Estimated reading time: 6 minute(s)

As we approach the 245th Independence Day on July 4, 2021, I decided to put together a series of posts on the topic. Today’s article will cover a poem published in the July 4, 1882 edition of Harper’s Young People, a nineteenth century children’s magazine that ran from 1879 to 1899. The poem is fittingly named “Independence Day.” It has no listed author, so I presume that it was composed by the staff of Harper’s Young People.

Text of the Independence Day Poem

Below, you will find the text of “Independence Day” reprinted in its entirety, as it appeared in the July 4, 1882 edition of Harper’s Young People.

“Independence Day”

      Through the dusty street
      And the boiling heat,
To the sound of the stirring drum,
      With a martial grace
      And a measured pace,
See the proud young patriots come!

      Why march they so,
      With martial show,
These sons of patriot sires?
      What glorious though,
      From the dim past caught,
Their brave young hearts inspires?

      Sure the souls of boys
      Love din and noise,
And they love to march along
      To the ringing cheers
      That greet their ears
From the loud-applauding throng

      But a grander thought
      In their breasts have wrought
Than the love of vain applause,
      For strong and deep
      Is the might sweep
Of their love for Freedom's cause.

      They have heard the tale
      Of the hero Hale,
They have read of Washington,
      And they know full well
      How Warren fell
Ere the fight was scarce begun

      And the long grand scroll
      Of the muster-roll
Of Freedom's patriot band,
      With hearts aflame
      At each noble name,
Their eager eyes have scanned.

      And now, as they hear,
      Loud cheer on cheer
Roll out like a mighty wave,
      They think of the bold
      Brave men of old,
And the land they died to save.

      March on, brave boys,
      With your din and noise,
Through the hot and dusty way,
      And strong and sweet
      May your hearts e'er beat
For glad Independence-day!

My Thoughts on the Independence Day Poem

I liked the unabashedly patriotic Independence Day poem. The first and final two stanzas painted a vivid picture of a youth parade on Independence Day.

The children are marching on a “dusty street” and in “broiling heat.” Onlookers cheer loudly, and the cheers “roll out like a mighty wave.” The children march “With a martial grace / And measured pace” through the inhospitable conditions.

What spurs the children to march with such dignity and precision. The poem nods to boys being boys, acknowledging that “the souls of boys / Love din and noise, / And they love to march along / To the ringing cheers.” However, there is more to the courage of the July 4 parade marchers. That thought, we learn, is patriotism.

While the boys love the applause, their “martial grace” and “measured pace” is owed to something “grander.” The poem explains: “For strong and deep / Is the mighty sweep / Of their love for Freedom’s cause.” The boys knew the stories of the heroes of America’s War of Independence, and those stories lit their “hearts aflame.” In the penultimate stanza, the poem notes that the boys think of those heroes of yore when they hear the cheers of the crowd: “They think of the bold / Brave men of old / And the land they died to save.”

The poem concludes by expressing the hope that the boys’ love of Freedom and appreciation of America’s heroes would stay with them as they grew older.

Notes on Stanza Four

The fourth stanza references three stories from the American Revolution. Because some readers may not be familiar with Hale and Warren by name, I will briefly examine each of their heroic stories below. I assume that most readers are familiar with the exploits of George Washington, so I will reserve him for a separate section.

Nathan Hale

The fourth stanza began: “They have heard the tale / Of the hero Hale.”

Nathan Hale served as an officer in the Continental Army from 1775-1776. He was arrested behind enemy lines in Long Island while on a spying mission, and he was summarily hung the next day. Hale had volunteered to undertake the dangerous assignment.

The “tale” referenced in the poem most likely refers not only to Hale’s courage in penetrating British lines, but also to his comportment after being captured. As the legend goes, Hale is said to have said before being executed:

I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.

Nathan Hale

While we know not if Hale uttered those exact words prior to his death, the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Hale notes that his captors were impressed with his conduct. One British officer who was present at the execution wrote:

He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.

A British Officer Describing Nathan Hale

Joseph Warren

Joseph Warren was a leading figure in Massachusetts in the build-up to the Revolutionary War. He led protests against British policies, and he served in the first three Provincial Congresses in Massachusetts in 1774-75.

On April 18, 1775, in his capacity as President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Warren sent Paul Revere and William Daws to warn patriots in Lexington and Concord of impending British military actions. Warren personally participated in those battles, and on June 14, 1775, he was commissioned as a major general in the Massachusetts militia.

"The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill," painted by John Trumbull between 1815-1831.
The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” (1815-1831). John Trumbull, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The fall of Warren that is noted in the poem came three days after his being commissioned as a general. He was killed in action in the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which he fought as a volunteer soldier rather than as a general.

Comparing the Poem to Helen M. Richardson’s “Like Washington”

I celebrated George Washington’s birthday on February 22 with a 1914 children’s poem by Helen M. Richardson titled “Like Washington.” In that poem, a young boy told his mother that he wished to become like George Washington, but he feared he could not because he could not accomplish all the things that Washington had accomplished. The boy’s mother assured him that he could strive to become like Washington. She placed the emphasis not on Washington’s military and political accomplishments, but on his character: “But to be great, we first must be / Brave, kind and good and true / And Washington was all of these / Though but a boy like you.”

“Like Washington” had a different focus than “Independence Day,” but there are some like ideas beyond both referencing the great General and President. Both poems – “Like Washington” explicitly and “Independence Day” implicitly – exult virtues rather than fame or accomplishments to children.

The child in “Like Washington” began the poem thinking of Washington the legend, only to be reminded by his mother that Washington was a human being who was able to accomplish what he did because of his firm character.

Likewise, “Independence Day” notes the stories of Hale and Warren, neither of whom lived to see America prevail in the Revolutionary War, but both of whom exemplified in their short lives and noble deaths the sentiments of those who would carry the independence movement to its favorable conclusion. The boys in the poem do not march nobly from a desire to be as revered as Washington, Hale, and Warren, but because they believe dearly in the same things that drove the men of yesteryear to fight and die for America’s Independence.

Final Thoughts

“Independence Day” invokes a simple love of country and views patriotism as a virtue. What was common in 1882 may seem increasingly uncommon today. Then, children learned about the heroes of the revolutionary past not only as figures in a textbook, but as examples to emulate. By 1882, those who had fought in the War of Independence were all gone. There were still people who were alive during the Washington Administration, but they were in their later years. Yet, quoting from the First Inaugural Address of the President who presided over America’s bloodiest conflict in the 1860s: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone” reached the children in the poem on their Independence Day march.