‘Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations’ — A Brief History of the Fourth of July

Fireworks explode over the New York City skyline during Independence Day celebrations in 2010. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Not much has changed in the way Americans celebrate the Fourth in the last 243 years.

A  bright blend of family, friends, picnics, and patriotism fills the summer air; red, white, and blue adorns every Main Street; parade floats roll by to the brassy tunes of the local marching band. Sparklers and firecrackers dazzle the kids in the backyard (no more Roman Candles after what happened last year) while the parents revel in happy hour all day long. Ah yes, Independence Day — a day for flipping some burgers, blasting some Lee Greenwood, and (of course) pouring on the bug spray for the evening fireworks show.

It’s safe to say that most of us love our Independence Day traditions, but where did these traditions come from, anyway? Why is it that we religiously stare at sky explosions every time July 4th rolls around? With all of the fretting over Trump’s “Salute to America” extravaganza, an inquiry into the history of Independence Day celebrations seems to gain extra precedence.

From the very beginning, the Founders envisioned Independence Day as a spectacular celebration. In a letter John Adams penned to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776, regarding the colonies’ newly declared independence from Great Britain, he wrote:

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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 commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. 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.

In his letter Adams anticipates quite presciently the nature of Fourth of July celebrations up to the present day. In nearly any American town or city, one can stumble upon a Fourth of July parade, a special show or concert, or ceremonial gunfire. And with Americans spending over $1 billion on fireworks every Fourth, “Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other” is an apt description of the nightscape of Independence Day.

While Adams predicted the nature of Independence Day festivities, he was off about one important thing — the actual date when American independence would be celebrated “in succeeding Generations.”

He assumed the “Second Day of July 1776” would go down in history because the (Second) Continental Congress, that astute body of delegates from the original 13 colonies, officially declared freedom from Great Britain on July 2nd, 1776 (not on July 4th). On July 2nd, the Congress unanimously passed a resolution submitted by Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia. The resolution stated:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

By passing the “Lee Resolution,” the Continental Congress officially cleaved the young colonies from the Crown. No more King George III, no more taxation without representation. The United Colonies were colonies no more. Arguably, this moment was the true beginning of an independent United States.

While Lee’s Resolution cut straight to the question of independence from Great Britain, his words did not possess the finesse and charisma required to inspire a nation to rebel. This great task — persuading the people of America to reject the Crown by a formal Declaration of Independence — was left to the “Committee of Five,” which consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman.

After some encouragement from Adams, Jefferson personally drafted the Declaration. After a few rounds of edits, wherein Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause was notoriously removed, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This document was swiftly published and sent out to the populace to stoke up patriotic fervor, and the rest is, well, history.

Thanks to Jefferson’s eloquence and the fame of the Declaration, July 4th prevailed as the day to commemorate American independence. An article from a 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette described a Virginian town’s celebration of America’s first birthday, with streamers, cannon fire — the whole shebang.

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, the yards being properly manned, they began the celebration of the day by a discharge of thirteen cannon from each of the ships, and one from each of the thirteen gallies, in honour of the Thirteen United States.

To top off celebrations, a bright array of fireworks lit up the sky.

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. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.

As the record shows, from the very inception of American independence, the Fourth of July has been celebrated with grand cannon fire, ceremonial displays of military prowess, and a whole lot of fireworks.

While Independence Day was celebrated on July 4 from the very beginning, Independence Day was not an official federal holiday until Congress passed a law on June 28, 1870. With the Civil War recently over, and the Thirteenth Amendment recently passed, Independence Day could at last begin to gain a coherence it always lacked.

Americans towns celebrated the newly dubbed federal holiday with parades, picnics, barbecues, ceremonial cannon fire, public games, and play-acting. Military companies of infantry assembled from the surrounding counties to participate in drills, dress parades, and the overall pomp and circumstance of the day. Fireworks concluded the day’s festivities as traditional. Sound familiar?

In short, not much has changed in the way Americans celebrate the Fourth in the last 243 years even though much has changed about America. And while I do think rolling tanks onto the National Mall is ridiculous, militaristic pomp and circumstance has always been a part of Independence Day celebrations.

So, when the fireworks start and that first mosquito bites, just remember that you are taking part in a long and storied tradition of Independence Day in the USA.

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