The Glorious Sixth

July 04, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Today, for our nation's 220th birthday, there will be no parade down Havre de Grace's broad, straight and made-for-marching Union Avenue.

There will be no flags, no fife-and-drum corps, no beaming public officials in vintage convertibles. No fire-fighting equipment from outlying volunteer companies will be seen. There will be no units from roller-blade clubs, no lavishly decorated farm wagons with cargoes of winsome beauty queens or flush-faced troupes of clog dancers. There will be no clowns on unicycles, no National Guard units, no 4-H floats, no Scout troops.

In keeping with recent practice, all of that has been postponed until Saturday.

Only then will Havre de Grace's veteran parade-watchers arise early and set up their camp sites, complete with lawn chairs and Styrofoam coolers, in all the best spots. And only then, down by the waterfront where in 1813 a militia lieutenant named John O'Neill mounted a spirited defense of Havre de Grace against a force of British marines who landed and burned the town to the ground, will there be fireworks.

Like many smaller communities located in the shadow of bigger ones, Havre de Grace has found that it can celebrate the Fourth of July with a bigger bang by doing so on another date.

The practical reveler

Top-quality marching bands, which frequently come from hundreds of miles away to appear in Independence Day parades in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities, are often happy to make a second appearance while they're in the area. And fireworks firms can promise more extravagant displays and more competitive prices if they're given a date other than the Fourth itself.

So although it still seems a little odd to some of us to celebrate the Fourth on the Sixth, or whenever the organizers decide, we can understand the reasoning and tend to go along with the change. As long as the parade and the fireworks remain the heart of the midsummer ritual, we're satisfied that tradition has been respected.

But while it's true that most Independence Day parades this year will be comfortingly similar to those of 20 and 30 years ago, they're different in one important respect from those of a few generations back. They're no longer occasions for old-fashioned political oratory.

In the pre-electronic age, towns competed for Fourth of July speakers with the same intensity they now bring to the hunt for marching bands. Traditionally, there was a speaker's stand near the end of the parade route, and when the procession had passed by, spectators gathered up their children and picnic baskets and moved closer in order to hear the rhetoric.

Havre de Grace is a town with a long appreciation for politics and political speechifying, and especially in the years between the World Wars it attracted some well-known orators to the Independence Day platform. One who was much in demand was the native son who had gone to the U.S. Senate, Millard Tydings.

Tydings was said to be able to speak brilliantly anywhere, about anything. When he was a student at the Maryland Agricultural College the yearbook noted that "he has orated on practically every subject from Women's Suffrage to Buttermilk, and he is usually showered with applause and other things."

But he had a special feeling for Havre de Grace and its history. He had grown up there. His grandfather, the lighthouse keeper Henry O'Neill, was a direct descendant of the famed militiaman who had defied the Royal Marines in 1813. And so the senator naturally pulled out all the stops when he had a chance to speak at home. Those still around who heard him never forgot.

Years later, as a kid going to the Havre de Grace parades in the 1950s, I can remember political speeches, most of them patriotic in tone. But none of them was especially memorable; even then, rhetoric as a political tool was already being replaced by other less personal forms of communication.

Nowadays, wise politicians come to the parade to be seen and not heard. They wave from their automobiles, and perhaps hang around afterward for a while and chat. But they don't make speeches. In Havre de Grace, at least, if an elected official or a candidate were to get hold of a microphone at the end of a Fourth of July parade and start to bloviate on the issues of the day, she'd soon find herself speaking to an empty street.

In the Tydings era, skilled political speech was respected as entertainment, whether the listener agreed with it or not. But today, political speech is everywhere, like background noise. And most people would prefer to observe their Fourth of July without it, even if they're doing so on the Sixth.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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