Updated: Aug 30
Celebratory drinking has fueled Fourth of July festivity from its inception in the years following 1776, when double rum-rations for the troops, endless toasts at formal dinners, and makeshift booze-stalls at public gatherings became norms. And it was not long before high-minded patriots began to worry over the excesses of republican revelry. Before the Fourth of July oration itself became well established, there emerged within and alongside it a recognizable (if unnamed) theme in Independence Day rhetoric: the identification of that very day’s public drunkenness with whatever was ailing the republic.
All was not well in 1837.
Over the years, Independence Day jeremiads have taken numerous forms, from grim warnings about public health and morals, to wry satire of overzealous exceptionalism, to the ferocious indictment of national shortcomings. Many have focused on intoxication as the essential expression of decay, of hypocrisy, even of delusion.
Complaints begin with the sheer recklessness of the traditional program of events. Just as Forbes reminded us this week that Independence Day is “the most dangerous holiday of the year,” and the National Council on Fireworks Safety issued a stern warning against drinking and sparking, in the Boston Recorder of August 3, 1823, an editor bemoaned the “destruction of life and limbs” wrought by that same combination of intoxication and ordnance each Fourth of July, calling it the nation’s “yearly sacrifice” to the memory of its founding.
Abolitionists (many of them strong temperance advocates) perfected the mode of the Independence Day indictment, framing the day’s dissolution as an apt figure for the state of national ideals in the face of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, who commenced his public career with a Fourth of July oration in 1829, opened his 1838 oration in Boston by mocking the celebrations as “the time-honored, wine-honored, toast-drinking, powder-wasting, tyrant-killing fourth of July—consecrated, for the last sixty years, to bombast, to falsehood, to impudence, to hypocrisy. It is the great carnival of republican despotism, and of Christian impiety, famous the world over.” They clepe us drunkards, he suggested, and it was more than a dram of evil that gave the lie to the day’s lofty rhetoric.
“To pass the day in no idle glorying in our country’s liberties, but in deep humiliation for her Disgrace and Shame.”
In his towering 1852 oration “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass did not dwell on the debauched nature of white Americans’ “empty and heartless” rejoicing. But he did characterize the slave-dealer as a man “ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble,” by whom “many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.” The viciously degrading intoxication that facilitated the evil trade itself seemed to echo in the “bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy” of the Glorious Fourth. (For a deeper exploration of the rhetorical links between temperance and abolitionist literature, see John W. Crowley’s essay “Slaves to the Bottle.”)
There remains a recognizably cultural and political divide between those who believe Independence Day is for the unabashed celebration of the heroism and ideals of the Revolution, versus those for whom the highest form of patriotism is the stern confrontation of injustice toward the realization of those ideals. But some writers have tried to walk in the space between. One of the earliest and subtlest of Independence Day complicators was a satirical poem by Royall Tyler, the Boston lawyer and Vermont judge better known for his play, The Contrast (1787), and novel, The Algerine Captive (1797).
Royall Tyler (1757-1826), renowned for his own dissipated youth.
Tyler’s lyrics were dismissed soon after his death in 1826 as as “short unstudied sallies of a sprightly fancy.” But his “Country Ode for the Fourth of July” (1796) is in fact a sharp-toothed satire. Quite popular in its day, it could have been enjoyed as a jaunty piece of rural color with “dialect” effects anticipating James Fenimore Cooper. But, in addition to the remarkable way it mimics the escalating pace of drunken dancing, it has dark notes. In it, the leveling effects of drinking enable delusions of equality in the face of slavery and status hierarchy. Here it is in full, as a contribution to this year’s celebration in which you can find merriment or mourning or both, depending on your temper.
SQUEAK the fife, and beat the drum, Independence day is come!! Let the roasting pig be bled, Quick twist off the cockerel’s head, Quickly rub the pewter platter, Heap the nutcakes, fried in butter. Set the cups, and beaker glass, The pumpkin and the apple sauce, Send the keg to shop for brandy; Maple sugar we have handy. Independent, staggering Dick, A noggin mix of swingeing thick, Sal, put on your russet skirt, Jotham, get your boughten shirt, Today we dance to tiddle diddle. —Here comes Sambo with his fiddle; Sambo, take a dram of whiskey, And play up Yankee doodle frisky, Moll, come leave your witched tricks, And let us have a reel of six. Father and mother shall make two; Sal, Moll and I stand all a-row, Sambo, play and dance with quality; This is the day of blest equality. Father and mother are but men, And Sambo—is a citizen. Come foot it, Sal—Moll, figure in, And, mother you dance up to him; Now saw as fast as e’er you can do, And father, you cross o’er to Sambo. —Thus we dance, and thus we play, On glorious Independent day.— Rub more rosin on your bow, And let us have another go. Zounds! as sure as eggs and bacon, Here ’s ensign Sneak, and uncle Deacon, Aunt Thiah, and their Bets behind her, On blundering mare, than beetle blinder. And there ’s the ’Squire too, with his lady— Sal, hold the beast, I ’ll take the baby. Moll, bring the ’Squire our great arm chair, Good folks, we ’re glad to see you here. Jotham, get the great case bottle, Your teeth can pull its corn-cob stopple. Ensign,—Deacon, never mind; ’Squire, drink until you ’re blind. Thus we drink and dance away, This glorious Independent day!