July 4th, 1817
As we celebrate our country's 240th anniversary, let's look back at the 41st birthday celebration held at West Point in 1817 according to a letter to the editor in New York's Evening Post. This article is a bit long and there are no fireworks, but I think it gives insight into what the Academy faculty and cadets valued at the time.
The main activities kicked off at 3:30 p.m. with a dinner procession consisting of the 2nd company of cadets, the 1st company of cadets, the academic staff, military officers, and invited guests, which included Governor Thomas Worthington of Ohio. The parade processed with musical accompaniment to an arbor created for the celebration. An arbor is a wooden framework covered by plants, tree branches, vines, etc.. There, the cadet companies formed lines and allowed the faculty, officers, and guests to pass.
At 4 p.m., a dinner organized by a cadet committee and prepared by the Steward was served. This would have been in the 1815 mess hall on the Plain near the entrance to the present Washington Hall. After the meal, a long series of toasts with cheers and music were presented. The toasts, in order, were for the following:
1. The 4th of July, accompanied by "Hail Columbia," which was the de facto national anthem of the Country in the 19th century. One gun fired. Six cheers.
2. The President and Vice-President of the United States, with "The President's March." (The exact song is unclear because "Hail Columbia" was also known as "The President's March." This could refer to "Hail to the Chief" which was starting to be used in conjunction with Presidents at about this time.) One gun fired.
3. The Governor and citizens of New York, with an unnamed waltz. Three cheers.
4. The memory of George Washington, the toast made while standing, with "Pleyel's Hymn" ("Children of the Heavenly King"). This was followed by two minutes of gun salutes.
5. The President's Tour. In June of 1817, President James Monroe set off on the first Presidential Tour since George Washington. It lasted 15 weeks and was a great success. This toast was accompanied by "Monroe's March" and three cheers. The song is possible this one.
6. The United States, with a one gun salute, six cheers, and "Yankee Doodle."
7. Poetry and Eloquence. "Republics should always cherish them — national pride, and honor and virtue, result from their perfection." This was followed by three cheers and the "Overture to Artaxerxes" from the Persia-set opera by the English composer Thomas Arne. He also wrote, "A-Hunting We Will Go!"
8. Science. "Let it be cultivated; it purges the mental eye of its film — it burnishes the soul with the rays of divinity." This was accompanied by the "Cadet's grand march" and 3 cheers.
9. Vincent M. Lowe, who had been killed on New Year's Day, 1817. (See my earlier article on Lowe). This toast was drank standing and the musicians played the traditional Irish song "Wounded Hussar."
10. Our Artisans and Mechanics, along with a quick step and three cheers.
11. The Profession of Arms, with a one-gun salute, the "Fort Erie March" and three cheers.
12. Citizens and Soldiers. "Mutual jealousy produces mutual destruction — let them beware of it." The music for this toast was "The Soldier's Return," which probably refers to the Robert Burns song from the 1790's. Lyrics here. Song here.
13. Ireland. "The vampires of freedom which crawl around her vitals suppress not the fire of her genius — national misery and suffering elicit the mental superiority of her sons." This toast included a one-gun salute, six cheers, and the playing of "Erin Go Braugh." Irish immigration and nationalism were on the rise at the time.
14. The French Exiles, with a one-gun salute, six cheers, and the playing of "Downfall of Paris." This toast seems to refer to the three-year occupation of Paris after the Treaty of Paris in 1815. "Downfall of Paris" was a popular fife and drum tune of the day. See the video inset.
15. David Ramsey, a well-known doctor, politician, and historian of the American Revolution, who was murdered in 1815 in Charleston, SC by a man who a judge ordered Ramsey to examine. This toast was drank standing and was accompanied by "The Portuguese Hymn" (a.k.a. "Oh Come All Ye Faithful")
16. Courage, with a trumpet march, three cheers, and a one-gun salute.
17. Man, with the "Overture to St. Jean" and three cheers.
18. Subordination, with a one-gun salute, "Capt. Patridge's quick step," and six cheers. Partridge was the Supe at the time but would be dismissed in November of 1817. That's a story for another day.
19. The Fair. In other words, women. "Like the sparkling wine they seem sweeter as they approach our lips." This toast had six cheers and the band played "Nightingale."
At this point, official toasts ended but volunteers continued on, honoring:
Governor Worthington (presumably Governor Thomas Worthington of Ohio, whose son, Thomas Jr., would graduate in 1827.): The Corps of Engineers and Cadets of the Military Academy.
Captain Alden Partridge: The heroes of the Revolution.
Major Isaac Roberdeau, Topographical Engineer: General Enoch Poor and the New Hampshire Brigade.
Mr. Claudius Berard, Professor of French: The pupils of the Military Academy.
Lieutenant Wright: Fallen brethren.
Lieutenant Blaney: General Arthur St. Clair (a controversial figure from the Revolution).
Cadet Benjamin C. Vining (USMA 1818): Alexander Hamilton.
Cadet S. Stanhope Smith (1818): National Virtue.
Cadet Samuel Ringgold (1818): The President in his tour.
Cadet John C. Kirk (1817): "Our late struggle for national right and national honor."
Cadet Edwin Little (admitted 1814): The Committee of Arrangement.
Cadet William H. James (admitted 1816): General Thomas Sumpter
Cadet John C. Russell (1818), who later became John B. F. Russell: Our Preceptors.
Cadet Benjamin C. Vining (1818): Fisher Ames. Ames was a Federalist politician who died in 1808.
At this point, Governor Worthington and Captain Partridge left, but two more toasts followed:
Cadet Nathaniel H. Loring (dismissed in 1819 under complicated circumstances related to their complaints about harsh treatment by Captain Bliss): Governor Worthington.
Cadet William G. McNeill (1817): Captain Partridge. (McNeill's sister would marry his friend George Washington Whistler and give birth to the famed painter, and West Point dropout, James McNeill Whistler).
After all these toasts, a ball was held. What a long night of celebrating!
Source: The Evening Post (New York), July 12, 1817.