The Fourth of July is the Yankee Doodle Day. For on this day in 1776 the Declaration of Independence passed the Second Continental Congress and our nation became independent from Great Britain. The Declaration is interestingly subtitled, “The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” (that’s right, united is not capitalized). Elsewhere in the Declaration, however, it states, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” In effect the Declaration of Independence is a declaration for the independence of thirteen nations united in the cause of Liberty.
The term Yankee Doodle probably dates back to the Seven Years’ War—known in the English Colonies as the French and Indian Wars (1689-1763). A popular song amongst regular military units describing Americans, derided them as being disheveled, disorganized and simpleton. Indeed, “doodle” is a derivation from the Low German dödel meaning fool. Yankee (sometimes abbreviated Yank) resulted from a corruption of language and the Huron Indian pronunciation of the word English (l’anglais in French), which sounded like Yan-gee. The words were set to a popular nursery rhyme, “Lucy Locket.” Accordingly “Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony,” and then “He stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” Macaroni in the middle 18th century was a dude, or fashionable person. So the joke was that these American Yankees believed that a feather in the hat was sufficient to make one the height of fashion, a real English Gentleman!
The funniest part about all this is that Americans picked up the tune themselves and started to love it. British and American troops during the Revolutionary War took turns changing lyrics and rubbing it in as it were. During the War Between the States, Southerners added their own lyrics and sang just as proudly, “There was Captain Washington upon a slapping stallion, a-giving orders to his men I guess there was a million.” The Great Seal of the Confederacy actually has Washington on a slapping stallion. Southerners had no problem with being a Yankee Doodle, but as for being a Yank or plain Yankee (particularly when the term is prefaced), well that’s something different!
The song “Yankee Doodle Boy” or “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” is from a Broadway musical written by George M. Cohan dating back to 1904. The musical concerns the hard knocks of one Little Johnny Jones, a fictional American jockey who rides a horse named Yankee Doodle in the English Derby. The song became a patriotic standard and was performed again in the movie—a biographical film about George M. Cohan called “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and starring James Cagney. Production of the film had just begun when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, influencing the film’s cast and crew to make an unabashedly uplifting and patriotic film, which they did in spectacular fashion. Release was timed for Memorial Day 1942.
Yankee Doodle these days and forever belongs to these United States. He’s an archetype of the American character and a fun-loving, unpretentious one at that. Even foreigners recognize it, although they sometimes mistakenly refer to all Americans simply as “Yanks” or “Yankees,” dropping the essential Doodle, ill advisedly in Dixie. On this Fourth of July, as if he needs encouragement and even if he doesn’t, “Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle dandy, mind the music and the step, and [let] the girls be handy!” That’s what he always does anyway, even when problems mount up as high as the national debt or taxes. He’s always smiling and ever amazed at the sights he runs into. The country as it evolved after 1776, in scarcely more than a decade, became a compound republic with dual sovereignties and divided power between the federal government and states, such that, the Constitution drafted in 1787 capitalized the term “United States” as a proper noun for the new nation. Boy that Yankee Doodle Boy is still quite wide-eyed and thoroughly impressed with the fact! One only hopes he finds as many others at tea parties and venues all around, where once he went with Father “down to camp, along with Captain Gooding, and there [they] saw the men and boys, as thick as hasty pudding” all having a Yankee Doodle Day.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he serves as State Director of the Republican Freedom Coalition (RFC). This article is from his forthcoming book, Horse Sense for the New Millennium scheduled for release in September (iUniverse, Inc., 2011). Email: Wes@WesRiddle.com.