[Note: Last year, I offered a “blast from the past” about the celebration of Independence Day in Antebellum Georgia, a summary and analysis of a 4th of July oration delivered in 1838 in the small town of Hawkinsville by Dr. William Germany.
The Independence Day oration I’m featuring this time is from 1815; the location is the Presbyterian Church in Savannah; and the speaker is Thomas U.P. Charlton. It is important to put the speaker—and the speech—into historical context. Thomas Usher Pulaski Charlton (1779-1835), was one of the “children of the Revolution,” youngsters who had grown up in the shadow of America’s War for Independence. Charlton’s father Thomas was a physician who served the American cause during the war. Charlton senior died when his son Thomas was young, and in 1791 his widow, Lucy Keenan Charlton, and the boy, moved to Savannah.
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Thomas U.P. Charlton was educated in Savannah and always considered it his home. He was admitted to the bar in 1800; elected to the state legislature at age 21; and chosen attorney-general of Georgia at 25. He, along with future governor and U.S. Senator George M. Troup, were important cogs in the political machine that James Jackson (1757-1806) assembled in the wake of the infamous Yazoo Fraud, to roll back that corrupt transaction and take political control of the state from the speculators and their political allies.
Charlton and Troup, writing as “A” and “Z,” supported Jackson in the press, launching journalistic attacks aimed at those who assailed him. And, when those ink-stained “assaults” were insufficient, the two young tyros took a whip to an anti-Jackson editor in Savannah. Both Charlton and Troup were rewarded by Governor Jackson for their work on his behalf, serving as military aides during his governorship. Moreover, Jackson chose Charlton as his literary executor, and this appointment produced, in 1804, the first volume of Charlton’s biography of Jackson. Volume 2 of the Jackson biography never appeared, but volume 1 remains a useful combination of a sketch of Jackson’s life and a collection of his letters.
Following James Jackson’s death in 1806, Thomas U.P. Charlton delivered a surprisingly even-handed eulogy for the fallen anti-Yazoo leader in Savannah’s Masonic lodge. Charlton asserted that Jackson, “[b]elieving that his political tenets were such which every citizen ought to feel, . . . was impatient under contradictions, and apparently intolerant of his opponents. . . But tho’ [sic] he permitted occasional triumphs of warmth over his real and natural benevolence of character, and though [he was] unbending and impetuous, yet no man possessed a stronger sensibility. . . But if he was warm in his resentments, he was no less sincere, fervid and disinterested in his friendships. . . .”
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It is important to remember that the 4th of July 1815 occurred only a few months after Georgia learned of the Treaty of Ghent, the official diplomatic end of the War of 1812. During that conflict, Charlton had served as chairman of the town’s Committee of Public Safety, charged with defending Savannah against an expected British invasion.
After the war ended, Thomas Charlton left state politics for the law and the bench. In 1824, he compiled the first volume of Georgia’s court decisions, and, in 1825, he was member of a committee that compiled the statutes of Georgia. He also served two terms as mayor of Savannah (1815-1817, 1819-1821).]
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The account of the day’s festivities in The Republican; and Savannah Evening Ledger, July 6, 1815, provided an overview of events:
The day was ushered in amidst the roar of cannon; the peal of bells; the unfurling of the star-spangled banner of the country; and the plaudits of those who know to appreciate freedom; and who are ready to defend it.
At 10 o’clock the different volunteer corps paraded, and performed many handsome evolutions thro’ the principal streets in our city—after which they fired salutes in honor of the day.
At 12 o’clock the citizens assembled when a procession was formed[,] escorted by the different volunteer companies, moved from the Exchange to the Presbyterian Church, preceded by the alderman, the president and vice-president of the day, the committee of arrangements and the Orator. Having arrived at the Church, the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE was read by Levi S. D’Lyon, esq which was followed by bursts of applause. An ORATION, classical, chaste and excellent, was then delivered by honorable THOMAS U.P. CHARLTON. . . .
The Church was crowded, and the attentive audience of a vast number of ladies was witnessed with peculiar pleasure and interest.
After the Oration, the bells rung a merry peal while the citizens and the military, resorted to their respective places of dining. The day was closed in “that feast of reason and flow of soul,” so characteristic of freemen—so becoming the important event.
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Charlton’s oration on the 4th of July in 1815 was published at the request The Republican’s editor, Frederick S. Fell. [To read the entire address, go here for Part I; and here for Part II] According to the tradition established early in Georgia’s post-Revolutionary history, Levi S. D’Lyon, an up-and-coming local political figure, read the Declaration; the thirty-five year old Thomas Charlton, by now an experienced politician and jurist, used his oratorical talents to place the Revolution, and the ideals for which it was fought, into a “modern” context:
FELLOW CITIZENS AND COUNTRYMEN! I never had the honor, if it be an honor, to breathe for a moment the air of monarchy.—Born a citizen of the Republic [in 1779], some years after it had taken its separate station among the powers of the earth,–reared up under the benignant band of liberty,–educated in the principles of ’76, I hope I am not on this occasion an unfit medium to convey the doctrines, for which [General George] Washington unsheathed his sabre [sic], and his heroes combatted.
The “doctrines” for which Washington and other American patriots fought were not the product of ancient Greece or Rome, according to Charlton; rather, the origins of the idea of representative government lay in the “woods of Saxony,” “confined to the imperfect and crude legislation of barbarian hordes.” Those ideas were carried to England by “her barbarian conquerors,” and eventually they were “perfected in the forests of America,” then worked their way into minds and hearts of the “ancestors” of those in his audience: “The principle of Equality leaves the post of honor accessible to every citizen of virtue and capability.” Equality, along with freedom of religion, were “among the primary and fundamental principles upon whose everlasting foundations are erected the proud temple of our National Liberty.“
Yet, according to Charlton, even after the country had won its Independence, the former Mother Country would not leave her alone to enjoy it:
She stole our citizens,–plundered our property,–under unrighteous expositions of national law, interdicted our commerce,–and insultingly repeated, as far as she was able, the injuries and wrongs proclaimed in the declaration of Independence.
Delighting in the realms of peace and Liberty our government was unwilling to breast the tumults of war. . . . It feared many of those evils which had been predicted. It forbore as long as its dignity, its honor and insulted pride would suffer it to forbear. . . .At length, the Republic was compelled to acknowledge its fear and imbecility, or meet again in battle the haughty monarchy of Britain. . .When this was the alternative, the Republic did not hesitate to buckle on its armour [sic].—
Thereafter, Charlton launched into several lyrical paragraphs recounting the glories of American arms during the War of 1812. He argued that, when the war opened, there were no George Washingtons to protect the Republic, but that, before the war was over, American
Heroes and chieftains accordingly sprung from the bosom of ensanguined conflicts, and amazed the veterans of Europe, by their skill, their enthusiasm and their Victories. . . .
The scene closed and left the proud banner of ’76 floating in pristine renown o’er the sacred principles of the Revolution. . . . May those principles be eternal! May the Almighty ruler of the universe continue to shed his benediction on this great and favored people! May the accursed murmurs of faction be hushed in the louder acclamations of patriotism! May we ALL as friends and Fellow Citizens feel that we have a country entitled to the warmest affections of our heart; may we ever hail with joyous burst of exultation this memorable Jubilee,–is the fervid prayer of the Citizen, who has the honor to address you, and to thank you for your indulgence and your patience.
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Thomas Charlton was a relatively young man when he delivered this address, but he had already enjoyed a successful political career in Georgia.
Charlton admitted that he was not a member of the “Revolutionary generation,” but he was well aware of the work he had done in Savannah during the War of 1812. To him, the message to be emphasized was that “The scene closed and left the proud banner of ’76 floating in pristine renown o’er the sacred principles of the Revolution.” There was no doubt that Britain was the villain of the morality tale Charlton told.
The treaty ending the war reached the United States on February 11, 1815, and was unanimously ratified by the Senate four days later. Yet, the Treaty of Ghent merely restored the status quo ante bellum, a sort of half-baked attempt to end hostilities but to set aside lingering problems for later resolution. Thus, Charlton was addressing an audience that knew the war was over but was still unsure of what that meant.
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Two other points about the oration deserve mention. First, “equality,” by Charlton’s reckoning one of the two great principles for which the American Revolution (and the War of 1812) had been fought, only applied to white male citizens in 1815. No one at the time could know how long it would take for the ideal of “equality” to be extended to other Americans. In fact, slavery was not mentioned.
In Georgia, the War of 1812 ushered in a period when bickering Yazoo factions would, for a variety of reasons, be replaced by personal political factions, one headed by William Harris Crawford and George Troup, who had cut their political teeth in James Jackson’s anti-Yazoo movement; the other by General John Clark. These rising political leaders and their partisans would bring a renewed bitterness to state politics and produce Independence Day orations that concentrated less on the abstract principles of the Declaration of Independence and more on showing how one group of Georgia politicos embodied what made the nation great, while the opposing “party” had abandoned the ideals of the Revolution for corruption and personal power.
So much for the idea of the “Common Good,” which lay at the heart of the “republicanism” that had sustained the American cause before the outbreak of war in 1775. The political system bequeathed to Georgia by the War of 1812 would make the state’s politics an enigma to non-Georgians for the next generation (see here, here, and here).
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: