Fourth of July: Celebrating Independence Day, 1777-1870

The Fourth of July, or Independence Day as it is sometimes called, did not become an official federal holiday anywhere in the United States until the U.S. Congress declared it as such on 28 June 1870 along with three other federal holidays, Christmas, New Years, and Thanksgiving. Part of the reason it took so long to declare the fourth of July a federal holiday was that not everyone thought celebrating the day was a good thing. For instance, according to the Western Carolinian:

“The celebration of this day has been condemned by some, on the ground that it displays an illiberal spirit, and is calculated to produce unfriendly feelings towards Great-Britain. It is calculated to perpetuate those principles which ‘rocked the cradle of our Independence,’ and nursed it into manhood.”[1]  

fourth of July - Spirit of '76.

Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard c. 1875. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite these negative feelings, supporters maintained that celebrating the Fourth July was important for the following reasons:

“It keeps alive our respect and veneration for the memory of those who ‘toiled and bled’ in its defence; it makes our children early acquainted with their names and emulous of their fame; … it does not create or perpetuate any feelings of animosity against Great-Britain; each one rises from the festive board with as kindly feelings toward the land of our fathers, as when he sat down. For we hold England, as we do all other nations, ‘enemies in war – in peace friends.’[2]

Despite critics and the lack of the federal government establishing Independence Day for many years, some celebrations happened in the United States in the eighteenth century. Among them was the Fourth of July celebration in 1777 held in Philadelphia. Of this celebration, the Virginia Gazette reported:

“Yesterday the 4th of July, being the Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this city with demonstration 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 honour 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 their service of the continent by the state of Georgia, being drawn up before the door, filled up the intervals with feu de joie. After dinner a number of toasts were drank, all breaking independence, and a generous love of liberty, and commemorating 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 the street to street through the city. Towards evening several troops of horses, a corps of artillery, and a brigade of North Carolina forces … were drawn up in Second street and reviewed by Congress and the General Officers The evening was closed with the ringing of 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.”[3]

In 1782, the Fourth of July was celebrated by the army when George Washington, the Commander in Chief, announced that in remembrance of Independence Day each soldier was entitled to receive an extra gill of rum. Washington also ordered that the Adjutant General was to communicate the necessary directions to accomplish it in a general order he signed on 3 July 1782. A few years later John Jay, an American statesman, patriot, diplomat, Founding Father of the United States, abolitionist, negotiator and signatory of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, second Governor of New York, and the first Chief Justice of the United States, wrote to his wife on 5 July 1788. He related how the Fourth of July was celebrated in Poughkeepsie, New York:

“Yesterday was a day of festivity, and both the parties united in celebrating it. Two tables, but in different houses, were spread for the convention, and the two parties mingled at each table, and the toasts (of which each had copies) were communicated by the sound of drum and accompanied by the discharge of cannon.”[4]

John Jay. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Not all Fourth of July celebrations were solely about Americans gaining their independence. A report out of Hudson, New York on 12 July 1808 gave details of a Fourth of July that was held by Federalists and appeared to be more of political statement than an Independence Day celebration. Of the event the Poughkeepsie Journal reported:

“Passing over the common routing of firing of cannon, ringing of bells, &c. we would speak particularly of a transaction, so happily conceived and promptly executed, that it deserves to be remembered. A merchant ship in miniature, was borne at the head of the procession … by four ships’ mates, … in appropriate dresses, through Warren, Front and Diamond Streets. As a token of the ruined state of our commerce, the ship was dressed in mourning, her flags at half mast, her yards a cockbill, and her distress signal labelled ‘Embargo.’ After the oration was delivered, the band struck up Washington’s March, and the flags of the ship were immediately set at mast head. The embargo-flag was struck to the tone of Yankee Doodle. This pointed- and cutting sarcasm, levelled at our administration, by so appropriate and beautiful an emblem … excited all the ire of our embargo-loving democrats. They swore in their wrath that she should never proceed through the streets; and many of them declared they would demolish her at the hazard of their lives. But when they saw her approach … protected by the brave and hardy, though injured sons of Neptune, they shrunk from their foolish threats, and remained mute and harmless spectators of the scene.”[5]

A year later in Castleton, Vermont the Vermont Courier reported on a Fourth of July celebration that included “Major Cheney’s squadron.” It consisted of three companies who met on the parade for inspection and review. It was noted, “Their appearance was brilliant, their music, and their evolutions and exercises were conducted with order, activity and skill.”[6] In addition, the day was said to have been “ushered in by the discharge of two field pieces, the ringing of the bell, and raising the national colors on the green.”[7] Two bands also played music before the following happened:

“[T]he Federal Republicans ever mindful of the day of their national birth, and of the blood and treasure it cost, … formed from Maj M’Intosh’s, the greatest procession ever seen in this town and accompanied by a band of music proceeded down the street … across the green to the several tables … and like a band of brothers seated themselves around the festive board. After dinner … toasts were drank, accompanied by a discharge of artillery.”[8]

In 1819, the same year that the French socialite, Madame Juliette Récamier, retired to live in the 17th-century convent of Abbaye-aux-Bois, was the same year another Fourth of July celebration happened in Manhattan’s Chatham Gardens. The grounds had been extensively ornamented in honor of the day and the festivities for the Fourth of July kicked off at 2pm. It included a salute fired by small artillery, patriotic tunes played, and the ascent of a balloon that travelled across the skies of New York City. Yet, these were not the only things involved in the Chatham Gardens’ celebration. Also included were several hundred quarts of ice cream and several hundred gallons of punch prepared by a proprietor hoping to cash in on all the visitors to the gardens. In addition:

“In the Evening, A most Brilliant Illumination [took place with] … the Fountain … ornamented with images, representing fabulous gods and goddesses, and … several new pieces of Water Works [were played.] At 10 o’clock another BALLOON … [was] sent up, to conclude the festive ceremonies of the day.”[9]

fourth of July - Independence Day

Independence Day invitation for party in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1825. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1825, American citizens were not the only ones celebrating America’s independence. The proprietor of London’s Vauxhall Gardens planned a special celebration for the Fourth of July using two Italian gentlemen to assist him. Tickets cost 50 cents and according to the Evening Post, “no pains or expence have been spared to render the performance and representation at Vauxhall Gardens, on the 49th Anniversary of American Independence, delightful to the stranger and satisfactory to the citizen.”[10]

The celebration included a full band that played songs like “The True Yankee Sailor,” “Soldier’s Gratitude.” and “Adventure’s in an Oyster Cellar.” A concert was also held, and fireworks illuminated the nighttime sky. Among the pyrotechnics discharged were various rockets, wheels, and pin wheels. In addition, in culmination of the event, there was a grand eruption known as Mount Vesuvius that involved sudden “volcano bursts with a tremendous explosion, and lava … running from the crater in all directions … at the same time hundreds of fire pumps, bombs, mortars, post, D’Aigrette, vollies, serpents, stars, eruptions, explosions, rockets, Bengal fires, &c. [were] thrown up from the crater, the whole forming a variety of fires of such majestic grandeur as to astonish the beholders.”[11]

Fourth of July pyrotechnics

Puck’s Pyrotechnics, “Fourth-of-July Fireworks Free to All: published in 1882. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In Norfolk, Virginia in 1839 Independence Day was celebrated without any fireworks or erupting volcanoes although it was still said to have been celebrated with “undiminished fervor” and “great patriotism.” Like other cities there were numerous booming cannons and besides a decided military slant to the proceedings, religion also played an important role in the July festivities. Moreover, according to the Richmond Enquirer, people celebrating the Fourth of July began doing so at sunrise:

“The dawn was hailed by a salute from the field pieces of the Light Artillery Blues … and at nine nearly all the stores were closed. At an early hour the Volunteer Battalion … and the Riflemen … paraded in Market Square and took up the line of march to the Methodist Episcopal Church … At the Church, which was crowded to excess, the service was commenced by a fervent and eloquent address to the Throne of Grace from Rev. Dr. Waller, and an appropriate hymn from the choir.

From the Church the Volunteers returned to Market Square, where they honored the day be firing a salute … In the Afternoon the Light Artillery Blues dined together … The Juniors and the Riflemen partook of a collation at the Eagle Hotel saloons. The ship Java, lying off in the stream at the Navy Yard, and the schr. Shark … were beautifully decorated with flags … Salutes were fired at meridian and sunset by the U.S. frigate Java … and the schr. Shark. The French steam frigate … also honored the day … The Light Artillery Blues concluded the celebration by a salute at sunset.”[12]

Sometimes temperance societies were involved in planning Fourth of July festivities. That was the case in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in 1847. There the Dodge County Temperance Society planned a day of celebration that included the reading of the Declaration of Independence and an oration given by a Mr. Montgomery about the “blessings” enjoyed by the nation. He was then followed by Rev. L.C. Rouse who gave an inspiring address that embraced temperance and “true liberty.” There was also a picnic for all attendees, and, in addition, according to the Watertown Chronicle correspondent, “there was real cheerfulness … in the crowd, and the forests rang again and again with the cheerful hazzas, as the toasts of the day were being read.”[13]  

Out west several celebrations for the Fourth of July happened in Utah territory in 1858. However, they were all small celebrations partly because of the recent end to the Utah War* that involved an armed confrontation between Utah Mormon settlers and the United States government’s armed forces. One small Fourth of July celebration happened in Cedar Valley, about twenty-six miles from Provo. There 32 guns were fired by Captain Phelps’s battery in celebration of the day. Salt Lake City held a slightly bigger event with the “Mormon brass band serenading the Governor [Alfred Cumming who replaced Brigham Young a few months earlier], his secretary and Judge [Delana R.] Eckels [who served as territorial chief justice of Utah from 1857 to 1860].”[14]  

Brigham Young. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some ten years later, in 1868, even farther west in Santa Cruz, California, the Fourth of July was a much bigger affair. In fact, organizers published a program in local newspapers to outline the numerous events prior to the festivities taking place. The celebration, which included the erection of swings for attendees, also drew a large crowd of about 1500 people. The day opened with a national salute fired from a brass cannon aboard the steamer Senator that was anchored in the bay. Besides numerous ceremonies, there was playing of songs by a popular brass band, dancing to a cotillion band, dining on an “abundant” dinner, and singing by a local choir. In addition, John Harvey Logan, a judge at the time in Santa Cruz and a man who would later be credited in 1881 with the creation of the loganberry (a cross between the raspberry and blackberry), gave a stirring speech that praised the nation and lauded the “heroic deeds of the Revolution.”[15]

Although some people opposed celebrating the Fourth of July and some people celebrated the day between the years 1777 and 1870, perhaps, there was no one who better predicted how significant the day would become to Americans. This person was John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and second President of the United States. He wrote a letter to his friend on 5 July 1776 stating:

“The day is passed – the 4th of July, 1776, will be a memorable epocha in the history of America. I am to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated as the DAY OF DELIVERANCE, by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations – FROM ONE END OF THE CONTINENT TO THE OTHER from this time forward forever!”[16]

John Adams. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

And as we all well know, so it celebrated today! Happy Fourth of July!

*The Utah War was also known as the Utah Expedition, Utah Campaign, Buchanan’s Blunder, the Mormon War, or the Mormon Rebellion.


  • [1] Western Carolinian, “Fourth of July,” July 4, 1820, p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Virginia Gazette, “Philadelphia July 5,” July 18, 1777, p. 2–3.
  • [4] Henry P. Johnston, ed., The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay: 1782-1793 3 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890), p. 347–48.
  • [5] Poughkeepsie Journal, “Independence Day,” July 20, 1808, p. 3.
  • [6] Vermont Courier, “Communication,” July 15, 1809, p. 3.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] The Evening Post, “Independence,” July 3, 1819, p. 2.
  • [10] The Evening Post, “Vauxhall Garden,” July 2, 1825, p. 3.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Richmond Enquirer, “Fourth of July Celebrations,” July 12, 1839, p. 4.
  • [13] Watertown Chronicle, “Beaver Dam,” July 14, 1847, p. 2.
  • [14] The Times-Picayune, “Affairs in Utah,” August 19, 1858, p. 1.
  • [15] Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel (“Oration,” 11 July 1868, p. 1.
  • [16] Western Carolinian, p. 3.

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