The Fourth of July is the quintessential American holiday. It embodies all the civic pride, pageantry and patriotism that typify our nation. Banners, bunting and flags line the streets in many communities. Our separation from the tyranny and injustice of the old world is once again consecrated.
Of course those who know their history recognize that the Declaration of Independence came nearly 17 months after the first shots were exchanged at Lexington and Concord. By 1779, the British had surrendered at Yorktown, but fighting would not cease until 1783. As a consequence, celebrations of independence were not instantaneous.
As early as 1778, General George Washington directed his troops in Brunswick, N.J., to put “green boughs” in their hats; issued them a double allowance of rum and ordered a Fourth of July artillery salute. It would be another three years before the first official state celebration was held in Massachusetts.
In another noble American “tradition,” 1788 saw Independence celebrations take a nasty politicized turn as debate swelled over adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
For the most part, however, Americans have taken the day as an auspicious time to remember and memorialize. July Fourth has long been a date when notable public addresses, public monuments and other great works have been initiated.
Washington himself only made one formal July Fourth address. It took place in 1791 at Lancaster, Penn. In New York City, the first local advertisements for fireworks appear by 1800.
At New York City’s Mount Vernon Garden a display of “a model of General Washington’s Mount Vernon home, 20 feet long by 24 feet high, illuminated by several hundred lamps” was put on public display.
The first public Fourth of July celebration at the White House took place in 1801. Twenty years later an ailing President James Monroe has the Executive Mansion closed to the public. In its stead, John Quincy Adams read an original copy of the Declaration of Independence at a U.S. Capitol ceremony. Four years later, President John Quincy Adams marched from the White House to the Capitol in a parade that included a stage mounted on wheels, with displays representing 24 states.
July Fourth, 1826 proved to be a signal moment in American history. It was both the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — billed as the “Jubilee of Freedom” — and the day on which both former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson die. Five years later, President James Monroe also died on July 4.
In 1848, with President James Madison and First Lady Dolly Madison in attendance, the cornerstone is laid for the Washington Monument. Similarly, in 1851, President Millard Fillmore assists in the laying of the cornerstone for the “new Capitol edifice.” During this ceremony Daniel Webster gave his last Fourth of July oration.
Since then, the nation has embarked on innumerable other journeys of civic pride and commemoration. In 1884, the formal presentation of the Statue of Liberty took place in the Gauthier workshop at Paris, France. In 1912, the nation adopted the 48-star flag. In 1940, the first presidential library is opened by Franklin Roosevelt. In 1959 and again in 1960, stars are added to the U.S. flag, for Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law.
Since then many more notable moments of history have been observed on our nation’s birthday. While each successive Fourth may not hold the pomp and gravity of those mentioned above, they are all worth celebrating and each important as markers on our great journey of freedom.