Skip to main content

The First Fourth

July 2024
2min read

John Adams was certain the second of July would be celebrated “by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” Writing to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776, the day after the Continental Congress had voted momentously for independence from Great Britain, Adams said of July 2:

“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.”

America’s independence has indeed always been observed with such festivities, but Adams was wrong about the day. It was the adoption two days later of the Declaration of Independence, the document explaining the reasons for the separation from Great Britain, that Americans chose to celebrate. The Declaration, which was widely distributed throughout the new nation in broadside form, was of course dated July 4, 1776.

One year to that day the very first commemorations were held in some of the major cities of the thirteen states, Philadelphia among them. That city may have been the cradle of liberty, but its citizens were by no means united in the patriot cause (as became all too evident later in 1777 when British troops occupied it). A grand round of parades, banquets, and fireworks was prepared, but Philadelphia’s Executive Council, fearing violence, urgently requested all constables and watchmen to be on patrol that evening, and called up two hundred militiamen “to direct in preserving the peace”—and, no doubt, to protect captured Hessian musicians who were to perform.

What especially worried the city fathers was the “illumination” attending the Fourth of July observance. At sunset, patriots planned to light candles and lanterns inside and outside their homes. Tory houses would be conspicuous by their darkness. With that in mind, the Executive Council recommended “moderation & forbearance towards persons who might not illuminate.”

How did that first Fourth go? One journal, Dunlap’s Penn Packet , recorded the event:

“Last Friday the 4th of July, being the anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this City with demonstrations 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 honor 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, while a corps of British deserters, taken into the service of the continent by the State of Georgia, being drawn up before the door, filled up the intervals with Feux De Joie . After dinner a number of toasts were drank, all breathing independence, and a generous love of liberty, and commemorating the memories of those brave and worthy patriots who gallantly exposed their lives, and fell gloriously in defence of freedom and the righteous cause of their country.

“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 ringingof 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. Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.

“Thus may the Fourth of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the Sons of Freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen, and Amen.”


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.