Thursday, July 4, 2013

Celebrating July 4th, 18th Century Style

By Frank Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator 

1776, The First Independence Day—July 2, 4, 12, 8, 19, 26…?

You know the document. It begins “In Congress, July 4, 1776…”

Independence was declared with signatures and sacred oaths on that day. The date is boldly emblazoned at the top of the Declaration of Independence. Yet in a July 3 letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams was right about the celebration part, but missed the date. July 2 was the date Congress approved the Declaration, but July 4 was the date on the document itself, and perhaps the date many of the signatures were affixed.

But that first celebration of the first fourth (or even the first second) was destined to be delayed.
In a world where news traveled only at the speed of a good horse, it took time for the news to travel to Virginia and the other 12 former colonies.

Here is some information from Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette of that revolutionary summer of 1776.

The postmaster in Fredericksburg writes, of last Wednesday, that, by a gentleman just arrived from Philadelphia, he had seen an Evening Post of the 2d instant, which mentions that the Hon. the Continental Congress had that day declared the United Colonies free and independent states.

From Philadelphia to Fredericksburg to Williamsburg to print in only 10 days. And there is that July 2 date again. This breaking news was so important that the Gazette printed it as soon as they heard, on Friday, July 12, 1776. The article was on page three of that issue, the last piece of news before the classified ads.

One week later, on July 19, an excerpt of the actual Declaration was printed on page two. This was the first part of the document that was a “recapitulation of injuries” with the crown.

The full text of the Declaration of Independence, by order of the Virginia Council, was printed on the following Friday, July 26. Finally, independence was page one news! Later, in that same issue, was this account of the reaction to the public readings of the Declaration.

w i l l i a m s b u r g, July 26.

"...accompanied by the firing of cannon and musketry..."
Courtesy of Frank Barker
Yesterday afternoon, agreeable to an order of the Hon. Privy Council, the declaration of independence was solemnly proclaimed at the Capitol, the Courthouse, and the Palace amidst the acclamations of the people, accompanied by firing of cannon and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded on that solemnity.

And from New Jersey:

t r e n t o n, July 8.

The Declaration of Independence was this day proclaimed here….the Declaration and other proceedings were received with loud acclamations.

In New York:

On Wednesday last the Declaration of Independence was read at the head of each brigade of the continental army posted at and near New York, and every where received with loud huzzas and the utmost demonstrations of joy.

The same evening the equestrian statue of George III, which Tory pride and folly raised in the year 1770, was, by the sons of freedom, laid prostrate in the dirt, the just desert of an ungrateful tyrant!

A contemporary illustration of the destruction of the King George statue
in New York.  Apparently, the illustrator had not actually seen the statue,
as he left out an important detail; King George was on a horse.  That statue,
and its destruction, have a story all their own.  Check it out here

Our first Independence Day. It wasn’t on July 4. There were no fireworks, no hot dogs, but there were cannons, musketry, parades, and huzzas. And the destruction of a statue destined to be melted down for 42,088 musket balls.

1777, the Second Independence Day—Finally, July 4!

The Nation’s Capital, Philadelphia, had probably the most elaborate celebration in the United States, documented well in the Virginia Gazette of July 18, 1777.

Here is a time line of the events as reported.

p h i l a d e l p h i a,  July 5

Yesterday the 4th of July, being the Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this city with demonstration of joy and festivity.

  • About noon all the armed ships and gallies in the river were drawn up before the city, dressed in the gayest manner, with the colours of the United States and streamers displayed.
  • At one o'clock, … they began the celebration of the day by a discharge of thirteen cannon from each of the ships, …in honour of the Thirteen United States.
  • In the afternoon an elegant dinner was prepared for Congress, to which were invited the President and Supreme Executive Council, and Speaker of the Assembly of this State, the General Officers and Colonels of the army, and strangers of eminence, and the members of the several Continental Boards in town.
  • The Hessian band of music taken in Trenton the 26th of December last, attended and heightened the festivity with some fine performances suited to the joyous occasion…. [They couldn’t get an American band for the event? Did the Beach Boys have another gig?]
  • After dinner a number of toasts were drank, all breaking independence, and a generous love of liberty….
  • Each toast was followed by a discharge of artillery and small arms, and a suitable piece of music by the Hessian band.
  • The glorious fourth of July was reiterated three times accompanied with triple discharges of cannon and small arms, and loud huzzas that resounded from street to street through the city.
  • Towards evening several troops of horse, a corps of artillery, and a brigade of North Carolina forces, which was in town on its way to join the grand army, were drawn up in Second street and reviewed by Congress and the General Officers.
  •  The evening was closed with the ringing of bells…
  • …and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”
    "...And at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks..."
So by the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4 customs were established for all time, flag-waving, a cookout, patriotic music, drinking, shouting, a parade, fireworks, and bell-ringing. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Downright American.


“Adams Electronic Archive : Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams , 3 July 1776 , ‘Had a Declaration...’” Adams Electronic Archive : Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams , 3 July 1776 , “Had a Declaration...” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2013.

"Virginia Gazette, Dixon and Hunter, July 18, 1777, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. Williamsburg. Web. 27 June 2013.

"Virginia Gazette, Purdie, July 12, 1776, Page 3." Virginia Gazette. Williamsburg. Web. 27 June 2013.

"Virginia Gazette, Purdie, July 19, 1776, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. Williamsburg.  Web. 27 June 2013.

"Virginia Gazette, Purdie, July 26, 1776, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. Williamsburg.  Web. 27 June 2013.
"Virginia Gazette, Purdie, July 26, 1776, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. Williamsburg.  Web. 27 June 2013.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great and informative post~