Saturday, July 4, 2020

Declaration of Independence makes a difference

It rained on the Fourth of July in 1836, but the patriotic citizens of Albany, New York "celebrated with an ardor which nothing could dampen" (Albany Argus, July 8, 1836). Festivities back then included traditional readings of the Declaration of Independence. At the Methodist church on Pearl Street, William Hun Fondey recited the Declaration "in an appropriate and effective manner." At the Second Presbyterian church, Gansevoort Melville, age 20, showed off his oratorical prowess for the Albany Young Men's Association.

... The day was also observed by the Young Mens' Association in this city. The exercises were in the Second Presbyterian church. The Declaration of Independence was read, and well read, by Mr. G. MELVILLE. The oration which we learn was a production creditable as well to the author as to the choice of the Association, was pronounced by JOHN DAVIS, esq. The members were out in great numbers with their badges and banner, and of themselves formed a large procession, exclusive of its citizens, with whom the Association continues to be, as it deserves, a favorite as it is a flourishing and valuable institution. --Albany Argus, July 8, 1836; found at GenealogyBank
Writing in 1849, Gansevoort's brother Herman Melville imagined the literary freedom Shakespeare might have enjoyed as a great American truth-teller, asserting that "the Declaration of Independence makes a difference."

For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare, was not a frank man to the uttermost. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference. --letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, March 3, 1849
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "1846-1849" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 4, 2020.
This liberating power in the Declaration of Independence would somehow give Melville the creative freedom he needed to write Moby-Dick (1851).

President Trump in his important July 3rd 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore rightly honored the "founding ideals" proclaimed and symbolized by the Declaration of Independence.
We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776. 
Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering. In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free. 
We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation. Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals. Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals. He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage. (Applause.)
Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth. 
Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars. 
We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. (Applause.) We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali. (Applause.) And only America could have produced them all. (Applause.) No other place. 
-- Remarks by President Trump

Somewhere Trump also exalted Mark Twain as the preeminent American story-teller. Wrongly there, as any real Melville aficionado can tell you. Nevertheless, the author of Israel Potter (originally presented in Putnam's magazine as A Fourth of July Story) would have felt the fitness of tributes to western legends like Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. According to Melville, "the Western spirit is, or will yet be (for not other is, or can be) the true American one."

Israel Potter, magazine version
Israel Potter, book version
"Though born in New England, he exhibited no trace of her character. He was frank, bluff, companionable as a Pagan, convivial, a Roman, hearty as a harvest. His spirit was essentially Western; and herein is his peculiar Americanism; for the Western spirit is, or will yet be (for no other is, or can be), the true American one."  --Ethan Allen as described in Herman Melville's Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1854-5)
Here's hoping the proposed National Garden of American Heroes will make room for a statue honoring the author of Moby-Dick and Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man and Clarel. Put him next to Buffalo Bill, or Louis Armstrong

via Library of Congress

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