On Monday in Faneuil Hall, a distinguished citizen (not yet announced at press time) will give Boston’s official July 4 oration, continuing a tradition dating to 1783. (The yearly orations originally started in 1771 to commemorate the March 5 anniversary of the Boston Massacre.) The list of speakers reads as an archeology of local celebrity. A century ago, for instance, the orator was Joe Mitchell Chapple, editor of the Boston-based National Magazine. In his time, Chapple was well-known as a journalist and as that once-prominent figure, an after-dinner speaker. But his most noted achievement was an early example of crowdsourcing. Chapple appealed to readers of the National to send in favorite poems, stories, and anecdotes; the best, as judged by Senator William Allison and Admiral George Dewey, were published in 1905 as “Heart Throbs: in Prose and Verse” — “Dear to the American People,” the title page proclaimed.
“Heart Throbs” was a runaway bestseller, warranting a second volume some years later. In between, Chapple also applied the method to music: “Heart Songs,” with winning entries chosen by New England Conservatory president George Chadwick and operetta composer Victor Herbert, appeared in 1909. Where “Heart Throbs” mostly hewed to an Anglo-American axis of sources (characteristic of its limited cosmopolitan perspective was an article mocking the odor of Roquefort cheese), “Heart Songs” gave a truer glimpse of the country’s melting-pot evolution. Parlor songs rubbed shoulders with operatic excerpts by Verdi, Gounod, and Wagner; Scottish, Irish, French, Italian, and even Chinese folksongs adjoined American ballads and spirituals.
In the preface to “Heart Songs,” Chapple extolled the musical combination of Americans old and new, natives and immigrants, “who, in this new world, have been molded into a great and powerful nation.” Such sentiment informed Chapple’s July 4 oration, titled “The New Americanism.” In 1916, immigration policy was a debate flashpoint; amid florid patriotic encomiums, Chapple tackled the topic head-on. He prescribed full assimilation (against a backdrop of manifest destiny), but also called for individual action. Noting the pro-immigration stance of the Declaration of Independence (which had taken George III to task for “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners”), Chapple challenged Americans to not just revere the Declaration, but evince it: “How many of us ever took a foreigner by the hand and said, ‘I welcome you as an American citizen?’ ”
Chapple warned of what would happen if the American citizen, “in his race for wealth,” forgot such duties: “As volcanic craters, apparently extinct, without warning belch forth flame and lava, so racial prejudice, long dormant, may flare up into bitter hatred and strife.” Better to nurture the nation’s shared, kaleidoscopic, heart-sung repertoire.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.