235 years ago the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia by the thirteen colonies. The resolution to separate from the British Empire was voted and approved on July 2, 1776 and on July 4 the great historical document was approved and first signed. The Declaration was immediately printed and distributed through newspapers across the thirteen states and read to audiences in the first public celebrations of our country's independence. John Adams, in a letter to his wife on July 3rd, predicted that there would be great cause for celebration for generations to come.
The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was in Philadelphia, PA on July 8th, in Williamsburg, VA on July 25, Trenton, NJ on July 26th. These celebrations were received amidst loud acclamations and utmost demonstrations of joy, military parades, firing of cannons and musketry, and in New York a monument of George III was torn down with the promise that the lead statue would be melted into bullets for fighting the Revolution.
Since this time, states across our nation have celebrated our Independence in various ways, and on various days. My family celebrates the 4th of July by attending fireworks & festivities at the Fort Halifax park in Winslow, ME. This is the historic site of America’s first blockhouse, built in 1754, the strategic location chosen to protect the English colonial settlements in the wilderness of Maine from the French and Indians. The remaining blockhouse sits proudly on the edge of the Kennebec River. In 1775, under orders of George Washington, Benedict Arnold (while still a hero) and his 1,000 man army stopped there on their campaign to Quebec during the American Revolution. Although the campaign failed, it caused the British to maintain a costly presence in Canada. The difficult march was a major achievement for the 600 soldiers who survived the arduous trek, reminding me of the immense fortitude of our Revolutionary War soldiers. It is no doubt that one year later the people of this region, and throughout the other colonies, were filled with joy when they first heard that Congress had signed the Declaration of Independence, giving them the determination to continue to fight for their freedom . . . and ours. Although the anniversary of the independence of our country from the British has been commemorated in various ways from the beginning, it wasn't until 1820 that the country's first "4th of July" celebration was observed in Eastport, Maine, sparking a tradition that would spread across the nation.
As writers of historical fiction we often enjoy including actual historic events, customs, and holidays into our stories. The celebration of Independence Day is among them. But did you know that it wasn't even called "Independence Day" until 1791, and incidentally, that was the only year that President George Washington ever delivered a speech for the occasion. The anniversary wasn't always observed on the 4th either. In the years 1779, 1784, 1790, 1802, & 1813 the 4th fell on a Sunday and was celebrated on Monday, the 5th, instead.
Author and Professor James R. Heintze has done immense research on how Independence Day has been celebrated throughout our country's history. On his website he chronicles dates, places, and the way they people celebrated. For instance, he notes that:
- On the first anniversary, in Philadelphia, July 4, 1777, one of first and most elaborate celebrations of its kind occurred with a discharge of cannon (one round for each state in the union), ringing of bells, music, dinner, "loud huzzas", a parade, fireworks, and armed ships and galleys in the harbor were decked with the nation's colors of red, white, and blue. While windows of Quakers homes are broken because Quakers refuse to close their businesses on holidays that celebrate American military victories.
- General George Washington marked July 4, 1778 by directing his army to put "green boughs" in their hats, and issues a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute.
- In 1783, Boston was the first municipality to officially designate July Fourth as a holiday.
- A mock battle engagement with infantry, cavalry, and artillery units occurs in Alexandria, VA in 1795.
- The first Fourth of July celebration west of the Mississippi occurs at Independence Creek and is celebrated by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804.
Here are his webpages that can help you discover how the characters in your novels might have celebrated their own Independence Days.
The First Celebrations
Frontier & West Celebrations
First Fireworks Celebrations
Fourth of July Dinners
How Presidents Celebrated