Fourth of July Celebrations

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Fourth of July Celebrations

As the day designated to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the anniversary of America's birth, the Fourth of July has been celebrated since the Revolutionary War Era. However, after the war was over it was only sporadically celebrated and did not become a regular observance in many parts of the country until after the turn of the nineteenth century.

Although the Continental Congress formally passed the resolution for independence on July 2, 1776, it was not until July 4, 1776 that Congress finally voted to approve the Declaration of Independence, which stated the reasons for the break with England. In fact, on July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife that July 2, 1776 would be "the most memorable epocha in the history of America," according to historian Daniel Boorstin. Adams then outlined the contours of the "great anniversary festival" which he thought should include: "… solemn acts of devotion to God Al-mighty … with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…."

While it is a mystery to historians why July 4th was designated to commemorate independence and the signing of the Declaration, this date marked the annual official celebration during the Revolutionary War period. Afterwards, official festivities became sporadic and eventually evolved into incredibly partisan events, which persisted for more than three decades. These often included separate observances held by the different political parties. As a day of political dissension, the celebrations at times erupted into violence. In particular, it was used by both the Federalist and Republican parties to hold what amounted to political rallies, with separate orations, dinners, and processions.

It was not until 1826, after a second successful war against Britain and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the new nation, that newspapers across the country called for an end to partisanship. They encouraged plans for orations, military processions, private gatherings, public dinners, and picnics to celebrate American independence. As this day became popular as a community event, its rituals affirmed community ties as well as national identity and became linked to other community events such as ground breakings, building dedications, and rededications of historic sites.

Communitywide celebrations continued in popularity from the early nineteenth century until the Civil War, and included parades, ceremonies, sporting events, and fireworks. During the Civil War, Independence Day celebrations were no longer held in many parts of the country, especially in the South.

In the postwar era, the urban celebrations on the East Coast were often sites for clashes between the upper and middle classes and the working class (especially immigrants) over the style of celebration and the use of public space. A genteel or "respectable" celebration was favored by the middle and upper classes, with an emphasis on picnics, private gatherings, games like croquet and lawn tennis, and retreats into the countryside. The working class, however, typically favored rowdy and carnivalesque festivities such as unruly parades, drunkenness, rough games, and noisy discharges of firecrackers and fireworks.

Significantly, celebratory styles were debated back in the Revolutionary Era in hopes of standardizing festivities throughout the Colonies. Members of the Continental Congress weighed the advantages of the rowdy or carnival style of celebration—with its ability to stimulate crowds and allow the venting of tensions—in contrast to the solemn style—with its ability to unify a diverse populace. Eventually, in the interests of national unity, the solemn or respectable style was favored and became associated with the notion of civil religion. In newspaper accounts of Independence Day thereafter, celebrations in this style were typically emphasized while coverage of regional Fourth of July celebrations and their local variations in the carnival style were often neglected.

Although incompatible with urban order, the rowdy style of celebration regained popularity with immigrants in many urban areas in the early nineteenth century. Rooted in the European carnival customs of the working class, these celebrations included masking, charivaris (noisy demonstrations to humiliate someone publicly), and calithumpian parades (parades of urban maskers whose "rough music" mocked "real music"). Over time, tamed versions of these working-class practices were adopted and modified to accommodate urban order and to avert class conflicts that had previously erupted over the clash of styles.

In the late nineteenth century, the Safe and Sane Fourth of July Program promoted standardized Fourth of July celebrations across the country, emphasizing the solemn or respectable style of celebration. Aimed at the socialization and "Americanization" of immigrants, the program was developed by progressive reformers to promote safety and to establish social order. A primary goal of this program was to legitimate the respectable style as "American" behavior. This program banned all firecrackers and encouraged noise abatement. Reformers produced and disseminated a standardized format in which a formal program was devoted to promoting the values of social order, solemn patriotism, and moderation. In addition, the program emphasized speeches and orations related to the Declaration of Independence. Progressive reformers also encouraged parades featuring patriotic pageantry with selected folk traditions to model the respectable version of America's history.

In many small towns and remote areas, the Fourth of July has typically been a communitywide celebration in which distinctive rituals and traditions have reflected the interests of the residents. In Lititz, Pennsylvania, for example, community members prepare for the Fourth by producing thousands of tallow candles in old-fashioned molds during the winter in a tradition dating back to 1843. The town's Fourth of July festivities begin with a baby parade in which children dressed in patriotic costumes ride on floats decorated in red, white, and blue. A queen of candles is chosen from the senior high school class to preside over the evening ceremony in which boys of the town light many of the candles in the park and float them on the water. In the town of Bridgeport, California, the Declaration of Independence has traditionally been read at the county courthouse, children ride in a parade on decorated bicycles, and a pie-eating contest is a featured event. The participants include community members as well as Native Americans and cattlemen from neighboring ranches who ride in a parade on decorated horses. Other events include picnics, sporting events, and a barbecue.

For more than 100 years, Biwabik, Minnesota, a town of 1,500, has seen its population grow to more than ten times its size during the Fourth of July. Its traditional celebration includes patriotic and calithumpian parades, fireworks, and games like egg-tossing contests and three-legged races. In some of the western states like Colorado and Texas, Fourth of July celebrations have often revolved around rodeos featuring events like roping and riding contests. In 1959 when Alaska became the 49th state and in 1960 when Hawaii was added as the 50th state, commemorations of these occasions were held across the country on the Fourth of July.

Although Independence Day has been celebrated since the Revolutionary War Era, it was not made a federal legal holiday until 1941. Most recently its status as a holiday from work has taken precedence over the emphasis on commemorating America's birthday, and in some parts of the country celebrations are no longer held. In addition, a pattern of waxing and waning of interest in holding Independence Day programs is evident in many urban areas. The years in which its popularity has peaked were during periods of patriotic fervor such as the centennial in 1876, the years after both World War I and World War II, the 175th anniversary in 1951, and the Bicentennial in 1976. The turn of the century in the year 2000 is also expected to stimulate a resurgence of interest in Fourth of July celebrations across the country.

—Mary Lou Nemanic

Further Reading:

Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The National Experience. New York, Random House, 1965.

Cohen, Hennig, and Tristam Potter Coffin, editors. The Folklore of American Holidays. Detroit, Gale Research Company, 1987.

Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986.

Glassberg, Philip. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1990.