Archive for Thursday, July 2, 2009

4th of July means better celebrations but less meaning

July 2, 2009

Looking at old photos of Fourth of July celebrations, you get the idea that we don’t celebrate Independence Day the same way our forefathers did.

The cover of “A Pictorial History of Shawnee,” published in commemoration of the city’s sesquicentennial in 2006, shows a crowd who turned out for a Fourth of July celebration on the town square in the 1890s.

There would have been speeches, and maybe even a band concert, although no band is immediately visible in the old photo.

The town’s leading lights are gathered on the bandstand in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Judging by the expressions on their faces, you can tell it was an important occasion.

The caption explains that the day’s activities were to pay honor to the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR, which sought to advance the cause of Civil War veterans, was one of the first special-interest groups in American politics. It started in 1866 and quickly grew to 7,000 posts, with a membership of more than 400,000.

Probably there would have been speeches as part of that long-ago observance. And political speechifying in the 1890s was vastly different from that practiced today. Orations of an hour or more were nothing unusual; in fact, the great speakers of the day were just getting warmed up after an hour.

There probably would have been some fireworks, too, although nothing on the scale of the programs we see today. My own memory does not go back nearly that far, only to the late 1940s or early 1950s, but even those displays were limited to what the bravest of my cousins could put together – usually a few roman candles, maybe a couple of skyrockets.

Things have changed so much over the years, and most of those changes have been for the better. Today we have better picnics, surely. Modern advances in refrigeration and other technologies mean our food is safer, plus we have better understanding of nutrition and what we ought to be eating.

The fireworks certainly are better. Oh, it’s unfortunate the big display at Shawnee Mission Park had to be canceled this year because of the expense, but there are still several alternatives that are more glorious than those folks would have witnessed on that day so long ago.

I guess maybe the speeches might have been better on that day before the dawn of the 20th century. Certainly they’d have been longer, although that’s not the same thing. Still, it’s widely accepted that oratory is pretty much a lost art.

But still, even with better picnics and better fireworks and shorter speeches, I don’t know that the idea of Independence Day means as much to us today as it did to those who gathered around the bandstand more than 100 years ago.

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