Item of the Day: The Harvard Lyceum (1810)
Full Title: The Harvard Lyceum Published in 1810 & 1811 Cambridge: Published, Semi-Monthly, by Hilliard and Metcalf. 1811
No. 2, Vol. I
Cambridge, July 28, 1810
CELEBRATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
To every Americana the name of liberty is a grateful sound. Talk to the drowsy Turk, or the ignorant Spaniard, of the enjoyment of his natural rights, and he feels no emotion; but the man, who has once tasted the sweets of freedom, has learnt, that without it life is a worthless gift. Every native of this happy land, taught to dread slavery as that severest curse, can well appreciate his privileges; and when called upon to surrender them, and submit to foreign restraint, indignation and honor nerve his arm, and he prepares to show the world how dear the temerity of those must cost them, who attempt to strip him of what nature gave.
These remarks were suggested by the recent celebration of our glorious anniversary. The ardour of patriotism, which was kindled by the recurrence of this day, has in a degree subsided, and given place to sober reason. Let us seize this opportunity to make some remarks, which demand the exercise of that faculty. The present manner of commemorating the birth day of our country is sanctioned by a custom of thirty years’ continuance. Such age surely deserves reverence. Do not fear lest I should refuse this just respect – I will not inconsiderately deny the propriety of the usual mode of expressing our joy on this joyful occasion; but I will leave it to my countrymen to conclude, how far this inference follows. What, then, I will ask, is the object of this celebration? Is it merely to hear an oration and prepare for a splendid entertainment? Any other day in the calendar is equally appropriate. The true object of this pageant is, to pay a just tribute to the heroes and sages who achieved our independence, to take a retrospect of our country’s struggles, and, by the price our freedom cost, to learn to estimate it justly, and inhale a spirit of patriotism, which shall be its future Palladium. So far as the present mode of commemorating this day answers these purposes, so far it is worthy of a free and enlightened people; if it fails of this effect, it is worse than trifling; it vitiates the populace.
How far does this celebration promote the designs of the festival? How few, amidst so much parade, remember the cause! How few, by calling to mind the bloody scenes of the revolution, are made better men or more zealous patriots. I wish I could say otherwise of my countrymen; but the truth is obvious. Observe the crowd on this occasion, and calculate how large a proportion come merely to see such a concourse; how many to join their acquaintance, equally idle, and equally ignorant. The lower grade of citizens, illiterate and indigent, meet to gaze at their superiours and salute their equals; another equally worthless grade, better clad indeed, but full as light, assemble on this day, because it affords an opportunity of dissipating time, which would otherwise hang heavy on their hands, and of appearing learned and patriotick. To either of these classes of citizens the anniversary ceremony brings no advantages – it adds to the profanity of the first, binds still stronger the bonds of poverty, and increases their misery – it confirms the vanity and self-conceit of the second, without improving their minds, their patriotism, or their virtue. But there is another order of citizens, of whom I can speak with more pleasure. Yes, my countrymen, we have men, whose hearts, as they assemble on this sacred day, beat high in unison with the patriotick pulse of ’75. Such men view the day in a proper light, and wish to recount the deeds of our forefathers, that they may learn to go and do likewise; and while they learn the value of our inestimable privileges, they make a silent compact with heart and hand, gloriously to defend and transmit them unimpaired.
Such are the feelings of this valuable part of the community, and such their object, when they assemble to listen to the orator of the day. But are these orations generally such, as to favour and promote this object? Alas! My country, I blush, when I answer in the negative. How long shall the feeble triteness, or the unmeaning fustian of these performances disgust the friends of American and the defenders of her literary character? If these are correct specimens of American talents and learning, well may we plead guilty to the imputations of weakness and want of literary taste, which are urged against us by Europeans. The Edinburgh reviewers bring as a proof of our small progress in learning, that no one has yet been able to tell the story of that revolution, which gave us freedom, in a tolerable style. Perhaps the time is not far distant, should the Corsican usurper survive, when his ministers will affirm that America, who has never been able to celebrate her birth day with proper splendour and ability, deserves not independence.
I hope no one will accuse me of sinister motives, or improper bias, when I hazard a few remarks on the late independence orations. Let those who have read Mr. Townsend’s oration judge, whether my remarks on it are just. In this I think his division of the active causes of our independence into “feelings, manners, and principles,” is scarcely logical. It is a division without nature, or if it is a natural division, he leaves it very obscure. Nor can I call my country’s fortunes, as Mr. Townsend does, a “comedy of errours.” Even though Columbus might “blunder” toward this continent, (to speak in the elegant language of Mr. Townsend,) yet I cannot grant, that we “blundered” into independence, nor can I hope that our country will, at some future time, “blunder” into glory. On the whole, I cannot think this performance worthy to have been written by an alumnus of Harvard University, or to be heard by the enlightened citizens of our metropolis.
Mr. Lincoln’s performance, though not marked with that limping feebleness, which sinks Mr. Townsend’s below criticism, is yet as offensive from its noisy rant. When he talks of connexion with Britain he seems furious. But he should recollect, that showing hatred toward other countries, is not evincing love for his own. Should my companion tell me, that he hated all mankind beside myself, so far from thinking it followed that he loved me, I should be well persuaded of the contrary. Mr. Lincoln also strives to prove the misery brought upon the inhabitants of the Indies by British connexion. A greater proof of miscalculation and ignorance does not appear in the whole work. We know, that in the war which subdued the Indies, as in all other wars, many were slaughtered, and perhaps unnecessary barbarities committed; but event he enemies of the British government acknowledge, that the people of India are much happier under the regular and pacifick establishment of the English, than when murdering and tormenting one another with intestine wars.
I feel relieved from a burden, when I pass from such productions, to the oration of Mr. Metcalf, delivered at Dedham. This deserves a considerable share of praise. The writer shows some genius and laudable goodness of heart. When this gentleman defends the conduct of our ancestors on virtuous principles, I hope every American joins sincerely in his opinion. He declares, that our fathers fought in defence of rights – this is in fact, and what all ought to know. Here mark what Mr. Townsend says – that our country was “of age to be free;” she had found out this, therefore she was free. A small share of common sense can easily show the folly and absurdity of this reasoning. I cannot stand to refute such palpable misstatements; my object being to contrast Mr. Metcalf’s correct judgment and honourable principles, with the ignorance and perverse opinions of Mr. Townsend.
In the arbitrary notion, that we ought to be free, there are no limits. It will apply even now to any part of our Union, any part of France, any part of England.
The foregoing remarks are necessarily extremely general. I do not say, that the orations of preceding years were not equally faulty, but I do hope, that none so pitiful will ever again insult us in a printed pamphlet. I hope, for the honour of my country and the good of my fellow-citizens, that these duties will, in future, be discharged by men, who can justly eulogize past worth; who can add to our literary character, and strengthen our love of country.