July Fourth 100 years ago
Among the big stories of the day: The Senators took a doubleheader from the Yankees at the Polo Grounds. The president took a sail on a yacht. Race riots raged in East St. Louis. Congress debated a tax bill but went on holiday before acting. Politicians gave speeches in various corners of the country with predictably patriotic rhetoric.
And in Paris, American doughboys under commanding Gen. John J. Pershing made their first foray into global warfare, marching through the streets in a display that would end at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette.
For Washington and the rest of the country, the Fourth of July in 1917 was unlike any other in the country’s history. America had entered World War I just three months earlier, and the fireworks and patriotic fervor of past years mixed with anxiety over the horrors facing U.S. troops being deployed in the blood-soaked trenches of Europe.
Beyond the war, plenty of headlines heightened tensions. In May, a fire in Atlanta displaced 10,000 residents. Race riots, sparked by labor disputes, raged through East St. Louis in early July, finally settling just as Independence Day approached.
In April, the U.S. had declared war on Germany. For the first time in its history, the country celebrated its birth under the shadow of a global war.
But 100-year-old newspapers bear striking similarities to today’s media (except for style — reporters, blissfully predating Strunk and White’s dissuasion from “needless words,” expounded lengthily on trials and triumphs alike). News reports testify to a recurrent struggle: the nation’s search for its ideals manifested in marches and speeches and conflict.
Interspersed with cheerful advertisements for white shoe cleaner, petticoats and typewriter ribbons, war reports consumed newspaper columns in every major publication. July 4, 1917, was no exception: For the first time, American troops marched through Paris to the din of delighted crowds.
“Several times groups of shopgirls on their way to work slipped through the police lines and kissed the soldiers, to their great embarrassment,” The Chicago Tribune reported.
On U.S. soil, similar enthusiasm escalated.
“July the Fourth this year witnesses one of the greatest necessities the course of human events has ever brought before lovers of human liberty,” cried an editorial in The Washington Evening Star.
Families across the country flocked to picnics and parties galore. The Chicago Tribune counted 87 celebrations in the city, noting that the Army and Navy were recruiting at each event. Concerts, plays, and fireworks displays raked in donations for the war effort.
In the District of Columbia, mothers and children gathered at Good Will Camp in Rock Creek Park for “charades, tableaux, recitation, and songs,” while the Daughters of the American Revolution held a play at Memorial Continental Hall to benefit the Red Cross. Even Confederate veterans shook off old grievances. They gathered, in uniform, for a group photo in the city and held a “patriotic celebration” later in the day.
“War fever was being ramped up,” said Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin, author of “War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918.”
Mr. Kazin noted that the government tried to “sell the war” to a citizenry that wasn’t keen on the idea of the draft, which hadn’t been implemented since the Civil War.
Theodore Roosevelt, no longer president but still politically active, talked up the war effort before crowds in New York, as did the secretary of war, Norton Baker.
“We are now at war with Germany,” Roosevelt declared in Long Island, according to The Washington Evening Star. Those who sympathized with the German cause, he said, were guilty of “moral treason.”
“We must fight for democracy here at home as our armies will fight for democracy abroad,” Baker told an audience at the College of the City of New York.
In the year of the first jazz album and Pulitzer Prize, war could not halt culture: Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” played in movie theaters, department stores touted summer sales of muslin clothes and golf shoes, The Evening Star’s Society section zealously reported all the frilly details of who’s-who weddings.
But even in the elements of daily culture, Mr. Kazin noted, the public made an effort to push patriotism to the forefront: Sauerkraut became “victory cabbage,” Bach and Mozart concerts were canceled, the national anthem played everywhere. “One-hundred-percent Americanism” became important; “hyphenated Americans” were questionable.
President Wilson’s April 2 speech calling for Americans to “make the world safe for democracy” was messianic and romantic, Mr. Kazin said, inspiring the patriotic vibes that swelled so obviously on the Fourth of July.
(On July 4, however, Wilson opted to sail leisurely down the Patapsco on the Mayflower naval yacht. Congress, too, took a holiday: The House reserved two days for the occasion, and the Senate took a day and a half.)
But patriotism in 1917 didn’t fill the whole picture. “The anti-war feeling didn’t go away,” said Mr. Kazin. On May Day, Cleveland citizens marched through the streets to protest the war; on June 6, 138 socialists and International Workers of the World members in Rockford, Illinois, turned themselves in for arrest, refusing to register for the draft. On Independence Day, Victor Berger, a prominent anti-war socialist, called for protests in an editorial in his paper, The Milwaukee Leader.
Others expressed dissatisfaction with the nation: Members of the National Women’s Party were arrested for marching by the White House on July 4, and miners in Arizona continued their strike in protest of the deportation of Mexican-Americans.
Though conflicted, the U.S. remained idealistic — and perhaps citizens shared more ideals, disguised by mistaken approaches to their manifestation, than they realized.
“The Melting Pot idea prevails,” The Chicago Tribune declared, citing seven patriotic events around the city that would feature multiple ethnicities. An editorial in the same paper lambasted the white men who had attacked blacks in the race riots, crying shame on the whole state of Illinois.
Another Tribune editorial reaffirmed the ideals of the Declaration of Independence: Equality, inalienable rights and consent of the governed, the author wrote, are the same today as they were in 1776.
“Amen!” he cried. “It might have been written this morning.”
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