As we prepare to celebrate America's 208th birthday, it might be well to recall how some other generations observed the holiday. To be sure, the Founding Fathers were too close to the event to provide predictions, except, of course, for John Adams, whose heart and pen were inseparable. The nation's birthday, he wrote to wife, Abigail, in July of 1776, ''ought to be solemnized with pomp, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.''
For 19th-century Americans, Independence Day was all that Adams had envi-sioned. It was also a day of perfervid speechmaking. One analyst noted that the Fourth of July speech ''was, as a rule, not of high type, but it was distinctly national. Under its classification were comprised many different styles, from the able and dignified oration of such an orator as John Quincy Adams to the frothy mouthings of some village ranter.''
To contemporary Americans the importance of the Independence Day speeches is the insight they provide about a democratic nation. As early as 1793, for example, one speaker saw the American Revolution as the first step toward infusion of its principles throughout mankind: ''. . . the passions which have hitherto made the misery of mankind will be disarmed of all their violence and give way to the soft control of mild and amiable sentiments.''
After the Civil War in 1869, a July 4 oration reflected the view that the war among brothers added a new dimension to the responsibilities that the generation of veterans faced: ''Though young in years, we should remember that henceforth, and as long as we live in the land, we are the ancients - the veterans of the Republic. As such, it is for us to protect in peace what we preserved in war - it is for us to look at all things with a view to the common country and not to the exigencies of party politics. . . .
And by the end of the century, in 1884, orators on the nation's birthday observed that freedom is ''safe in America just so long as the men of this land know the worth of their inheritance and maintain the principles by which it has been secured.'' They are also perceptive in recognizing the dual side of liberty: ''The American principle of equality is the source of astonishing energy, and also of audacious and unscrupulous greed. Our greatest virtues and our greatest vices are both fostered by liberty.''
Yet as criticism of American life surfaced, Fourth of July orations recognized, in all their fervent prose, the legacy that we should ponder with pride tomorrow.
''Our light has been, at best, but a revolving light; warning by its darker intervals or its sombre shades, as well as cheering by its flashes of brilliancy , or by the clear lustre of its steadier shining. Yet, in spite of all its imperfections and irregularities, to no other earthly light have so many eyes been turned; from no other earthly illumination have so many hearts drawn hope and courage. It has breasted the tides of sectional and of party strife. It has stood the shock of foreign and of civil war. It will still hold on, erect and unextinguished. . . .''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University, Washington, D.C.