J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Celebrating the Fourth of July in 1777

John Adams wrote this letter from Philadelphia to his daughter Abigail, then about to turn twelve, on 5 July 1777:
Yesterday, being the anniversary of American Independence, was celebrated here with a festivity and ceremony becoming the occasion.

I am too old to delight in pretty descriptions, if I had a talent for them, otherwise a picture might be drawn, which would please the fancy of a Whig, at least.

The thought of taking any notice of this day, was not conceived, until the second of this month, and it was not mentioned until the third. It was too late to have a sermon, as every one wished, so this must be deferred another year.

Congress determined to adjourn over that day, and to dine together. The general officers and others in town were invited, after the President [Thomas Wharton, Jr.] and Council, and Board of War of this State.

In the morning the Delaware frigate, several large gallies, and other continental armed vessels, the Pennsylvania ship and row gallies and guard boats, were all hawled off in the river, and several of them beautifully dressed in the colours of all nations, displayed about upon the masts, yards, and rigging.

At one o’clock the ships were all manned, that is, the men were all ordered aloft, and arranged upon the tops, yards, and shrowds, making a striking appearance—of companies of men drawn up in order, in the air.

Then I went on board the Delaware, with the President [Wharton again? or John Hancock, head of the Marine Committee] and several gentlemen of the Marine Committee, soon after which we were saluted with a discharge of thirteen guns, which was followed by thirteen others, from each other armed vessel in the river; then the gallies followed the fire, and after them the guard boats. Then the President and company returned in the barge to the shore, and were saluted with three cheers, from every ship, galley, and boat in the river. The wharves and shores, were lined with a vast concourse of people, all shouting and huzzaing, in a manner which gave great joy to every friend to this country, and the utmost terror and dismay to every lurking tory.

At three we went to dinner, and were very agreeably entertained with excellent company, good cheer, fine music from the band of a taken at Trenton, and continual vollies between every toast, from a company of soldiers drawn up in Second-street before the city tavern, where we dined. The toasts were in honour of our country, and the heroes who have fallen in their pious efforts to defend her. After this, two troops of light-horse, raised in Maryland, accidentally here in their way to camp, were paraded through Second-street, after them a train of artillery, and then about a thousand infantry, now in this city on their march to camp, from North Carolina. All these marched into the common, where they went through their firings and manoeuvres; but I did not follow them.

In the evening, I was walking about the streets for a little fresh air and exercise, and was surprised to find the whole city lighting up their candles at the windows. I walked most of the evening, and I think it was the most splendid illumination I ever saw; a few surly houses were dark; but the lights were very universal. Considering the lateness of the design and the suddenness of the execution, I was amazed at the universal joy and alacrity that was discovered, and at the brilliancy and splendour of every part of this joyful exhibition.

I had forgot the ringing of bells all day and evening, and the bonfires in the streets, and the fireworks played off.
Even when the seat of government nearly forgot to celebrate the first anniversary of independence, there were fireworks.


MaryJeanAdams said...

On Saturday, I sat amidst the smoke and noise in a parking lot in a small town in North Dakota where fireworks are legal. (Either that, or my good neighbors didn't care.) I started wondering why we celebrate the 4th with fireworks. I thought maybe it had something to do with "the rockets red glare" even though that was penned during the War of 1812. And, of course, fireworks have been around for a long time - invented by the Chinese if I remember correctly. But, does anyone know if this was a typical custom they brought over from Europe, or was it a new tradition they started in America?

J. L. Bell said...

Fireworks were part of patriotic celebrations, such as the king's birthday, in pre-Revolutionary Boston, so the tradition predates the Fourth of July as a holiday.

The tradition almost certainly came to Massachusetts from Britain. John Hancock imported a fireworks manual authored by a Royal Artillery captain named Johnson and published in London. While the lights of fireworks connect with other celebratory lights, such as bonfires and candles in windows, the noise and motion are closely allied with the bombs and rockets that artillerists learned to make.

Chaucerian said...

"A few surly houses were dark," writes Adams -- never mind that those householders could have been ill, or poor, or out of candles, or caring for an infant who only slept in the dark, the problem was that the houses and householders weren't doing what Adams thought they should be doing --

MaryJeanAdams said...

Thanks, J.L. !

J. L. Bell said...

Even worse, Chaucerian, some of those Philadelphia householders might have been Quakers!

Charles Bahne said...

Recall that John Hancock provided fireworks for the the Boston townsfolk to observe, in celebration of our notice in 1766 that the Stamp Act had been repealed. He rolled out a couple of barrels of wine on that occasion, as well.

MaryJeanAdams said...

Thanks Charles. Hancock is one of my favorites. Interesting detail.