Students fill the lower quad as O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library looms in the background September 13, 2012. The American flag, at half staff, is in the foreground.

Tell Me More - How Did Early Americans Celebrate July 4?

"Tell Me More" is an occasional series from the Newsroom where St. Thomas faculty experts tackle topical questions in their area of study in two minutes or less. The answers may be presented in written, audio or video form, but they will all have one thing in common: You'll click away smarter than you were 120 seconds ago. 

In this edition of Tell Me More, history assistant professor Michael Blaakman answers, "How did early Americans celebrate July 4?" Blaakman specializes in the history of early North America, including the Unites States' growth after the Revolutionary War.

The following is a condensed transcript of a Skype interview with Blaakman from New York, where he is researching this summer.

If we want to know what early Americans thought about July 4th and how they celebrated it in the first few years of American independence, there’s no better source than John Adams. Adams was probably the nerdiest of the Founding Fathers. He was also one of the proudest—especially proud of his outsized role in leading the colonies to declare independence. Looking at his letters, we can see that right from the beginning Americans celebrated in ways that are very similar to what we do now.

The funny thing, though, is that it took John Adams a few years to get Independence Day right. Case in point: July 1776, hours after the Continental Congress decided to declare independence, Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail. He predicted that the occasion would be “celebrated by succeeding Generations . . . with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Wow! He’s stoked! “The Second Day of July 1776,” he continued, “will be the most memorable [day] in the History of America.” The joke is that Adams was so prescient about how Americans would come to celebrate Independence Day—he got so much of it right! Except the date. We don’t celebrate July 2, when after months of Adams’s urging Congress finally voted for independence. Instead, we celebrate July 4, when Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson’s document to explain the reasons for that decision. Oops.

The next year Adams also didn’t quite get it right. There’s a hilarious letter to his daughter, Nabby, where Adams describes how the Continental Congress—himself included—totally forgot to plan a celebration for the first anniversary of American Independence. Nobody even realized it was coming up until July 2, 1777. On July 3 Congress was suddenly scrambling to plan a celebration for the next day. They just kind of threw something together. They took whatever ships happened to be in the river—the Patriots’ sad excuse for a navy—stuck a bunch of flags on them, and had them do a little boat parade, firing their cannons 13 at a time. Any troops that happened to be in the city of Philadelphia that day marched around in a parade. Bells rang all day. Bonfires were lit in the streets. Congress adjourned for the day and held a party at a tavern, where they made a band of Hessian soldiers who had been captured at the Battle of Trenton play some music for the occasion. Then at night, the people of Philadelphia spontaneously put candles in the all the windows of their houses. So even though the first July 4th was thrown together last minute, it was still an exciting and patriotic celebration, in ways that are familiar to us now. Adams said it would give King George heartburn.

In the decades that followed the Revolutionary War, the Fourth of July became an occasion for Americans to debate what they thought the nation should be and to articulate their ideas about how to improve it. This was often more divisive than unifying—especially in the fiercely partisan 1790s, when Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans were really at each other’s throats. It became a political battleground in a lot of ways. People would get together and give these elaborate series of toasts, which communicated political messages and could be fiercely polarizing. They actually started holding separate partisan celebrations. “Are your toasts going to celebrate Washington and the Federalists, or critique the government?” “Well I won’t go to any celebration where the toasts celebrate Jefferson, who seems too cozy with those scary radical French Revolutionaries.” “Let’s toast the Jay Treaty!” “Um, there’s zero chance that I will toast the Jay Treaty!” A group of Virginia Republicans held a July 4th party where they toasted President Washington only reluctantly. They felt obliged to toast the father of the country, of course, but they also considered many of his and Hamilton’s policies dangerous to liberty and borderline monarchical, so their toast to Washington hoped that he would “remember that he is but a man; the servant of the people and not their master.” — “Cheers.” Zing!

So the messages were different. The crowds were different, too. Federalist celebrations tended to be a bit more staid—Federalists liked order—but you’d also see white women participating in their festivities, and might even hear a toast to “The Rights of Women” or see free African-Americans in attendance. Jeffersonian celebrations, on the other hand, tended to be rowdier occasions, almost exclusively for white men. And by the early 1800s, the Jeffersonians had really made the Fourth of July their own. It became such a partisan holiday that a lot of Federalists refused to participate at all. And this was the party of John Adams! Many of them started boycotting the Fourth of July, and tended to celebrate Washington’s birthday, instead.

Now, I think it’s good that today the holiday is more unifying than it is divisive. Our backyard barbeques don't need to go back to the days of passive-aggressive toasts. But still, I do like the idea of taking inspiration from early Americans, and using the Fourth as an occasion to think about the idea of the United States—what our country is, and what we want it to become.