1876: The Eagle Screams


With such instances one can easily make a case that the Centennial celebration overlooked large numbers of dissatisfied Americans and glossed over the reasons for their discontent. Even so, one cannot help but be charmed by the Exhibition’s enthusiasm and high spirits. Day after day gay crowds flocked to see shooting matches and regattas, mummies, tombstones, and even a mechanical Cleopatra. They drank soda water and ice water and beer. They fainted from the heat, caught their fingers in the machines, and fell from the open cars of the narrow-gauge railway that puffed through the Centennial grounds. Officials apparently worried that publicity for such incidents might have an adverse effect on attendance, so they refused to let reporters see the records from the Centennial hospital. But the reporters found out about the accidents anyway, wrote about them, and nothing discouraged the crowds.

Sixty-four thousand came on Connecticut Day, 257,000 on Pennsylvania Day. On New York Day 118,000 came, including Governor Tilden, who shook hands for more than three hours and spoke to an enthusiastic crowd. Ohio Day, October 26, was blustery, but still more than 120,000 came and cheered for Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, who, like his opponent for the Presidency, shook hands and spoke to the crowd, all the while politely refraining from mentioning that he was a candidate.

Even on November 10, in a downpour of rain, more than fifteen thousand uninvited visitors came to witness the Exhibition’s closing. Those who had been reading the newspapers might well have suspected that the country was facing one of its worst crises. “News of the Presidential election comes to hand slowly and is somewhat conflicting,” wrote the Public Ledger . The Inquirer was more direct: “Hayes or Tilden?” they asked. It would be months of vote fraud, tension, and threats before the country would know. The figurativeminded person might have seen in the dreary and dismal weather of that November day a metaphor for the country’s future.

But those who attended the closing ceremonies in Judge’s Hall tried to cheer when President Grant gave the signal for the Corliss Engine to be shut down. They tried to repeat the joyful noise that had marked the Exhibition’s opening six months earlier. The moment was, however, too full of the sense that a gay and brilliant event had come to an end. “Moved by an instinctive impulse there was an attempt on the part of the multitude to cheer,” wrote a Philadelphia reporter, “but there was more sadness than gladness in the emotion, and what was designed for an hurrah came very near breaking down into a sob.”

The Centennial celebration was full of incongruities that to a twentiethcentury eye have an adolescent quality, a certain painful awkwardness that we have little desire to repeat. Yet it was also informed by an enviable enthusiasm and exuberance that we, who think so precisely on our bicentennial event, seem little likely to achieve. The image of the country that our centennial ancestors projected in their celebration was not objective, or realistic, or all-inclusive. But probably because their vision was partial, their party was full of vigor and spirit and life.