4th of July Oration, Hawkinsville, Georgia, 1838—Dr. William Germany (excerpts)
[Milledgeville Federal Union, August 14, 1838]
[Note: Over the past few years, I have tried to show how Georgians celebrated the Fourth of July before the Civil War. (See, for example, here.) This year I thought I’d try something different.
In previous posts, I’ve explained how small towns and cities in Antebellum Georgia began planning for the Fourth of July months earlier, lining up speakers and arranging for parades, food, and drink to mark the holiday. Usually, a younger, rising politician read the Declaration of Independence, to be followed by a more seasoned public servant, who offered a full-blown oration on the glories of America and its history. Once political parties developed in Georgia, these events were followed by smaller, more partisan gatherings, where toasts were drunk–and drunk, and drunk–explaining why the party quaffing those toasts had done more for the state–and the nation–than had their political opposition.
This year, I thought I’d offer you a chance to visit one of these celebrations, and “listen” to the main speaker as he retails the history of Georgia and the nation and also considers their present and their future.
I’ve chosen the July 4th, 1838 oration by Dr. William Germany, who lived in Hawkinsville, the Pulaski County seat, in Central Georgia, forty miles or so south of Macon. The version of Germany’s speech published in the August 14 issue of the [Milledgeville] Federal Union takes up about two and a half columns on page two of the paper. It’s a very long speech, in other words, so I’m only presenting excerpts here, though they are representative of the whole. (If you’d like to read the entire oration, go here.)
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Now, it’s on to Hawkinsville, Georgia, on a sunny, hot, sticky July 4th, in the Year of Our Lord, 1838. There’s already been a parade of county militiamen, and a younger local political figure has just finished a stirring rendition of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps you’ve begun to feel hungry and thirsty, given the heat of the day and how long it’s been since breakfast, but you’re still eager to hear Dr. Germany’s message. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll have some interesting remarks about affairs of the day intermingled with his review of the history of Georgia and the nation since 1776.
The introduction completed, the orator of the day now takes the stage. Terms in bold have been added [in brackets] or emphasized [if the orator used them] by the present writer.]
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Friends and Fellow Citizens!
We have again assembled to commemorate the jubilee of our independence—the birthday of our country’s greatness—a day hallowed by the magnanimous resolves of our ancestors, which gave liberty and safety to American citizens, and opened a retreat to the oppressed of other nations; a day well calculated, not only to lead us into an examination of what we now are, but likewise to induce us to reflect upon what we once were. . . .
[The colonies] had been permitted to grow, almost in total neglect. The first care of the parent country was evinced in sending officers to rule over them—to spy out their liberties, misrepresent their actions, and prey upon their substance. Instead of having received protection from her hands, they had nobly expended her blood and treasure in her defence [sic], and for her own peculiar benefit.
The pride of their origin had been a sufficient incentive to loyalty, and made them ever ready to put it to the test. Without murmuring, they had permitted their commerce to be tramelled [sic], and its revenues to be thrown into the British Exchequer. They had born[e] with every thing [sic], save direct taxation—but slavery, in its worst form; and this, as Englishmen and freemen, they were compelled to resist. . . .
[After the Revolution,] In bequeathing us independence, and a government so truly republican, they gave us all that a people could ask for the building up of a great and powerful nation. Happily, their antic [i.e.] patrons have been realized. While we have enjoyed peace and prosperity at home, our strides to greatness have been rapid and progressive, and we can now claim for ourselves the highest place among the nations of the earth. . . .
Yet, fellow citizens, while we view with delight the elevated position we have assumed as a whole nation, it behooves us, as a member of this great confederacy, to look well to the position which we occupy. Our State, enjoying a situation in point of location not surpassed by any on this great continent–her climate in every way propitious–her soil rich and productive–her innate sources of wealth surpassed by none–claiming for herself, in the enthusiastic pride of her first settlers, the flattering appellation of the paradise of the South–should at this very time occupy a position among her sister States, to which I fear she can never hereafter aspire. Barely a century has elapsed, since her colonization; and what is now her condition? Turn your eyes abroad over the face of the country–view it well, and see to what reflections it will unavoidably lead.–Where shall we look for the magnificent drapery in which she was once clad? Where her majestic forests and blooming fields? Where her soils, which once, with abundant harvests, blessed the soils and crowned the hopes of the agriculturalists? Where her commercial cities, which once bid fair to adorn her coasts and command the attention of foreign nations? Where her ships, which should have traversed her waters, extended commercial intercourse with other commercial nations, and brought back to her bosom in return the wealth of other countries? All, all are expended–all have faded away! Of her forests, scarcely a remnant is now to be seen. Her soil, once rich and productive, has now barely strength to send forth the slenderest weed. Her cities have dwindled into villages. Her ships are no where [sic] to be seen.
And what can we [i.e., Georgia in particular, but also, perhaps, the South in general] boast of in return? Nothing—nothing save a degree of patience and long suffering which can now scarcely be looked upon as a virtue. And will you ask where you may again behold the immense wealth which has been extracted from the soil of your State? You cannot find it within her boundary. You must visit other States [in the North]—you will there behold magnificent cities that could never have been built by the products of their own soil. You will there see a rich and flourishing commerce. to which we have been rendered tributary. You may there see the immense wealth of the South, supporting in luxuriance and splendor those who would probably think it a stigma to be classed amongst her prodigal sons. . . .
[Why is this situation so?] Other and more powerful causes have conspired to subject us, in a manner so strange and unnatural. A few, I think, will be sufficient to solve the whole mystery—at least, they are sufficiently powerful to have produced such evils as those of which we complain, and even worse, if they are permitted to continue. An unequal action of the Federal Government, by which the revenues of the country are collected in one section, and dispersed in another [i.e., the protective tariffs]—the creating of a large moneyed institution, to be managed at the North [i.e., the second Bank of the United States], by which means their merchants could be supplied with facilities to break down all competition, on the one hand; and, on the other, suffering our attention to be drawn off to subjects of less importance—contending against each other in the most rancorous party strife—the Southern States kindling in jealousies against each other, as if the small rivulets that divided them likewise sundered their interest—and suffering ourselves to be cajoled into the belief, that our wealth was inexhaustible, and that our country [i.e., the South, reverting to the eighteenth-century use of the term “country”] could never become impoverished.
And is there no remedy? None: unless we can arouse ourselves—unless we can become the guardians of our own interests—unless we can learn to patronize our own people. To discredit the idea that our wealth can only be rendered conspicuous, and our summers supportable, by a tour of pleasure to the North—that the intellect of our youth cannot as well expand, and be as richly endowed, in our own [Southern] institutions, as elsewhere [in Northern schools and colleges]. Unless we can become reconciled to the opinion that our first and greatest obligations are due to the land of our birth; and unless we become united in feelings and in interests, and true to ourselves. On such contingencies depends our future prosperity—our future prosperity—our future independence, and our weight in the councils of our nation. Our growth must be progressive, and co-equal with that of the other members of this great Republic. Then, the rich legacy deposited with us by our fathers in trust, will descend, to posterity. We may still rejoice in the prosperity of our common country, and the names of our ancestors be sung in rounds of applause by rising generations.
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I hope you’ve found these selections from Dr. Germany’s address interesting, both for what he says and what he does not say.
For example, slavery virtually goes unmentioned–the only specific reference is, of course, ironic, at least in retrospect: “[The colonies] had born[e] with every thing [sic], save direct taxation—but slavery, in its worst form; and this, as Englishmen and freemen, they were compelled to resist. . . .” [And yet, the Georgians’ African American slaves were not “compelled to resist,” maybe because they were neither “Englishmen” nor “freemen”?]
The burden of the last part of Germany’s argument is how far Georgia has declined from its brilliant beginnings; and the speaker’s explanation for this phenomenon already–about sixty years since independence (and, as we now know, just over two decades until civil war)– reflects, at least implicitly, the rise of southern sectionalism. [Thanks to “national events” like the controversy over the protective tariff; the role of the second Bank of the United States in the nation’s economy; and the rise, in Georgia and elsewhere, of the most rancorous party strife, at the heart of which, of course, was the region’s “peculiar institution” of slavery.]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)
I have often pondered the complaints so often voiced by southerners in the antebellum period that the nation was not returning its fair share of tax revenue to southern projects. Certainly import duties were an unbalanced weight upon an agrarian south (as it was against the West as well later). This problem begs comparison with the complaint by Americans captured in the phrase “No taxation without representation.
The other thing that struck me in this speech was the significance of envy, and again I have often wondered without being able to confirm that northerners envied the southern planters their imagined lifestyles. Historians have trouble documenting human emotions of course.
Commentaries by foreign and northern travelers to the south in the antebellum era certainly convey more ridicule than envy. Often forgotten in all this is that many southern plantations (especially in the rice-growing regions along the rivers of the coastal plain) were owned by northerners. In the case of Georgia, many from New York and Connecticut came south to make their fortune. I have not read much that supports the thesis that many southern planters were dependent on northern banking interests but suspect that case has been made more than once, and it became common faire for southern political demagogues later on.
As usual, Joe, you managed to see things in a post that eluded me. I did detect envy, but I saw it in Dr. Germany’s remarks about, for lack of a better term, the “lifestyle” of Northerners. But what really caught my attention was the speaker’s catalogue of Georgia’s (and, by extension, the South’s) problems. What he seemed to be hinting at, but of course not saying (in 1838, after the rise of Abolitionism in the North and of the proslavery argument in the South), was that the plight of his state and region was inextricably tied to the cultivation of “King Cotton” and the institution of slavery that made it possible. Thanks very much for your insightful comment!
Boss, history aside, hard to imagine that any of our current so-called leaders could generate anything approaching this level of eloquence. Yes, he seemed to be presaging the coming crisis, but at least he had some notion what was actually going on in his world.
And a Happy Fourth to you and Martha, Rick! On our agenda will be leftover pizza (would have been grilled hamburgers, except that we had those by mistake on Tuesday), and of course I’ll spend some time trying to figure how we’ve come to this sorry pass as a nation a mere 244 years after Jefferson’s Declaration. Sigh. . . .