘Do not,’ he wrote, ‘let one day pass without laying at least one course in the immortal edifice.’ And again: ‘And now don't fail to begin the great discourse. You are to have a numerous and distinguished audience, and it will not do to postpone it.’ Sumner wrote the oration mainly in June, although probably keeping the subject in view most of the time after his acceptance. But his mind was full of matter, and by habit he rarely completed a popular address until the day of its delivery.

The Fourth of July, 1845, was a day of sunshine and clear air. Sunrise was announced, as was the custom, by the firing of cannon. In the early morning the children of the Warren-Street Chapel, eight hundred in number, bearing bouquets, wreaths, and evergreens, took their usual march around the Common to a pavilion on the Public Garden, then but a waste instead of the beautiful parterre which it now is. The Common was filled with a throng of people, largely visitors from the country, with booths, soldiers on parade, and thousands of boys enjoying their sports.5 The American colors waved over the public buildings. The United States ship Ohio lay in the harbor decked in flags from top-mast to water's edge. Joyous patriotism shone in the faces of the inhabitants.

About ten and a half in the forenoon, the city authorities, under the escort of the Washington Light Guard, walked in procession, led by the Mayor and orator of the day, from the City Hall to Tremont Temple.6 The latter was quickly filled with an audience of two thousand people. On the platform behind the orator was a choir of one hundred girls, selected from the public schools, clad in white, who were to sing the national anthems. Below it, at his left, sat the Washington Light Guard, with their [342] officers in front; and at his right, in the front rows of seats, in full uniform, were the superior officers of the State militia, and the officers of the United States army and navy who had come from the forts in the harbor or the naval station at Charlestown. In previous years there had been no equal military display during the commemorative exercises. The national army and navy service, it was thought, had been neglected before in the festivities of the day, and their presence on this occasion had been specially sought. Altogether the military guests numbered at least one hundred. In the audience, which was one of general intelligence, were many of superior education and position. The whole spectacle was one fitted to inspire a speaker whose heart was full of a great theme.

Mr. Chandler writes: ‘It was a remarkable occasion. The audience was large; expectation was high: there was an apprehension of something remarkable, which was fully justified by the event. Sumner's appearance, style, and manner were very fine indeed. I remember him as if it were but yesterday.’ After the prayer, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and music from the choir, the mayor introduced the orator. Sumner's presence, as he came forward, drew undivided attention. The prominent citizens in the audience had met him in society or in the routine of his profession, and others had noted him on the street; but probably the greater number of his hearers now saw him for the first time. He was then the impersonation of manly beauty and power: of commanding stature, his figure no longer slender as in student days, but well developed; his features finely cut, his dark hair hanging in masses over his left brow, his face lighting with the smile which always won him friends at first sight. He wore a dress-coat with gilt buttons,—a fancy of lawyers at that period,—and white waistcoat and trousers. His gestures were unstudied and followed no rules; the most frequent one was the swinging of the arm above the head. His voice was clear and strong, resounding through the hall, but at times falling in cadences mellow and pathetic. Seldom has there been seen on the platform a more attractive presence than his, as now, at the age of thirty-four, he stood for the first time before the people assembled to hear him. His oration was fully in his memory, and he spoke for two hours without referring to notes except for statistics.

First invoking in grave periods the memory of the Fathers, [343] and stating his purpose ‘to inquire what, in our age, are the true objects of national ambition,—what is truly national glory, national honor,–what is the true grandeur of nations,’ he at once denounced the recent annexation of Texas as the occasion of a probable war with Mexico, and the assertion, in a warlike tone, of our title to disputed territory in Oregon claimed both by the United States and England. This reference to pending questions provoked an open but faint disapproval from a few friends of

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