America’s First Fourth of July

By J. L. Bell,

As the latest The Pursuit of History Historical Moments mailing quoted, John Adams praised the Continental Congress’s vote for independence from Britain by writing home to his wife, The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” But then the Congress’s public declaration of that vote appeared a couple of days later, headed with the date of July 4, 1776.

So when did the Fourth of July become the date Americans celebrated? And how long did it take John Adams to come around to that holiday? The answers are that the Congress held its first official celebration exactly one year after the Declaration, and that Adams happily called that date “the anniversary of American Independence.” In fact, Adams was more enthusiastic about celebrating on July 4, 1777, than some of his congressional colleagues.

According to a letter that Adams sent to his preteen daughter Nabby (short for Abigail), the Continental Congress didn’t decide to celebrate the Fourth of July until almost the last moment. He wrote:

“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.”

Among the members of the Congress who opposed the idea of celebrating was William Williams of Connecticut. He told his governor afterwards:

“Yesterday was in my opinion poorly spent in celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independance, but to avoid singularity and Reflection upon my dear Colony, I thot it my Duty to attend the public Entertainment; a great Expenditure of Liquor, Powder etc. took up the Day, and of Candles thro the City good part of the night.”

Adams’s letter indicated that the festival began on the city’s waterfront.

“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 [John Hancock] 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.”

The Congressional dinner started at three o’clock. The organizers had sent invitations to all generals of the Continental Army who happened to be in Philadelphia and to top state officials. North Carolina delegate Thomas Burke reported, “a Hessian band of music which were taken at Princetown performed very delightfully, the pleasure being not a little heightened by the reflection that they were hired by the British Court for purposes very different.” The diners offered many toasts “in honour of our country, and the heroes who have fallen in their pious efforts to defend her.” Between each toast, a company of soldiers drawn up outside on Second Street fired a volley.

One might expect that the short notice made it impossible to organize a parade on that Fourth of July. However, Philadelphia had its militia, and units of the Continental Army happened to be passing through the city on their way to the siege lines around New York: “two troops of light-horse, raised in Maryland,” and “about a thousand infantry…from North Carolina.” Those soldiers marched to the city common and showed off their drill.

In early July the sun set late, but the community celebration continued. Adams wrote:

“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.”

Williams commented: “I conclude much Tory unilluminated Glass will want replacing.” On such patriotic occasions it was common for crowds to break windows that didn’t have candles in them.

Adams’s letter to his daughter concluded: “I had forgot the ringing of bells all day and evening, and the bonfires in the streets, and the fireworks played off. Had General Howe been here in disguise, or his master [the king], this show would have given them the heart-ache.”

In fact, within three months Gen. Sir William Howe would enter Philadelphia after beating the Continental Army at Brandywine and Germantown. Adams, Williams, Burke, and the rest of the Congress would flee to Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania. The Royal Navy would capture the U.S.S. Delaware. But America’s first Fourth of July was fun while it lasted.