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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Words to transform the world

One summer morning in Albany in 1831, two young French noblemen traveling through the United States were awakened by a din of gunfire, artillery explosions, and pealing church bells. It was the Fourth of July in New York’s state capital, and the visitors — Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont — were about to see an American community celebrate the nation’s birthday.

In their journals and letters, they wrote of the Independence Day parade, a procession that included political dignitaries, nine companies of firefighters, and a profusion of floats and delegations from all the local trade and professional associations. At the head of the parade rode a few aged Revolutionary War veterans — “whom the city preserves like precious relics,” Beaumont observed — and with great pomp was displayed “an old American flag, bullet torn, which has come down from the War of Independence.”

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