Robert Benchley: American Anniversaries


We haven’t heard from Robert Benchley in a while, have we? Here’s a piece from Love Conquers All, from the section that consists of book reviews. Benchley found in books of facts almost exactly the same thrill that I find in them. The reference to the Treaty of Breda makes it possible to say confidently that this essay was first printed in 1920. The student of post-Great-War America might have figured that out from the gently pointed social commentary near the essay’s end. A fascinating thing about the Treaty of Breda which Benchley doesn’t mention is that since it was to end the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which included fighting all over the world in a time when communications were slow and clumsy, it specified different dates on which the hostilities would officially end for different parts of the world.

AMERICAN ANNIVERSARIES

MR PHILIP R DILLON has compiled and published in his American Anniversaries a book for men who do things. For every day in the year there is a record of something which has been accomplished in American history. For instance, under January 1 we find that the parcel-post system was inaugurated in the United States in 1913, while January 2 is given as the anniversary of the battle of Murfreesboro (or Stone’s River, as you prefer). The whole book is like that; just one surprise after another.

What, for instance, do you suppose that Saturday marked the completion of? . . . Presuming that no one has answered correctly, I will disclose (after consulting Mr Dillon’s book) that July 31 marked the completion of the 253d year since the signing of the Treaty of Breda. But what, you may say — and doubtless are saying at this very minute — what has the Treaty of Breda (which everyone knows was signed in Holland by representatives of England, France, Holland and Denmark) got to do with American history? And right there is where Mr Dillon and I would have you. In the Treaty of Breda, Acadia (or Nova Scotia) was given to France and New York and New Jersey were confirmed to England. So, you see, inhabitants of New York and New Jersey (and, after all, who isn’t?) should have especial cause for celebrating July 31 as Breda Day, for if it hadn’t been for that treaty we might have belonged to Poland and been mixed up in all the mess that is now going on over there.

I must confess that I turned to the date of the anniversary of my own birth with no little expectation. Of course I am not so very well known except among the tradespeople in my town, but I should be willing to enter myself in a popularity contest with the Treaty of Breda. But evidently there is a conspiracy of silence directed against me on the part of the makers of anniversary books and calendars. While no mention was made of my having been born on September 15, considerable space was given to recording the fact that on that date in 1840 a patent for a knitting machine was issued to the inventor, who was none other than Isaac Wixan Lamb of Salem, Massachusetts.

Now I would be the last one to belittle the importance of knitting or the invention of a knitting machine. I know some very nice people who knit a great deal. But really, when it comes to anniversaries I don’t see where Isaac Wixon Lamb gets off to crash in ahead of me or a great many other people that I could name. And it doesn’t help any, either, to find that James Fenimore Cooper and William Howard Taft are both mentioned as having been born on that day or that the chief basic patent for gasoline automobiles in America was issued in 1895 to George B Selden. It certainly was a big day for patents. But one realizes more than ever after reading this section that you have to have a big name to get into an anniversary book. The average citizen has no show at all.

In spite of these rather obvious omissions, Mr Dillon’s book is both valuable and readable. Especially in those events which occurred early in the country’s history is there material for comparison with the happenings of the present day, events which will some day be incorporated in a similar book compiled by some energetic successor of Mr Dillon.

For instance, under October 27, 1659, we find that William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson were banished from New Hampshire on the charge of being Quakers and were later executed for returning to the colony. Imagine!

And on December 8, 1837, Wendell Phillips delivered his first abolition speech at Boston in Faneuil Hall, as a result of which he got himself known around Boston as an undesirable citizen, a dangerous radical and a revolutionary trouble-maker. It hardly seems possible now, does it?

And on July 4, 1776 — but there, why rub it in?

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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