If tradition holds, Independence Day will begin with a smattering of complaints that some local communities held fireworks shows on July 3 and that Bodega Bay, Monte Rio and Penngrove started their celebrations — and, in the case of Bodega Bay, hosted a fireworks show — on Sunday. As one of our readers once commented, “Please, leave tradition alone.”
But tradition is a funny thing when it comes to celebrating America’s bold declaration of independence from the British crown in 1776. History shows celebrations were not originally tied to a single date.
John Adams certainly got it right when he wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the document would be celebrated with “pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfire, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
Yet it seems that Adams got the date wrong. As author David McCullough pointed out in his biography of the second president, Adams believed the nation would celebrate on July 2, the day when the American colonies, with New York abstaining, first lined up in agreement on the Declaration of Independence. “The second of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America,’’ Adams wrote. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
As for the Fourth, well, not much is recorded. “Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened in Congress on July 4, 1776,” McCullough wrote. “Adams … recorded not a word of July 4. Of Jefferson’s day, it is known only that he took time off to shop for ladies gloves and a new thermometer.”
Still, at about 11 a.m., without much fuss, the debate in Congress was closed, a final vote was taken, and the declaration was sent out be printed.
The celebrations didn’t commence until days later, after it was read in public and published in newspapers. In Philadelphia, “the great day of celebration came Monday, July 8, at noon in the State House Yard when the Declaration was read aloud before an exuberant crowd … Bells rang through the day and into the night. There were bonfires at street corners.”
On July 9, McCullough notes, the declaration was read aloud to George Washington’s assembled troops in New York, where on Broadway that night “a roaring crowd pulled down the larger-than-life equestrian statue of George III.” The landmark document wasn’t read in public in Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia, until July 25, where it was accompanied “by the firing of cannon and musketry” and a parade of regiments of continental troops. Residents of Savannah, Georgia didn’t hear about it until August, and they responded with a mock burial of King George.
An argument could be made that if we really held to tradition, the country would celebrate its independence from July 2 until Aug. 2, the day most of the delegates signed the document. Before then, much of the work had been done in secret.
Yes, a month-long celebration might be excessive. But it’s worth noting that while many understandably prefer to celebrate on the Fourth of July, it’s certainly not un-American to spread out the celebration.
Happy Independence Day. Be safe whenever and however you celebrate.