My typical July Fourth post is on something fun -- like the intellectual origins of the game of Monopoly.
But because I'm working on literary addresses at Washington College and VMI these days, I thought that for this year's July Fourth post I would talk about the July Fourth orations that were given at VMI before the war. There's an important and exciting literature on July Fourth orations as a way of understanding the American character -- and legal and constitutional thought in particular. I think that Michael Kammen's A Machine That Would Go of Itself is probably the best-known, but there are also some important articles that look at July Fourth in the pre-war South. Paul Quigley is the person who's done the best and most recent work on this, I think.
Turning now to Lexington .... In the 1850s a number of lawyers gave addresses on July 4 (or in some cases July 3) -- which was also the date of VMI's graduation -- including RMT Hunter, who was then a US Senator, Governor Henry Wise, B.J. Barbour, and Lexington Law Professor John White Brockenbrough. There's some good stuff in there.
Let me start with Henry Wise's talk -- it was in essence a dedication speech for VMI's statue of Washington -- which gained notoriety during the war when the United States took it from the campus -- and then afterwards when it was returned. (A post-war picture of the statue, after it was returned is above right, which I've taken from VMI's website.) There are a lot of Washington statues in the pre=war south that generated comment -- the one at the North Carolina and South Carolina capitols, the Washington Equine Statue (lately a subject of monument trivia here), and the VMI statue, for instance. There's a pretty cool article to be written here, I think, that examines how Washington statues in the 1840s and 1850s were used to promote nationalism. The VMI statue was cast from Jean Antoine Houdon'a statue of Washington in the Virginia capital, which Houdon had created using casts and notes that Houdon had taken of Washington. So it is supposed to be the most realistic statue ever made of Washington. (The statue of Washington at the South Carolina monument is also cast from Houdon's -- so there are some cool connections between VMI, Richmond, and Columbia.)
Governor Wise had some apt comments about the function of a monument, that they are for "memories which may be lost, for the fame that which be forgotten." Yet, no monument was necessary for Washington. His "fame is higher than any pinnacle which can ever be built of granite or marble. ... He liveth in the hearts, not only in his fellow-citizens, but in all of mankind." This illustrates the functions that monuments served -- as a way of preserving the memory of the departed, and also of promoting constitutional values that Washington represented. Moreover, Governor Wise used the placement of the Washington statue as a way of identifying the values that mattered to them, which in Wise's mind were rising above political faction and containing sectional divisions.
Let me go back now and talk about Brockenbrough's talk on July 4, 1850. It was part of the laying of a cornerstone of the New Barracks and thus dealt with big picture themes about VMI's role in Virginia government. Brockenbrough spoke of the values of the Union ("The Union is dear to the hearts of our people, not only because of the historic glories that cluster around it, but because it is identified in their convictions and judgment with their freedom and happiness"). These were cultural values that worked in conjunction with the economic prosperity made possible by Union -- but the people only loved the Union "which the Constitution gave us." Brockenbrough thought that a "fanatical majority in Congress may effectively subvert the Constitution while its forms may be studiously preserved. Its potency for good will then be destroyed, its efficacy for evil only will survive." In this address we see how the cultural values supporting Union were shifting; and how a southern interpretation of the Constitution -- that its form might be followed while still violating its spirit -- was emerging as well. This is a transition point from Union to secession. "Suppose ... that the madmen who make war upon th eessential principles of the Constitution shall accomplish their fell purpose, can any doubt that the clustering stars and stripes of the Union will go down in blood?"
On July 3, 1857 James W. Massie stoked division between North and South through a historical account of the differences between North and South. He premised his lecture on the idea that North and South had separate civilizations -- a theme that was popular in the south in the 1850s.
In his address a day later -- July 4, 1857 -- Senator Robert M.T. Hunter presented a moderate, indeed optimsitic, speech that surveyed the growth of civilization over centuries. It was characteristic of Democratic speeches, in that he focused on the popular mind. For instance, he said that "public opinion ... is destined to be the great moral and motivating power of civilized society." Though Hunter was a leading pro-slavery politician in the 1850s, he also gave a moderate speech at the Washington Equine Statue in Richmond. This points to how speakers often shaped their addresses depending on venue.
There were, nevertheless, elements of Hunter's address that alluded to the dangers of abolitionism. He spoke of the power of John Locke's ideas, but warned that Locke's and Rousseau's Enlightenment ideas "were the seed of the wind from which the spring the whirlwind of the French Revolution." Hunter was skeptical of news ideas that were either insufficiently tried or insufficiently constrained. "He who sends forth a great general idea for the government of his race, witho the limitations and restrictions necessary to fit it for the practical uses of man, although that diea may be founded in truth, is like him who turns a locomotive loose upon the track, without a conductor ot guide it...." It took little abstraction on the part of his audience to see this as a reference to abolitionists as well. And it was, Hunter said at the end of his speech, to the churches and the schools that Virginia would look to protect public opinion -- the great "world wide power."
These speeches operated at a high level of generality, as they linked constitutional doctrine and more often constitutional culture, to the struggle over slavery. What particularly interests me about these addresses -- and other public discussion of slavery and jurisprudence -- is the general (or maybe abstract is a better word) at which they operated. As we try to understand the role of the constitution in shaping (and explaining) coming of Civil War, I think it's good to remember that the constitution was considered as a set of words and also a set of ideas. College literary addresses, speeches in Congress and the hustings, often worked at accessible and general levels in their discussion of the Constitution and Union as a set of concrete legal rules and as a set of grand ideas. And we ought to see how they all operated together, often more as a set of grand ideas than as a set of specific doctrines. I'll have some more examples of this once I get back from my current research trip.
And happy Fourth of July to you all!