Jeff Jacoby

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."

The parade ended at the Methodist Church, where the minister offered a prayer and the Declaration of Independence was read aloud. Tocqueville was struck by the "electric" intensity of feeling Jefferson's 55-year-old phrases still evoked.

"This was not, I assure you, a theatrical performance," he wrote to his sister. "There was in the reading of these promises of independence so well kept, in this return of an entire people toward the memories of its birth … something deeply felt and truly great."

Then came the day's keynote address, on the theme of freedom in history and how its success in America would eventually be replicated throughout the globe. The ceremony ended with a hymn to liberty, sung to the tune of the Marseillaise. It too traced the rocky progress of liberty, which had since antiquity repeatedly succumbed to despotism or social decay, until — as the last stanza proclaimed — it flourished in the United States:

In this proud land, where freemen cherish Untrammeled thought and action free, Where tyranny but breathes to perish, Thy chosen home must ever be!

(The Albany celebration is described in Tocqueville in America, George Wilson Pierson's absorbing reconstruction of the Frenchmen's nine-month journey, which eventually led to Tocqueville's classic study, Democracy in America.)

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for