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Wartime words: Independence Day messages from Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt

James G. Blaine, a 19th century Republican Party notable, wasn't good at reading the political tea leaves. Three times he made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Yet he had a keen eye for the essential contours of our nation.

"The United States is the only country with a known birthday," Blaine observed.

That is not exactly true — plenty of countries, many also former British colonies, proudly celebrate their independence days.

But by marking our nation's birth each summer, we can look at the Fourth of July as a kind of historical graph paper. On it, we can plot how we've been doing since 1776, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence boldly announced: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."

Accordingly, the day is traditionally an occasion for speech-making. In 1783, a Boston town meeting prescribed an annual July Fourth oration: "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 forever continue to flow from the auspicious epoch."

Given those grandiloquent specifications, it is not surprising that July Fourth witnesses a certain amount of vacuous rhetoric. John Burroughs, a popular writer of the 19th century, observed: "That which distinguishes this day from all others is that then both orators and artillerymen shoot blanks."

Some speakers have known better than to try to top the Declaration of Independence's lofty sentiments. They have simply read Thomas Jefferson's words. In 1898, the Tribune asked two participants in Chicago's first celebration of the holiday to share their memories of July 4, 1830. They recalled that a certain Dr. Egan "attempted" to read the Declaration of Independence. The occasion was also marked by the crowd's consumption of several barrels of whiskey.

Yet some years, events have demanded a full speech from the U.S. president. So consider the accompanying excerpts of remarks by Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, delivered on July Fourth in years when our nation was at war.

The year that Wilson spoke, the Tribune reported that the Fourth of July had become a celebration of freedom for another people too. On July 4, 1918, with France threatened by a German invasion, honors were paid to U.S. soldiers and Marines who had fallen in France's defense:

"Old women and children living in the vicinity of American cemeteries fairly smothered the graves of America's heroic dead with fresh flowers."

Yet despite being born during a war, and defended in subsequent wars, the United States of America doesn't mark the anniversary of its independence with martial display or chest-thumping nationalism. Unless it's deployed overseas, a local National Guard unit might march in a town's parade — and, of course, we cheer. They're our young men and women, and in their faces we can glimpse the Minutemen who defended our as-yet-unborn nation at Lexington and Concord.

But then come the 4-H clubs, volunteer fire companies, antique cars and tractors, veterans' organizations, high school bands, baton twirlers and clowns throwing candy to the children. Afterward there are backyard barbecue parties. As columnist Erma Bombeck once observed, that kind of July Fourth speaks realms about America:

"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism."

rgrossman@tribpub.com

President Abraham Lincoln in an address to Congress on July 4, 1861, shortly after the beginning of the Civil War:

"This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. … Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled — the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains — its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets."

President Woodrow Wilson at Mount Vernon on July 4, 1918, as American forces were engaged in World War I:

"I am happy to draw apart with you to this quiet place of old counsel in order to speak a little of the meaning of this day of our nation's independence. The place seems very still and remote. It is as serene and untouched by the hurry of the world as it was in those great days long ago when General Washington was here and held leisurely conference with the men who were to be associated with him in the creation of a nation. From these gentle slopes they looked out upon the world and saw it whole, saw it with the light of the future upon it, saw it with modern eyes that turned away from a past of which men of liberated spirits could no longer endure … We here in America believe our participation in this present war to be only the fruitage of what they planted. Our case differs from theirs only in this, that it is our inestimable privilege to concert with men out of every nation what shall make not only the liberties of America secure but the liberties of every other people as well."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 4, 1942, not quite seven months after the United States entered World War II:

"Never since it first was created in Philadelphia, has this anniversary come in times so dangerous to everything for which it stands. We celebrate it this year, not in the fireworks of make-believe but in the death-dealing reality of tanks and planes and guns and ships. We celebrate it also by running without interruption the assembly lines which turn out these weapons to be shipped to all the embattled points of the globe. Not to waste one hour, not to stop one shot, not to hold back one blow — that is the way to mark our great national holiday in this year of 1942. To the weary, hungry, unequipped Army of the American Revolution, the Fourth of July was a tonic of hope and inspiration. So is it now. The tough, grim men who fight for freedom in this dark hour take heart in its message — the assurance of the right to liberty under God — for all peoples and races and groups and nations, everywhere in the world."

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