Rare Francis Scott Key Fourth of July Oration Given to State Library
By ARTHUR POUND, State Historian

A notable addition to New York’s famous collection of Fourth of July orations has recently been made by the Hon. Jesse Merritt, historian, of Nassau county. Mr. Merritt has given to the State Library a first edition copy of a rare address delivered by the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key, “in the Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States” on July 4, 1831.
In his own day, Francis Scott Key was better known as a public speaker than as a poet. On February 22, 1814, seven months before composing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key delivered an important patriotic oration at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexander, Va. For two years the Nation had been distressed by a painful and so far unsuccessful war; and the young lawyer’s eager mind was full of the burning fervor which in September burst forth in the poem that later became our national anthem.
On July 4, 1831, honored with the invitation to speak under the Congressional auspices, he appeared as one of the elder bards and statesmen. Eloquently, in words full of meaning for us today he reviewed the sacrifices of those who has established and preserved the Nation.—
“Under such circumstances, and in such times, no ordinary men could have put forth the Declaration of American Independence. It brought the Nation together as one man; all saw that they were parties in the conflict, that their dearest rights were to be sustained or lost forever; and they became a nation of patriots. They saw that upon our fields were to be decided the fate of nations, the destiny of man….
“We hold a rich deposit in trust for ourselves and all brethren of mankind. It is the fire of liberty. If it becomes extinguished, our darkened land will cast a mournful shadow over the nations—if it lives, its blaze will enlighten and gladden the whole earth…
“The oppressor may roll in his countless hosts, but he commands only their hands…they will soon learn that they too are men, not ‘mere machines of murder.’”
These inspiring and sustaining words, spoken by the author of our national anthem 111 years ago, can be repeated today without a change.
Fourth of July orations are decisive expressions of the American spirit and as such have for years been sought and collected by the State Library. The late Walter Stanley Biscoe, Senior Librarian, compiled a list of 1928 printed items, of which the Library then possessed 900. Under his successor, Joseph Gavit, the list has risen to 2300 titles, of which the Library now has about 1100.
Of these the earliest dating is July 4, 1777, when William Gordon preached on the patriotic theme before the General Court of Massachusetts. Since that time patriotic Americans have delivered Fourth of July orations the wide world over to all manner of audiences, as the following instances from the State Library collection indicate:
By George R. Parkhurst, on shipboard in the Pacific, 1849;
By “An American Seaman,” board the Nassau Prison ship at Chatham, England, 1813;
By Captain George F. Noyes to Doubleday’s Brigade, before Fredericksburg, 1862;
By Horatio Seymour, former governor, to inmates of Auburn prison, 1879;
By some unknown and perhaps misguided patriot to the insane inmates of the Ohio Lunatic
Asylum, 1846.
Through the generosity of Mr. Merritt, the Francis Scott Key 1831 oration from the National
Capitol now takes its place as a highly valued item in this extensive collection of patriotic addresses in the State Library.
Pound, Arthur. “Rare Francis Scott Key Fourth of July Oration Given to State Library.” Dansville Breeze. July 1, 1942: 4 cols 1-3.

PDF of Francis Scott Key’s July 4th, 1831 oration