A century ago, Americans searched for the meaning of patriotism.
Reprinted from the July 4, 1904, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.
In the early days of the republic, the Fourth of July was a political sacrament. It was universally called Independence Day.
That simple but expressive name has nearly disappeared, except from the stilted oratory to which few listen. It was celebrated in primitive rural fashion, even in the most considerable cities of the time. Sophisticated Americans of today smile to read of the train bands, the barbecues, the patriotic picnics, the spread eagle speeches, and the clumsy canon and anvil firing through which the unsophisticated Americans of that time expressed their patriotic emotions.
But the patriotic feeling was genuine, however crudely it was expressed. The feeling itself was a sign of sound national life and the expression of it was a wholesome exercise in the training of a citizen. How much genuine patriotic emotion is behind the more sophisticated and strenuous means by which Americans celebrate the Fourth of July today?
Patriotic feelings remain in the American breast, as we prove in every grave crisis of affairs, whether political or military. But we have grown ashamed of the old, simple, straightforward expression of it in Independence Day oratory and social exercise. We celebrate the Fourth of July with far more vigor than formerly, but how many of us remember that it is Independence Day or draw any lesson of patriotism from the celebration?
It has become a holiday without meaning. To most of us it is only a day to knock off work. To many it is a day to seek innocent recreation in the country. To some it is a day to indulge gross appetites. To a large number, it is a day of horror when quiet citizens must lock themselves in their houses like medieval burgesses when a guild riot broke out.
The simple noises and the rude sports of an early time, which were tolerated for the effervescent patriotism they expressed, have grown to a saturnalia of deafening clatter and maddening shocks, dangerous always to the sanity and often to the life and limb, which expresses nothing but irregulated boyish spirit and lawless temper.
This has gone so far that the mortality of the day exceeds that of a modern battle. The last Fourth of July cost nearly 500 lives and inflicted injuries less than death on nearly 4,000 persons. No one would grudge these lives lost and injuries suffered in any useful service to the nation. No one grudged the few train band and artillery firing accidents of the olden time any more than we grudge the lives of sailors killed in target practice.
But the modern celebration has lost all color of national feeling, all guise of a patriotic sacrament. The significance of the day has been forgotten and its lesson lost.
Its primitive meaning remains only in the minds of a few who shrink from its noise and riot. To the multitude, it has become only a day of freedom from toil. To the lawless, old and young, it has become only a day of license. We have none too many holidays of rest, and it is well that the Fourth of July should remain as a day of innocent recreation.
But it is time to abolish it as a day of license. If we have lost the sacrament, let us put an end to the desecration. Let us not spend the lives of our children for a purpose so trivial and unworthy. A beginning has been made in many states this year, which we think will soon put an end to the annual massacre of the Fourth of July.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.