Origins of Fourth of July

Celebrating the Fourth of July

By Marian I. Doyle, 1998
Reprinted courtesy of Early American Homes Magazine.

After the American Revolution, towering bonfires were lit the night before the Fourth and bells, guns and cannons broke the morning.

There once was a time in America when the year was marked by two eagerly awaited high festivals -- Christmas and Independence Day. Asked to pick which was best, even children might have chosen the Fourth. From country to city it was a day of fluttering flags, passionate emotions, and bombastic pleasures commemorating a freedom so recently won it was not yet taken for granted.

A first description of how this anniversary of our nation's birth was to be honored came in a July 4, 1777, notice from Thomas Wharton of the Philadelphia Committee of Safety to the city Justices. The true friends of Liberty, he told them, had expressed a desire to hold public rejoicings and illuminations. A fireworks, therefore, had been ordered for the town common and the aid of two hundred soldiers was being requested to restrain the ardor of those who imbibed a bit too patriotically.

After the war, the average American found the cost of imported European fireworks much too high. Not until after 1816 and the start of a home industry would fireworks once more become a common feature of the celebration. But towering bonfires were lit the night before and bells, guns, and cannons broke the morning. Liberty poles were raised and capped. Children hung Benedict Arnold in effigy until the memory of his treachery faded. Graying veterans reminisced while overseeing heroic reenactments of their town's great battles, and, as it was said, made the eagle scream.

The 1820s became a time of huge Independence Day banquets accompanied by orations and a multitude of toasts. Thirty-two were proposed at the 1828 gathering of the Armstrong Guards in Kittanning, Pennsylvania: The day we celebrate. Sacred to liberty and the rights of man. Four cheers! ... The surviving officers and soldiers of the Army of the Revolution. Three cheers! ... The President... The Governor... The Fair Sex... . The Pennsylvania canal! One German immigrant was moved by the fervor of the movement to call out his own toast -- Freuheit und JS! our genuge! a mix of German and English that translated as "Liberty and plenty of flour!" It was roundly applauded. Also drawing applause was a final toast to the Jacksonites on the other side of the river! Partisan politics had found its way into the country's great anniversary, and the divisions of an election year had sent the "Jacksonites" of Kittanning to hold their celebration on the opposite side of the Allegheny River from the "Adamites."

Large-scale public spectacle was added to city festivities in the 1830s. A typical Fourth of July in New York City began with the roar of cannons and the unfurling of flags, pennants, and streamers from the masts of hundreds of ships around the harbor. Banners waved as far as the eye could see in streets thronged with people. Children in plumed hats flourished tin swords and pranced happily to marching music punctuated by blasts of artillery fire from the military exhibition park.

With darkness came the glimmer of a thousand lamps along avenues of booths selling gimcracks, ginger beer, and nearly every digestion-threatening delicacy known to man. Clusters of small explosions from strings of firecrackers heightened anticipation that turned to cheers when an illuminated balloon rose gleaming gold in the sky and a rocket exploded in silver above it. Fiery serpents followed, twisting through the air, fountains of fire showered down; and streams of light eclipsed the stars until, with a shuddering bombardment of sound, the show ended for another year.

Though their celebration would be far less spectacular, country folk of the time looked forward just as fervently to Independence Day as their sophisticated city cousins. Spring and summer had been spent plowing, planting, and hoeing, and soon there would be haying. But for one glorious festival day there was the Fourth, when families from all the neighboring farms gathered at a favorite picnic grove to enjoy a holiday from wearying responsibility. Children had their popcorn and firecrackers. Grownups had their catching-up to do after long weeks or months of isolation. Speeches made up in patriotic zeal for what they lacked in polish. There were food and whiskey and games and dancing to the tunes of a fiddle. After dark there would be a bonfire and maybe a skyrocket or two before the drowsy ride home.

Those who lived in a village or town in the 1830s could expect a day of dizzying activity that from a child's point of view was nearly magic. Every boy with gunpowder in his veins got up before dawn to hear the chorus of ordnance, bells, and voices that greeted the sun. He fretted his way through a breakfast he was too excited to eat, then drilled his younger brothers and sisters in military maneuvers until it was time to leave.

The entire town soon emptied into the streets that had been watered the night before to keep down the dust. Women set out a feast on tables under massive tents. Men busily checked arrangements, donned uniforms, and tuned musical instruments. The children ran wildly back and forth until shooed off to watch the militia form up on the green. There they stood in open-mouthed awe or wheeled noisily in disjointed regiments of their own until the bugle sounded, the drums rattled their irresistible rhythm, and the procession to the church began.

Once inside they settled down. Militia and honored guests took up the front rows. Young folks claimed the balcony where they could look down on the sea of white muslin dresses and waving fans and miss nothing. The pastor rose first to commend the country, the company, and their fate to God while boys stared in envy at former playmates grown old enough to stand at proud attention in new Guard uniforms. Suddenly the silence was shattered by the martial clash of the band. "Hail Columbia" sent everyone into a foot-stamping ecstasy that even trumpet and bass drum couldn't drown out. Hearts thrilled, eyes turned to the flag, expectation soared as the orator stepped forward.

He might be the son of a man who had known the strife of battle, seen Lexington and Concord, heard the exaltation of freedom's first hymn in the peals of Philadelphia's great bell. He might be a townsman who had distinguished himself in law or politics, flushed with the enthusiasm of a generation born to the rights of citizenship in a young nation. But whoever he was, he would speak in ringing tones of sacrifice, courage, the nobly won past, and the shining future until the crowd believed and shared his vision of an America yet unrealized. When the long speech ended in an explosion of applause and tears there would be heartfelt songs, a final benediction, and an exodus back out to the sunshine of a day of picnics, excursions, races, games, and laughter. The night would end in a child's fantasy of fireworks put together by the men -- Roman candles, torpedoes, and wheels and stars of flashing fancy.

It was a magnificent way to spend a birthday, and closer to the manner in which John Adams once predicted the Fourth of July would always be celebrated than we would ever see again. In another twenty years the meaning of the day had diminished, "flown away in villainous saltpeter, exploded in firecrackers, and whizzed to the empyrean in skyrockets," the editor of Harper's Monthly complained. The patriotic orator now competed with a sideshow of peddlers, circus acts, and crackling disruptions. Young men no longer scrambled to top a pole with a liberty cap, and no one remembered the old, old songs once sung throughout thirteen colonies longing for self-determination.

"In Freedom we're born, and, like Sons of the brave, Will never surrender, But swear to defend her, And scorn to survive if unable to save." Now adults dreaded the noise and confusion of the day. Yet even in the midst of the chaos, philosophers found hope in the very exuberance that made it all so trying, "Not all the money of all national treasuries could buy the youth, the health, the hope, the carelessness, that makes our festival so fair," Harper's editor wrote. After all, something must be pardoned to the spirit of Liberty. And somewhere in the distant reaches of a clear sky, far beyond the smoke and furor, he believed he could still hear an eagle scream.

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