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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Appreciating the Right to Disorder - Our Evolving Fourth of July

The way we celebrate the 4th of July has changed.

I read the news from long ago each day, scanning old copies of the Phoenix, and for the last few days (many decades ago), the papers were filled with reports of Fourth of July celebrations. It appears that our earlier celebrations of independence involved more mayhem and being quite independent for the day. It almost seemed a bit more like Halloween, with noise, pranks, costumes, and silliness.

Here is a report from 1864, with a bit of emphasis by me:

The 4th of July was celebrated in Brattleboro in a way to show that we fully appreciate the right to disorder which that great event secured to us. Gates were unhinged, sign-boards transposed, etc., etc. Bonfires, fire-crackers, rockets and other pyrotechny illustrated the occasion like so many exclamation points irradiating an elaborately prepared oration. A large party during the day went on a picnic to Lake Spafford, and at night a brilliant dance came off at the Lawrence. This was followed up on the night of the 5th with another dance at the Wesselhoeft.

The 4th in Putney - The glorious 4th was ushered in at 4 o’clock a.m. with the firing of the national salute; and at an early hour the people began to pour into town by scores and hundreds. At 10 o’clock a.m. the renowned “Invincibles” paraded on the Common, formed in columns and marched through the principal streets headed by the “Flambango Band.” After performing various maneuvers in the manuel of “Shilaleighs” they adjourned until 3 p.m. At 1 o’clock the vast and august body pf people was called to order by the President of the day, and the crowd listened to singing by the choir, and speeches from Rev. A.C. Stevens, Rev. T.M. Dwight, Dr. H.D. Holton, and a song from Mr, Hubbard of Saxton’s River. At 3 o’clock a soul-stirring speech was delivered by Hon. Peter Blowhard, LL.D., which fairly “brought down the house.” The dress parade was comical in the extreme, - the reports of different companies showing that many were off duty. Thus closed the day. We may add that there was a large assembly, estimated at some 1200.

At 8 o’clock p.m., the young men and maidens began to rush for H.M. Lovell’s Hall, where Abbott’s Band was pouring forth music both harmonious and charming. About fifty couples joined in the dance, and all went :merry as a marriage bell.” All passed off quietly and orderly. There was also another gay party (though less in numbers) assembled at Stoddard’s Hall. They, too, were enjoying a “pigeon wing,” and thus all was lively and lovely in Putney on the 4th of July, 1864. There was also a great rush at Darling’s Saloon. A slight sprinkling of fire-works was visible on the Common. There was no particular damage done.

Not everyone enjoyed this independence, however. Here's an unsigned letter to the editor from 1887, with strong words against such the way it was being celebrated.

If we cannot get a mayor and city marshal with backbone enough to take care of the Fourth of July hoodlum, there will be a law and order league, by and by, which will bring the offenders before courts. There is no reason why every man’s premises should be invaded in the dead of night with cannon-crackers and horn-blowing rabble. Neither has this gang any rights upon the streets, which are designed for orderly public passage, and not to furnish avenues for surrounding a man’s house with bedlam and peril. The whole thing, so far from being a celebration of patriotism, is an object lesson in mob law, defiance of private right, and outrage upon public order. It is the kind of education which flowers out in violent attacks on men seeking a chance to labor and in street barricades by striking employees.

This more uptight view of the day eventually took hold, as we no longer are awakened by morning cannons or people marching about blowing horns on the Fourth of July.

Should Independence Day return to its roots as a more mirthful and absurd holiday? Why and how did we lose the spirit?

For Fourth of July die-hards, here is a link to the comprehensive news coverage of the 100th anniversary celebrations in southern Vermont from 1876 with great phrases such as "a desultory explosion of fire-crackers and squibs."


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Independence Day returning to its roots...

My first reaction to the question was to think of the eighty+ shootings that occurred in Chicago over the holiday weekend.

The age- old battle between Chaos and Control certainly has new boundaries to reckon with. I'd say the pandemoniac spirit, going back to Pan the old goat god has now been so perverted, it's hard to feel we are sane enough as a nation to entertain a return to such unbounded antics.

If you consider the time since the article was written, and the World Wars, Vietnam, and Middle East fiascos, the national zeitgeist now mixes violence with alcohol and jingoism, and makes it so that simple merry making in the name of unbounded freedom is no longer practical on a mass scale. Add the effects of a few generations of high-tech media fantasy play--it's probably for the best (relatively speaking) that hijinx are channeled into fried dough, kitsch circuits during daylight hours, and a splash of pyrotechnics on the hill.

I'd like to see a spirit of play abound all year, and to a much greater degree. We've certainly become an uptight and litigious lot, but there's work to be done before hell's doors can be held wide for one and all in the name of a holiday that invokes independence.



The Phoenix, 1885:

"A very laughable incident took place late on the evening of the Fourth in the Brooks House which has occasioned some talk. It happened in this wise: One of the largest bombshells procurable in town was carefully lighted by some miscreant on the sidewalk and bounded with great velocity into the resting place of the hotel, lighting peacefully at the feet of an attache who threw all his energies into a vigorous kick at the smouldering missile, sending it spinning under the sofa in one corner, where rested a well-known guest of the hotel. A wild yell resounded, partially drowned by a muffled explosion and all beheld a Chap in the air kicking and clawing away for dear life. Some say he passed above the pictures, - at any rate such side-splitting views of disturbed repose have rarely been vouchsafed to the good people of Brattleboro. These reflections are induced by hearing the old hymn, “Oh, where shall rest be found.”


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