By Guy Page
(Adapted from speech I gave today at Vermont Liberty Independence Day Celebration at the Vermont State House.)
John Adams of Massachusetts, an architect and signer of the Declaration of Independence, predicted a short time after its 1776 signing:
“The date – July 4 – will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Today I’ll talk about how Vermont has celebrated the Fourth in speeches, in public service, and on the battlefield. First things first – who represented Vermont at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia?
The short answer is ‘No-one” because Vermont wasn’t a state and indeed was claimed by New Hampshire, New York, the British Crown. Vermonters like Ethan Allen told them all to butt out. You know what they say about Vermont and New Hampshire – always neighbors, never close. Anyway, one of the three NH signers, Josiah Bartlett, served as a military doctor for the American forces at the Battle of Bennington in 1777. So maybe Josiah Bartlett could be considered Vermont’s honorary, unofficial signer on July 4, 1776.
July 4, 1786 – Moses Robinson and others completed the drafting of the first Constitution of Vermont at the Windsor Tavern. This was the first written constitution in North America to ban adult slavery, saying male slaves become free at the age of 21 and females at 18. It provided for universal adult male suffrage and required support of public schools.
The signers of the Constitution, “confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain by perfecting the arts of government),” agreed “that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights; amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty-acquiring, possessing and protecting property – and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
And also, “that all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings, as In their opinion shall be regulated by the word of God.”
In 1791, Vermont joined the United States of America. Lawyer Nathan Osgood described the tumultuous and glorious events that took place between July 4 1776 and July 4 1799, when he delivered an Independence Day address in Rutland, from which I read this brief excerpt:
“In tracing the events of this ever memorable day, the successes and victories obtained in a severe war of eight years, no nation could with more propriety pronounce those sacred words, “If God be for us, who can be against us.”
“A constitution was formed, and adopted by the people, which has been the admiration of the lovers of liberty, containing the fundamental principles of freedom, good government and social order.
Europe was astonished at the policy and wisdom of America. They had seen her carry on a successful war with one of the most powerful nations on the globe. They had seen her form two constitutions, and a change from one to the other effected without shedding a single drop of blood. History does not furnish one solitary instance of a similar nature.
America once more began to flourish. Commercial regulations were formed, and the American commerce was extended to every part of the globe. Agriculture was revived, and manufacturers were erected, which began to vie even with those of Europe.”
In the next century, Fourths of July came and went. On July 4 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died, 50 years to the day after the birthing of the nation they both labored so well to bring forth. But during this time the southern states would not follow the wisdom of Vermont and abolish slavery. And so in 1852 the former slave Frederick Douglass asked a New York crowd,
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?….a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine.”
The ensuing decade split the nation. On July 4, 1861 Congress (including its Vermont representatives) made a last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War. It failed of course.
My fellow Vermonters, today as we gather to celebrate the glorious history of the Fourth but we too wonder about our nation’s future. Let us take some consolation that many celebrants of bygone Fourths questioned if their nation would long endure. But it did! And let that encourage us to go forward as Abraham Lincoln said in 1864: “with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Today I wear the ribbon of my Great-Grandfather Urban Woodbury, the first Vermonter to lose his arm in combat in the Civil War. It is a matter of historical fact that Vermont lost more soldiers per capita than any state in the union.
July 4, 1863, Vermont soldiers skirmished with Confederate troops at Gettysburg. Just the day before the flanking fire of the Second Vermont Regiment had begun the defeat of Pickett’s Charge, regarded as the turning point of the Civil War.
However, not only white Vermonters bled and died for freedom. 66 black Vermonters served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the all-black fighting force made famous in the film “Glory” and to whom a statue stands in Boston Common. Two died in combat, many others were wounded and disabled. On that same day, July 4, 1863, the 54th arrived in South Carolina and held a July 4 celebration at a Baptist Church. The following July the 54th Massachusetts would indeed enter the annals of military glory with its courageous amphibious attack on Fort Wagner, outside Charleston.
Atlantic Magazine in 2018 notes that after the war, “Throughout the South, freedmen and especially freedwomen were conspicuous participants in Fourth of July celebrations.”
The next July 4 event of note wasn’t a speech, or a battle, but a birth: Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
Calvin Coolidge wasn’t known as a big talker. His nickname was “Silent Cal.” But he could give a good speech when he wanted. In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge spoke in Philadelphia on the 150th birthday of the nation. I close with these excerpts:
In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.
Ours is a government of the people. It represents their will. Its officers may sometimes go astray, but that is not a reason for criticizing the principles of our institutions. The real heart of the American Government depends upon the heart of the people. It is from that source that we must look for all genuine reform. It is to that cause that we must ascribe all our results.
We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.