J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 01, 2022

“Fair the year of glory lies”

It’s a Boston 1775 tradition to post a period poem for New Year’s. Usually I’ve chosen verses written and sung by young news carriers, but this year I’m picking up on this month’s thread of poetry debating the new U.S. Constitution.

“A POEM, Addressed to the PEOPLE of VIRGINIA, on New-Year’s Day, 1788” appeared in the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser dated 10 Jan 1788. Since that newspaper isn’t in the database I can access, I’ve transcribed the version reprinted in the Pennsylvania Packet on 25 January.

Despite the poem being reprinted in several more newspapers and the American Mercury magazine, it really is meant for a Virginia readership. It boasts about the state’s geographic bounties and drops the names of more than a dozen state politicians in a way that would make John Adams grumble, “You know Virginian geese are always swans.”

So far as I can tell, this poem was not included in the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, perhaps because it was published several months before the Virginia ratifying convention got under way.

Still, there’s no question what the anonymous poet was on about.
A POEM, Addressed to the PEOPLE of VIRGINIA, on New-Year’s Day, 1788.

FAIR VIRGINIA, ever dear,
See arriv’d th’ important year!
While the annual song I pay,
Truth inspires the patriot lay:
Wake!—too long thy sons have dream’d—
Where’s the sister state, that beam’d
Fairer in the dawn of fame,
Glowing with a purer flame?
Shall the ancient wreaths you gain’d
By thy latter deeds be stain’d?
Shall not fed’ral conduct crown
All thy acts of old renown?
Union into ruin hurl’d,
Shall a Tyrant grasp a world?
Or shall sep’rate Unions grow,
Endless source of war and woe?
Or, if Anarchy ensue,
Who hath more to lose than you?

Shall we basely sell the boon,
Bought with so much blood, so soon?
Oh! the muse a tale could tell,
How our heroes fought and fell—
Must our Empire’s short-liv’d reign
Prove they fought and bled in vain?

Blest Virginians, sum the cost!
Shall the price of blood be lost?
Lost the blessings ye possess,
Freedom and the pow’r to bless?
Your’s are planted plains and farms,
Villas fair in rural charms;
Lovely girls and prattling boys,
All the bliss of home-born joys;
When the soothing voice invites
Guests to hospitable rights.—
Your’s th’ illimitable waste,
Flow’ry meads and valleys vast;
Your’s stupendous cliffs that rise,
Bosom’d high in fleecy skies;
Your’s the Alleganian hills,
Spouting forth in num’rous rills.
List ye, how, from many a shore,
Distant sons of ocean roar?
Rivers broad to you belong,
Yet to run in deathless song—
Fair Ohio gently roves
Through the sweet Acasian groves;
Rappahannock (sounding name)
And Fluvanna, slow to fame;
Pohawtan superbly rolls;
Great Potomack, void of shoals;
Mississippi’s waves will gain,
Spite of fraud, for you, the main;
Harvests, by your fields supplied,
Then may float on ev’ry tide.

Go, thou miscreant, from whose tongue
Accents of DISUNION rung;
At the shrine of self, in lies,
Every blessing sacrifice!
Bid the kindling beacons far
Light the realms to civil war;
Bid the drum’s obstrep’rous sound
Rumbling run along the ground;
Bid the trumpet sing to arms,
Swell the cannon’s dread alarms;
Wake the clang of steel again;
Purple every flood and plain;
Make the sick’ning harvest die,
Burning cities scorch the sky:
Heav’n for this shall on thy head
Chosen bolts of vengeance shed.
Round our forests, on our coast,
We have nobler names to boast—
Liberal souls, by none surpast,
Names with time itself to last.
Hail Virginia’s patriot sons.
Griffin, Blair, M’Clurg and Jones!
Join the Pages firm and just:
Steward faithful to his trust:
Maddison, above the rest,
Pouring from his narrow chest
More than Greek or Roman sense,
Boundless tides of eloquence:
Withe, who drank the source of truth,
Skill’d in lore of laws from youth:
Thruston’s mind of ample reach;
Innis, fraught with powerful speech:
Too reluctant to engage:
Pendleton with locks of age,
Mild his eye with wisdom beams,
Lent from other worlds he seems;
Heav’n, resume not such a loan,
Ere we make his choice our own.
Erst the Lees, a glorious band,
For their country made a stand.
Wise and brave, unapt to yield.
In the council or the field;
Why asunder are they torn?
Why his* loss must millions mourn,
Who, to glad th’ astonish’d earth,
Spoke an empire into birth?
The footnote explains, “R. H. Lee made the motion in Congress for the declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.” In late 1787 Lee publicly objected to the lack of specified rights in the new Constitution, though not to a restructured federal government. This poet thought Lee was undercutting his earlier actions while he, of course, felt he was acting on the same principles as before.
While the awful hour demands
Ablest heads and purest hands.
Him, in vain, we call from far,
Second splendor, other star,
Light and glory of the age,
Jefferson, the learned sage!
Yet a name adorns our state,
Great as modest, good as great;
Though unnam’d, illustrious far,

Though a FEW, or false or blind,
Strive to taint the public mind;
Trust the muse’s Heav’n-taught strain,
All the noise, the labour’s vain—
Numbers vast will own the plan,
That secures the rights of man;
Gives the States their destin’d place,
High amidst the human race:
Our illustrious hero then,
(First of sages, best of men)
Will the nation’s cares assume,
And again avert its doom.

Bards! your wreaths immortal twine:
Brighter days begin to shine.
Come, ye freemen! Patriots, come!
Read with me Columbia’s doom—
Lo! involv’d in yonder skies,
Fair the year of glory lies.
Ravish’d far, in vision’d trance,
I behold, with mystic glance,
Towns extend on many a bank,
Late with darkling thickets dank,
And the gilded spires arise,
Grateful to propitious skies—
Arts, refinements, morals blest,
Claim perfection in the WEST—
Peace, with commerce in her train,
Brings a golden age again—
While our woven wings unfurl’d
Sail triumphant round the world.
Among the prominent Virginians not named in these lines were Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason, all known to oppose the new Constitution.

Also unnamed, but only because he was too “Great” to need specifying, was George Washington.

(The photograph above shows Virginia’s capitol building in Richmond, designed by Jefferson and under construction in 1788.)

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