What Ever Happened to July 4th Orations?

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Occasionally, we read of “4th of July rhetoric.” When was the
last time you heard 4th of July rhetoric?

A generation
of Americans has grown up that has never seen a 4th of July
parade or heard a 4th of July oration.

I can
remember being in a small-town 4th of July parade at the age
of nine. I rode in a horse-drawn wagon. I wore a white hat.
The parade wasn’t so much patriotic as local. It celebrated
horses and riding. My uncle owned a horse. That was Newhall,
California, nearby where they used to film B-westerns, where
the high school is named William S. Hart. The Korean War was
still raging.

That was
the last 4th of July parade I ever saw. I cannot recall ever
hearing a 4th of July oration.

We know
what those orations were supposed to be, at least according
to Hollywood re-creations: a string of platitudes about the
greatness of America. They were aimed at voters by local politicians.
Nobody was supposed to be offended.

But do
we really know about them? They had ceased to exist no later
than the mid-twentieth century. Whatever they were intended
to achieve, they no longer do.


got a bad name during the Vietnam War. But I think the fading
of patriotic orations had begun earlier. Korea was not a popular
war. It is not celebrated in many movies. The few that did celebrate
it are rarely seen on TV today. “The
Bridges at Toko Ri
” was a downer. “Retreat,
” was never big box-office. Neither was “The
Steel Helmet
,” a low-budget effort even for Lippert, which
specialized in low-budget films. I can’t remember the names
of any others, although I’m sure there were some. Books about
the Korean war are not big-sellers.

was a stalemate. It ended with a cease-fire, not a treaty. That
cease-fire is still in effect. America has 50,000 troops in
South Korea today. Why, no one knows.

between Korea and Vietnam, patriotism flagged. So did flags.

was a reaction against the military after 1965. A recent PBS
documentary on West Point pointed out that anti-Vietnam sentiment
led to low morale in the military, which produced morale at
West Point. The narrator is correct: what was a civilian policy
failure was blamed on the military. The genius of the American
system is reflected in civilian control over the military. Yet
in the Vietnam War, contempt for the two Administrations’ policies
in Vietnam produced contempt for the military.

The percentage
of Vietnam vets who joined the American Legion and the Veterans
of Foreign Wars fell sharply after Vietnam.

I am not
sure when 4th of July orations began to disappear. There is
no doubt in my mind that the practice ceased to be a familiar
community event during the Vietnam War.

That something
as universal as the 4th of July civic orations apparently faded
away without anyone’s paying attention is itself a remarkable


are few archival collections of actual speeches delivered after
the nineteenth century. It is as if urban life eroded the appeal
of these celebrations. The larger that cities became, the less
space there was for an oration. A parade is popular because
it is a moving event. Viewers can line up along many blocks.
But an oration is held in one place. What place? In a small
town, maybe in a park or on the town square. But in Los Angeles. . . ?

is a delightful PBS movie, “The Fourth of July,” starring a
young Matt Dillon. The movie is a composite of several Jean
Shepherd stories, just as “A
Christmas Story
” is. Shepherd was one of America’s great
humorists, and unquestionably the most prolific. His nightly
monologues on WOR (New York City) went on for years. Nightly,
he created a fantasy world of Hohman, Indiana, circa 1939. It
was a blue collar town of steel mills. In his published short
stories, there are still faint traces of community participation.
But in “The Fourth of July,” the day is devoted to a parade,
a town picnic, and fireworks. There is no oration. Shepherd
was a careful observer of the minutia of daily life. By the
time he spun his stories, he did not include memories of the

It has
now disappeared.

This brings
us face to face with a problem: there is almost no face to face
any more. In churches, we have such interaction. In a small
business, or in a subdivision of a large company, there is.
But as far as civic ritual is concerned, there are very few
events that are anything like face to face.

All over
the world, cities are getting larger. The world’s population
is becoming urban, and mega-urban. Community must be built or
discovered outside of the existing civil order. The political
chain of command is no longer reinforced by public celebrations.
There are communities of interest, but no community.

political theory has yet to come to grips with this fact. The
ritual of politics is now limited to voting. National party
conventions are highly staged affairs. The sense of participation
is missing for most of the people on the floor of the convention,
and non-existent for viewers. TV networks resist devoting more
than a perfunctory few hours to these events. One “West Wing”
show was devoted to the White House’s threat of an anti- trust
lawsuit to compel the TV networks to run all four nights of
broadcasting. This was not far from the truth.

How does
a nation maintain patriotism — emotional commitment to the
national political tradition — apart from major celebrations?
The Soviet Union had its May Day parade where the weapons rolled
and the troops marched. But that world is gone. The few remaining
Marxist military tyrannies still have parades, but Kim Il-Jong
has never delivered a speech in public. (The same cannot be
said of Castro, who will not stop talking.)

is not personal. Parades are growing fewer. Local orations are
rarely delivered and never televised. There is no communal singing,
other than the National anthem at baseball games. Where is the
participation that Western political theorists from the Classical
Greeks to the present have called for as a substitute for ecclesiastical
participation, which is divisive? It no longer exists.

is a scene in “It
Happened One Night
” (1934), where Clark Gable is riding
in a bus. The bus is lighted inside, and everyone is singing.
For years, I thought that scene was filler. My friend and master
journalist Otto Scott, age 85, tells me that singing on Greyhound
buses was common in those days, though with lights off. Strangers
sang on buses. I cannot identify with such a world.


We no
longer celebrate national unity. That was what the 4th of July
used to be about, but that aspect of it no longer exists. Watching
fireworks is not a celebration. It is merely entertainment.

How will
Americans hold together any sense of nationhood? We may think
we can live without national rituals, but it is difficult for
a society or group to maintain bonds of allegiance without ritual.
The Irish wake, where a Democratic Party ward heeler arrived,
was familiar to viewers of 1930’s movies. But “The
Last Hurrah
,” a book and later a
fine Spencer Tracy movie
, showed the demise of that world.
Television has displaced the ward heeler.

couple of years ago, I saw a TV documentary on South Carolina
politicians who were planning to replace Strom Thurmond. They
were very, very careful about not complaining too much about
old Strom. One of them, a lawyer, only stylistically a Good
Old Boy, said that Thurmond always called every widow in the
state within hours of the funeral. He admitted that after his
father died, he had told his mother that Thurmond would call
her for political reasons. She dismissed the whole idea. Just
then, the phone rang. Sure enough, it was Strom. She came back
thrilled. “What could I say?” he said to the camera. Strom recently
died at age 100. It is a safe bet to predict that widows in
South Carolina will not be receiving condolence calls from either
of their U.S. Senators. That world died with him. Given his
age, what little remained of it he carried on. It was dying
by the time he ran for President in 1948.

So, what
will we celebrate, if we celebrate anything? Tomorrow, I will
go to a church picnic. That is our big church event every year.
There will be no orations, and surely no political orations.
The separation of church and state is taken too seriously.

I will go next door for fireworks put on by my neighbor, a Korean
War vet, who belongs to the VFW. Every year, he buys fireworks
for a neighborhood celebration. He puts on the 4th of July celebration.
The former Air Force One mechanic (Truman through Carter) who
lives down the hill puts on the Christmas party. But remember:
I live in the sticks.

can put on a neighborhood party. Not many people do. There are
few if any festival days remaining when someone in the neighborhood
feels compelled to put on a party in the name of some higher
cause or faith. The kind of Christmas celebration that we see
in “A
Christmas Carol
” is missing in “A Christmas Story.”

is Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. These are
regional events. They do not celebrate the civic order.

May Day
has pretty much died out in the United States, along with the
labor unions that promoted it.

may be Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the Southwest. There may
be other ethnic festivals, such as Juneteenth in Texas. But
I’m never invited. You probably aren’t, either.

So, by
what civic celebrations, through what civic rituals, will national
unity be extended to the next generation? This is a silly question,
coming from someone who has no memory of such events. We have
long since witnessed the steady erosion of emotional commitment
to anything civic.


am a great fan of the 1942 movie, “Yankee
Doodle Dandy
,” which won Jimmy Cagney an Oscar. My father
bought an album of George M. Cohan songs when I was about 12
years old, and I loved them all. I learned them all. I loved
to sing “Over There” a decade before I learned that we had no
business over there. (J. P. Morgan had business over there,
but that’s another story.)

For my
generation, our remembrance of Fourth of July was probably preserved
more by Jimmy Cagney’s dancing than by Thomas Jefferson’s document.
But I notice that fewer and fewer TV stations re-run the film.
The patriotism of Cohan’s lyrics, the celebration of things
Irish, and the glorious singability of his songs have no equivalent
in modern America. I learned those songs through my non-Irish
but highly patriotic father, but my sons are unfamiliar with
Cohan or his music. I doubt that they even have fond memories
of Jimmy Cagney. The television set was usually off in my home
when they grew up.

So, unless
one of the four TV stations I can receive should broadcast “Yankee
Doodle Dandy,” I will not be watching it this year. Now that
I think of it, I have not watched it in many years. It used
to be in my collection, but I can’t locate it. Maybe it’s time
to buy a DVD.


How does
a nation preserve public allegiance in a world in which public
patriotic celebrations are a distant memory of old people? If
self-government does not grow out of personal loyalty, then
big government is far more likely to push people into line.
There was a time of patriotism as a result of 9-11, but that
has faded. I see fewer flags flying on cars. A negative —
anti-terrorism — is not going to gain people’s long-term
commitment to same degree that a positive will. What is that
positive today? If red, white and blue have faded in our minds,
the terror-alert colors of green, blue, yellow, orange, and
red are not going to replace them.

My sense
of the matter is that this country has lost its sense of national
participation. It is no more possible for a government commission
to revive this lost commitment through a national program than
it is for a committee of linguists to persuade people to speak
Esperanto as a second language. This nation’s Presidents have
sent our troops over there by the hundreds of thousands, but
those troops are not singing.

I doubt
that there is a modern George M. Cohan in the wings ready to
compose a rousing song titled “Over Here,” for use by our border
patrol. Where is he, now that we need him?

4, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
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