Henry Parks Wright.

Independence Day in 1797 in Oakham, Massachusetts online

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APR L l* u




Read before the Oakham Farmers' Club,
Friday, December 16, 1910

Among early historical papers relating to Oakham are
some that, supplemented by tradition, give a very good
account of a Fourth of July celebration on this hilltop in
the year 1797. The town had been settled less than fifty
years, but the population was more than forty per cent
larger than it is now; the three most thickly settled dis-
tricts being the north, the northwest, and the southeast

Within the limits of the present village, in the center of
the town, were the meeting-house, the schoolhouse, the inn,
and two dwelling-houses. The meeting-house, which stood
a little northeast of the site of Memorial Hall, was an
unpainted wooden structure, long and narrow, and black-
ened by thirty-five years' exposure to the weather. On
account of its funereal aspect, the wags called it "the coffin-
colored meeting-house." Coffins then were always black.
It faced south, with the pulpit on the north side ; and, as if
to insure good winter ventilation in a building that was
never warmed by a fire-place or a stove, there were three
outside doors, each opening directly into the audience-
room, — one on the south side, and one at each end. Accord-
ing to tradition, in the coldest winter weather the minister
preached in overcoat and mittens, and during the second
hour of the sermon the men in the audience sometimes had
to stamp their feet on the floor to keep them warm, while

— 4—

the women tried to make themselves less uncomfortable by
the use of foot-stoves. On the floor of the house were
twenty-six old-fashioned square pews for the better families.
For those who could not afford to own pews, there were
six long seats in front of the pulpit, and similar seats in the
east, west, and south galleries. In all these seats the men
and women were separated, the women occupying those
toward the east end, and the men those toward the west.
The east gallery was reached by "the women's stairs" and
the west by "the men's stairs." The pulpit was high, the
minister's desk being on a level with the gallery. The sec-
ond public building was the center schoolhouse, on the edge
of the Common and just east of the site of the Fobes
Memorial Library. The inn, kept by Major Artemus Howe,
was the house in which Sibley Woodis now lives. The
dwelling-houses were the one now occupied by Frank Davis,
once known as the "Pike house," and another at the Fair-
bank place, then owned by Jonathan Bullard.

The space now enclosed within the four village streets
and known as "The Square" was then covered with a forest
of large oak, chestnut, and hickory trees. The Common
and burying ground had been cleared, but several old oaks
had been left standing. There was a large black oak where
the hay-scales now are, and on the Common southeast of
the meeting-house were two other large oaks, about thirty
feet apart, with wide-spreading branches which formed a
canopy over a sort of natural auditorium sometimes called
"The Bower." These two oaks were not less than two
hundred years old, and were standing till about 1830. The
part of the Common west of the present burying ground
and church was kept smooth, and was in frequent use as
a training field.

This celebration takes us back to a military age. For
seventy years after the settlement of the town, the country
was either engaged in war or liable to become so. Even


at this time there was great danger of a war with France. 1
Every able-bodied young man was a member of the military
company of the town and was drilled in the manual of arms
and company manoeuvers. If he was ambitious, he studied
military tactics and hoped by faithful service to be worthy
sometime of promotion to military office. The most hon-
ored official of the town was the captain of the town com-
pany, who had earned a title which he could carry through
life and which would be engraved on his tombstone. The
captain of the Oakham company at this time was John Boyd.
He was forty-six years of age, and was one of the Oakham
soldiers in Captain John Crawford's company of minute-
men who had marched on the Lexington alarm of April
19th, 1775. He had served also at Ticonderoga in 1776,
and in other campaigns in Rhode Island and New York. 2

This was an age, too, when men gave serious attention to
whatever they undertook. Independence Day meant more
to them than any other day of the year. It was a day hal-

1 To be in readiness for war, the soldiers were kept in regular
training and a part of them were detailed and equipped to march
without delay. One of the articles in the warrant for a town
meeting on October 4th of this year (1797) was: —

"To see what encouragement the town will vote to give to
the minutemen now called for in addition to their continental
pay, if they should be called to march.

"Voted that the minutemen now raised should be made up to
the ten dollars per month, including their continental pay, from
the time that they shall actually march until they are dismissed."
Oakham Town Records, Vol. II, p. 354.

2 John Boyd was a man of much ability and of good education.
He was a surveyor and was employed by the town for many years
to make tax rates. In 1792 he was commissioned Lieutenant and
in 1794 Captain of the Oakham Company of Massachusetts Militia.
He was often Assessor, and was eight times Selectman of Oakham,
in the years 1781, 1788, 1791, 1794, 1797, 1799, 1801, and 1802. In
1781 he was married to Judith Hall of Cornish. Captain Boyd
died in Oakham, August 12, 1833, at the age of eighty-two years.


lowed by sacrifice. They had not forgotten the hardships
and losses of the Revolutionary War, which had closed only
fourteen years before. They were enjoying their newly
earned liberties, and were proud of America. We cannot
think of them as celebrating the birthday of American inde-
pendence by witnessing anything that would correspond
to a game of baseball, or a stage-play, or an automobile
race; nor can we imagine them introducing comic features
into the celebration, as we were wont to do in our recent
field-days. We must expect that their celebration will be
dignified and loyal, partly religious, and characterized by a
martial spirit.

It is safe to say that all who attended this celebration,
from whatever distance, came on foot or on horseback.
The roads were not good enough to make riding in a wagon
without springs as comfortable as riding on horseback, and
wagons were very uncommon. As early as May ist, 1776,
Francis Maynard had driven from Rutland to Oakham in
what was called in his account-book a "chaise," but the
chaise belonged in Rutland. On October 28th, 1795, the
mother of John Robinson rode from Northboro to Oakham
in a "wagon," but this was owned in Northboro. There
was probably not a four-wheeled wagon in Oakham in 1797,
though there were plenty of two-wheeled carts drawn by
oxen. It is worthy of notice that the people of Oakham
did not take the whole of this Fourth of July for a holiday.
It was the busy season of the year ; they were mostly farm-
ers, and work on the farm could not be wholly neglected.

The celebration began with religious exercises. At twelve
o'clock, noon, the soldiers and citizens of this and neighbor-
ing towns gathered at the meeting-house. The veterans of
the Revolution, about fifty in number, occupied the six
long seats directly in front of the pulpit, while the soldiers,
having stacked their arms in front of the meeting-house,
marched in with their guests from neighboring towns and

— 7—

took the square pews. The citizens of the town were seated
in the east and west galleries, and the singers in the gallery
opposite the pulpit. Father Tomlinson offered prayer and
made what was termed by one who heard it a "pathetic
address" to the officers and soldiers. This address is not
preserved. It no doubt consisted mainly of expressions of
gratitude to the Revolutionary heroes, praises of Washing-
ton and Adams, and some defence of the principles of the
Federal party. 3

From a Fourth of July oration delivered four years later
under the oaks on the Common by Father Tomlinson, whose
speech was usually plain and unadorned, the following pas-
sages are quoted as specimens of the subjects and style of
Fourth of July oratory that interested the country people
of that day :

America, all glorious in liberty, America, the nursery of Patriots,
Science and Virtue, has echoed and re-echoed the Columbian general
and his victorious army. Loquacious fame has so echoed and
re-echoed, with the brilliancy of genius, the sagacity of our Wash-
ington, the jurisprudence of our legislators, and diplomatic skill of
our arbiters that novelty cannot be expected, on these subjects, from
the speaker. I shall not discant even on the characters the most
prolific in exhibiting the sprightliness of the genius of our country,
but it may be thought a crime not to mention the names of Wash-
ington and Adams, whose talents have shone with exuberant bril-
liancy in the political Drama.

The character of Washington has risen to the pinnacle of earthly
greatness; his memory is embalmed with more than aromatic spice
in the cordial affections of his Country. As a general, his sagacity
supplied the want of men and warlike implements. He was wisdom
in the Cabinet, heroism in the Field, the gentleman in the estimation
of the bon ton, the scholar by the united voice of men of science,
the Christian by profession. His administration was equable and
propitious ; his ideas truly sublime ; his style simplex munditiis. His

3 The voters of Oakham at this time were Federalists to a man.
In the presidential election held the previous year, every ballot cast
was for the John Adams elector.

— 8—

farewell address to the citizens of America might with propriety be
written in letters of gold.

The illustrious Adams has not yet completed a character which
neither malignity nor time can efface. The predominant features of
his life evince a oneness of sentiment with the illustrious Wash-
ington. Decided in his administration, he has guided our political
Bark through tempestuous seas, under the ensign of neutrality, to the
gilded shores of peace, plenty, and fame. Neither the intrigues
nor menacing threats of an opulent, victorious nation, or the domes-
tic combinations of reviling disorganizers, changed his steady course.
His enemies, being judges, applaud his stability. One adopts this
expression : 'As great as Washington, as stable as Adams, as wise
as Jefferson." The philosophical reasoners of the age have made
his attachment to religion an essential blemish in his character which
disqualifies him for a ruler. Their sophistical reasonings have
deluded some ignorant but honest minds into the belief that a stable
attachment to religion will necessarily lead to persecution; but of
all the dispositions and habits incident to man, religion is the most
tolerant, and, I will add, the most essential to national prosperity.

We, my fellow citizens, are convened this day to perpetuate in
memory our national birth. Sweet liberty enstamps her smiling
visage on every brow. So pleasing a theme as the means by which
this celestial visitant may be retained to posterity cannot be irksome
to this numerous audience. Some misguided minds have entertained
an opinion that parties in a nation are of real utility, serving to
investigate truth and secure the liberties of the people. History,
ancient and modern, furnishes us with abundant testimony what
cruelty and pointed revenge the alternate dominion of factions will
produce. Party spirit in any community subverts the liberties and
happiness of a People, and not only terminates in, but is itself, a
fruitful despotism. Felicity reposes itself in the bosom of unity and
virtue. Anguish and wretchedness are the inseparable companions
of discord. Partisans for jealousy against government have arisen,
insinuating that the liberties of the people are in danger when
jealousy slumbers. Jealousy has a jaundiced eye; will metamorphose
virtue itself into the most hideous monster, and is as cruel a tyrant
as sits on the throne of vice. It destroys the safety of the ruler
and the enjoyment of the subject.

The means of communicating light to the rising generation and
forming the tender mind to receive the principles of virtue ought
to occupy the attention of every grade of people, to secure our
independence and national prosperity. Indolent, dissipated persons

are a burden to the body politic, but in no situation can they be
placed more hazardous to national freedom than at the head of our
public schools. As is the teacher, so is the scholar. Patriotism
cannot be expected, neither can it exist, in barren, unprincipled
minds. National freedom can be guaranteed to posterity by culti-
vating the juvenile mind and instilling the principles of religion in
the early period of life. What prospects are before us may be
predicted from the predominant dispositions of Columbia's sons.
If unprincipled illuminati should in some future period be preferred
by the mass of people to hold the reins of government, Immorality,
that demagogue of discord, will direct fatal arrows against patriot-
ism. Religion, the parent and nurse of Republicanism, Liberty,
Peace, and Happiness, will bid a final adieu to our land. Our
national honor will be clad in sackcloth and ashes. If any virtuous
sons remain, they may weep around the urn of liberty, clothed with
penitence, but loaded with wretchedness and the galling chains of
tyranny. The words of our great patriot and hero demand the
attention of this assembly this day. It is substantially true that
virtue or morality is a necessary spring to popular government.
Then let not morality be refused a seat in The Bower.

After Father Tomlinson's address, the singers sang a
piece of music "suitable to the day." Whether the sing-
ing was also suitable to this day, or any other day, is not
stated; it could no doubt have been much improved. At
two o'clock a large number of gentlemen from New Brain-
tree, Rutland, Brookfield and Barre dined with the officers
and company on the Common. They sat on the grass under
the two large oaks already mentioned, southeast of the
meeting-house. Beneath the same oaks, eleven years before,
the Rev. Daniel Tomlinson had been ordained as pastor of
the Oakham church. Here in the summer, between the
morning and afternoon services on Sunday, the people
gathered to tell and hear the news. This was also a com-
mon gathering place for people who came to the center of
the town on town meeting or training days, or any other
public occasion. This dinner was followed by manceuvers
and exercises by the Oakham company, which continued

till five o'clock. One who was present throughout the after-
noon wrote regarding the celebration : "The greatest order
was preserved, and the manoeuvers and exercises were per-
formed to the general acceptance."
Byron many years later wrote:

"There's naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms
As rum and true religion."

It must be admitted that in this part of New England in
1797, the meeting-house and the tavern were not hostile
forces. Only men of influence and character were licensed
as innholders. The inn was a place for conviviality, but not
for drunkenness, which was punished with great severity.
Attendance on Sunday service was well-nigh universal, but
one who was living at this time told me that he remembered
only one man in town who abstained on principle from the
use of spirituous liquors.

With the ideas that then prevailed, a proper celebration
of this our first national holiday, therefore, could hardly
come to an end without further exercises than those in the
meeting-house, on the Common, and on the parade-ground.
At five o'clock the soldiers and their guests formed a pro-
cession and marched to the sound of fife and drum to
Major Howe's inn. Here the toasts of the day were given.
In what is now Sibley Woodis's front yard, the citizens
formed themselves into a semi-circular group, with a tub
of punch in front. A little beyond, the soldiers were
arranged in platoons. The toast-master, mounted probably
on a barrel, announced the toasts in clear tone and with great
dignity ; to which all drank in response, after cheers by the
citizens and the firing of salutes by the platoons of soldiers.
How many hundreds of blank cartridges must have been
shot into Prospect Hill on that patriotic afternoon! At a
much later period, when the Oakham company was firing
by platoons on the parade ground, a clumsy soldier left his

— II —

ramrod in his gun-barrel and shot it across the Park into
the roof of the village hotel (later Mr. Wheeler's Park View
Inn). This unexpected bombardment of the hotel greatly
lessened the interest of the spectators, who were gathered
in front of the building, none of whom waited to witness
another shot.

There were sixteen toasts in all, as follows :

i. Independence : the day we celebrate. May American inde-
pendence ever felicitate a free, virtuous, and independent people,
under virtuous laws. Three cheers.

2. The Federal Government. May the boon of Federalism
chase discordant gloom from Columbia's sons, and friendship
entwine the sister states. Three cheers.

3. George Washington, whose brilliant virtues have dignified the
human race, and eclipsed the glory of heroes and statesmen. May
his private retreat be accompanied with the gratitude of freemen,
and the blessings of his Creator, and the same laurels shroud his
grave. Nine cheers.

4. The President. May his tried patriotism embellish the
federal chair, and wisdom guide him through the sable aspects of
impending foreign storms. Three cheers.

5. The Vice President, Senate, and House of Representatives.
May the shocks of foreign earthquakes never shake the guardians of
our country. Three cheers.

6. America's freeborn sons. May virtue be their rural shades at
home, their crown in foreign courts, and a sweet perfume for
immortality. Three cheers.

7. The Republics of France and America. May the clouds of
misunderstanding soon be dispersed, and a sincere, equitable, and
perpetual alliance be the result. Three cheers.

8. Gen. Pinckney. May his patriotism meet its just reward, the
approbation of his countrymen. Six cheers.

9. The Government and people of Massachusetts. May they rise
above faction and discord. Three cheers.

10. The agriculture of America. May encouragement be given to
sow, those who sow reap, and the world be filled with plenty. Three

11. Commerce. May our flag wave over every ocean. Three

12. May our brave seamen want neither courage nor will to pro-
tect our flag against all insults. Three cheers.

— 12 —

13. The Militia of the United States. May it prove a bulwark
against all invaders. Three cheers.

14. The Patriots of '75. Three cheers.

15. May the memory of those heroes, who have fallen in the
cause of their country, be preserved inviolate. Three cheers.

16. The American Fair. May their innocence be cherished and
defended ; and may industry and economy be found in all our habita-
tions. Nine cheers.

In explanation of toasts three, four, five and eight, it may
be noted that Washington had closed his second term as
President two months before, and John Adams of Massa-
chusetts, a Federalist, had been inaugurated as President.
Thomas Jefferson, anti-Federalist, was Vice President.
Gen. C. C. Pinckney of South Carolina, a Federalist, had
been appointed United States Minister to France the pre-
ceding year, but the feeling against America was such that
France would not receive him. On his return home he was
appointed Major General of the United States Army. He
was the Federalist candidate for Vice President in 1800,
and for President in 1804 and 1808. It was Gen. Pinck-
ney who replied to a suggestion that peace might be pur-
chased with money, "Millions for defence, but not a cent
for tribute."

The toasts to Washington, Pinckney and the ladies were
plainly the most popular. There was at that time no sym-
pathy in this region with the party headed by Jefferson,
but in these toasts that party is treated with respect. A
few years later, men expressed more openly and freely
their utter contempt for their political opponents. Charles
Prentiss delivered a poem at Brookfield on Independence
Day, 1813, which was published "by request." In his
notes on his poem he calls Jefferson's first inaugural address
"that elaborate tissue of open falsehood and consummate
hypocrisy." The following was one of the toasts at a
Hardwick celebration on July 4th, 1812: "James Madi-


son — It is not the most distinguishing trait of his character
that he does wrong by design, but that he should never do
right by mistake." The party of Jefferson had no less
contempt for the Federalists. Page, in his history of Hard-
wick (p. 281, n.), quotes a toast once proposed by an anti-
Federalist in a neighboring town: "The Federalists — may
they die and be buried, and sleep till the Resurrection, and
if God hasn't a better opinion of them than I have he won't
call on them then."

It is evident that the women and children had no share
in this celebration. It was purely a man's affair, limited
to the soldiers of Oakham and gentlemen of this and neigh-
boring towns. The last toast, to the ladies, was given in
their absence. Men and women did not associate together,
outside the families, as freely as they do now. Their inter-
ests were different, and they had not so much in common.
The men had their sports, such as wrestling, hunting and
fishing, their gatherings at the inns, their training days.
With neighborly kindness they helped each other in clear-
ing the land, picking stones, and building houses. In these
occupations the women had no part. The women had their
quilting bees and other gatherings for gossip and house-
hold work, in which the men had no part. While there
was a certain assumed inferiority of women, they were
treated with great outward respect and their presence as
lookers-on at Major Howe's inn, amid cheering men and
firing platoons of soldiers, would have seemed very much
out of place. Nor was there any thought of using the day
to teach the children, all American born, the cost and
value of their liberties. They heard that every day in
school; it was common talk at home, and there was no
danger of their forgetting it.

As for Major Howe's punch, I do not think it likely that
any soldier or citizen would consume an excessive amount
of it. All the ingredients, except water, cost high and


were used sparingly. With no ice to keep it cool, it would
not improve as that hot afternoon wore on. The punch
served at soldiers' musters had a wide reputation for
weakness. It is related that at a Connecticut muster, the
Colonel's horse on one occasion drank a pailful without
affecting its gait in the slightest on the subsequent parade.
This celebration, held so many years ago, was a very sin-
cere and hearty observance of Independence Day, with all
that it meant to those early patriots. There were the devo-
tional exercises, the patriotic address, the manceuvers of
the soldiers, the dinner, and the toasts, with punch, loud
cheers, and volleys of musketry. It was hospitable ; gentle-
men from this and neighboring towns were especial guests
of the soldiers. It was at the same time religious and con-
vivial. It was perfectly natural, as customs then were, that
it should begin with prayer in the meeting-house and end
with punch at the tavern. This kind of patriotic observance
of the nation's holiday may seem strange to us, but not
more so than our field-days or our celebrations on the Fourth
of July would have seemed to the men of 1797. Ideas and
customs have changed much in one hundred and thirteen
years, some for the better and some for the worse. No
New England town would now include even a mild indulg-
ence in any form of spirituous liquor in its program for a
Fourth of July celebration ; but in this age of peace and
prosperity we are in danger of forgetting that American
liberty was obtained at great cost. We have less apprecia-
tion than our fathers had of a government by the people,


Online LibraryHenry Parks WrightIndependence Day in 1797 in Oakham, Massachusetts → online text (page 1 of 2)