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Friday, July 1, 2011

Colonial Americans Observing Independence Day

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 The resolution to separate from the British Empire was voted and approved on July 2, 1776 and on July 4 the great historical document was approved and first signed.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.

When it comes to incorporating these holidays into our works of fiction, a few components are necessary to research in order to infuse them with authenticity — when, where, & how.  This is especially important with settings that take place during our country's forming years, as there was much less uniformity in observing holidays during this period depending on these factors (Christmas and Thanksgiving customs being prime examples). The specific year of the story will help authenticate what holidays were observed, on what dates and days of the week. Gain a general understanding about the customs and attitudes of the ones who will be participating in the celebration, being mindful of the location of your story and any traditions that characters might participate in or bring with them to that locale.  For instance, if I am writing a mid-American Revolution story in rural Maine that spans the month of July I had better do my homework before I start to plan the festivities.  But if my story is set in Portland, Maine 1866, the first Independence Day celebrated after the Civil War, I might want to include the account of one the worst fires that ever resulted from an errant firecracker.

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

Please join Colonial Quills for our Independence Day Celebration on Monday, July 4th, when authors will join us representing characters from their Colonial American fiction.  Come and partake of the conversation, in character or as a guest, and feel free to tell how your own character (either from a published work, or a work-in-progress) is celebrating our country’s independence and what it means to them.  See you then! Enjoy a safe and joyful weekend of Celebration!


  1. "A firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence..." Other than the Word of my God, I've never heard any more beautiful. I was in Philadelphia last year, facing an event in which I had to muster the most courage I'd ever had to in my life. While taking the time to do some sight-seeing the day before the "event", I went down the steps of Independence Hall and thought that once those men had signed that paper, every one of them were in danger of being hanged for treason. Their lives were on the line.
    I felt then God had put me in this place as example to draw upon their courage.
    Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you, Carla. And thank You, my Father.

  2. Pat, thank you for sharing this from your own experience. So many of the truths in the Declaration are based on Biblical principles so it is no wonder that the Lord used it is such a profound way for you in that very personal way. We would all do well to draw courage from those words, and from His Word.

  3. Awesome post! I love learning about this stuff. :) I'd never really thought about 4th of July celebrations "back in the day".

  4. Thanks for this great post and all the links, Carla! Yorktown, VA, has a big holiday weekend planned. I am looking forward to our CQ get together on Monday! Not sure who is coming with me to the party, though! Maybe William.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Pegg! I found Professor Heintze's research fascinating. Independence Day is such a great holiday! It always strikes me that our entire country is unified at one time celebrating our nation's freedom - from the small get togethers to the grand events.

  6. Carrie, it must be wonderful living in your area during the 4th of July. Although we will be visiting there in August, I so wish we could have been there in July instead! I hope you are feeling well enough to enjoy a special weekend!

  7. Oh, I agree with you, Carla. Being in VA and near Yorktown and CW would be a wonder on Independence Day! Thanks so much for a wonderful post. I'm so thankful for this holiday for so many reasons. Your clip from John Adams is so fitting. One of my favorite movies ever:) Bless you all.

  8. Laura, I just learned that there will be a few opportunities at CW, one where the Declaration will be read. What a treat that will be. I hope you enjoy a fantastic holiday celebrating with your family!

  9. Thankfully I can partake of those wonderful places any time they are open! Hwy 17 is like a parking lot my DH says. It is not as hot as some years recently, where it has been almost 100 or more out there.

  10. Carrie, that's a wonderful opportunity living so near. I bet you are glad you don't have to wear those 18th century costumes!

  11. Wonderful Post! Thank you for all the valuable insight of our past and how the holiday has come into its own through the years


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