The Fourth of July has been celebrated with feasting, fireworks and festivity since Boston shot off cannons on the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
The document wasn’t actually signed on the Fourth of July, as some of the signers weren’t even in Philadelphia that day. And John Adams thought the Second of July would be the day to remember, as that was when the Continental Congress voted for independence. The Fourth of July was the day the Congress adopted the document.
No matter. The first Fourth of July turned out to be cause for celebration year after year. Here are six of the oldest – and most historic – Fourth of July celebrations. If you know of another worth mentioning, please include it in the comments section below.
New Haven, Conn.
In 1788, New Haven held a large and lavish Fourth of July celebration featuring a parade of working men grouped by their occupation. Cordwainers in a wagon made shoes as the parade wended its way from the long wharf to the Brick Meeting House. Blacksmiths made a hoe during the parade with anvil, hammer and bellows, while goldsmiths displayed a silver urn with 10 stars – one for each state that had adopted the Constitution.
According to a contemporary account, there were also sowers, reapers with sickles, thrashers with flails, butchers, barbers, distillers, bakers, tanners, curriers, leather dressers, stonecutters with chisels, cabinet makers, coppersmiths and braziers, watch and clock makers, coopers, painters, hatters with bows, weavers, tailors, boat builders, rope-makers wearing hempen girdles, shipwrights, a whaleboat with her crew, papermakers, printers, merchants, schoolmasters followed by their scholars, physicians, Yale College tutors, clergy, sheriffs, the common council, mayor, alderman, recorder, orator and high sheriff.
Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence, attended the festivities. He heard Josiah Meigs, publisher of New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine, read the Declaration of Independence and listened to a performance of a hymn composed by Barna Bidwell, a tutor at Yale College.
A feast was held at the Statehouse with at least one toast – to a model of the frigate USS Constitution. Patriotic toasts were probably drunk for George Washington and the veterans of the Revolution as well. After dinner came a ball. Outside, no doubt, there was plenty of noise. As a Yale student named Thomas Robbins wrote in his diary on July 4, 1796:
The students fired guns, etc., then came here and were very noisy, drinking toasts, etc.
New Haven over the years became the best place in the region to see fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Revolutionary War General Henry Knox led a Fourth of July celebration in 1795 that wasn’t the first in Maine, but it was certainly the grandest.
After the American Revolution, Knox relocated to Thomaston, Maine (then Massachusetts) where he built an estate and mansion, Montpelier.
Knox owned the better part of four counties in Maine, which he came by via his wife’s family. In 1795, with Montpelier finished, Knox came to Thomaston from Philadelphia. His mission was to develop the state. By 1795 he was busily building sawmills, kilns, quarries and brickyards to attract employees and tenants for his properties.
To promote the Maine endeavor, Knox opened Montpelier to any and all guests on the Fourth of July in 1795. The feast was legendary for its sheer size. Chicken, geese and an entire ox fed the crowds. More than 100 beds were made up for overnight guests. A delegation of Penobscot Indians, with whom Knox wanted peaceful relations, came and stayed more than a week. They finally left at Knox ‘s urging. He was annoyed by the length of their visit.
Knox would live barely 10 years after the celebration, and his plans for Maine met with limited success. Montpelier was torn down to make way for a railroad when the house fell into disrepair and no buyers could be found for it. Today no one will produce a feast for you, but you can visit a 1929 replica of Montpelier in Thomaston that operates as a museum.
Boston celebrated the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with joyful delirium.
The festivities began at dawn with a grand salute fired from cannon at Fort Independence and ships in the harbor. Gov. John Hancock proposed 13 toasts from the balcony of the Old State House, while cannons fired and Boston’s militia companies paraded, drilled and fired off their guns.
That day Boston established the tradition of Fourth of July oratory. It stemmed from the Boston Massacre speech delivered annually for 13 years commemorating that sad event. Rev. Dr. William Gordon of Roxbury preached a patriotic sermon to the General Court.
At night, a Col. Crafts illuminated the Boston Common. He ‘threw several shells, and exhibited a number of fireworks.’
Boston was the first municipality to officially designate the Fourth of July as a holiday, in 1783. And in 1929, Arthur Fiedler first took the podium to conduct the Boston Pops Orchestra’s performance of the 1812 Overture on the Esplanade. To this day, Boston celebrates with cannon, fireworks and church bells in one of the best attended Fourth of July celebrations in the country.
There is a legend about the first Fourth of July celebration in Portsmouth, N.H., that probably isn’t true.
The story has it that five young ladies of Portsmouth — Mary Langdon, Augusta Pierce, Caroline Chandler, Dorothy Hall and Helen Seavey — made an American flag from their best silk gowns, according to specification by John Paul Jones.
Jones supposedly sailed the USS Ranger from Boston to Portsmouth, where the Ranger had been built at what is now the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The ladies presented him the flag. He then hoisted it on the Ranger. The record suggests, however, that John Paul Jones wasn’t in Portsmouth that day.
What did happen was that a Captain Thompson invited people to lunch on board a Continental frigate. Salutes were probably fired, church bells probably rung, and a toast to George Washington was probably drunk. In 1805, for example, Portsmouth gave Washington the following toast to ‘The memory of George Washington, Greater than Caesar–he would wear no crown, but that of the people’s love. ‘
Fourth of July observances have waxed and waned over the centuries, but not in Bristol, R.I. The town proudly claims to be the birthplace of the Fourth of July celebration.
Wight had served as a soldier in the American Revolution, and he determined that Bristol should observe Patriotic Exercises on the Fourth of July. He led the ceremonies in 1785 with a speech calling for reflection on the veterans who won the war and celebration of the new nation’s freedoms.
For 40 years, Wight would continue leading these ceremonies. The Fourth of July has been celebrated every year in Bristol since.
Sometime in the early 1800s the now-2.5-mile Military, Civic and Firemen’s Parade began. In 1975, Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci started fighting with parade organizers. Under the rules, he wasn’t entitled to walk in the parade, but he did anyway.
Parade organizers sent him a letter in 1979 telling him not to show up in 1980, and the Bristol police chief vowed to arrest anyone who made a disturbance. Cianci showed up in a helicopter. So many parade-goers cheered him the police had to let him march.
In 1984, Cianci pleaded “no contest” to a charge of assault and skipped the parade. A clown dressed in a prison uniform, carrying a ball and chain, marched in his place. In 1989 he marched ahead of the marshal, prompting the parade chairman to say Cianci was rude and shouldn’t be invited back. In 1997 and 1998, he brought along an entourage of law enforcement officers squirting the crowd with water rifles, which got him dis-invited in 1999. He returned in 2009 after serving jail time for racketeering.
Today Bristol’s Fourth of July celebration officially starts on June 14th, Flag Day, and ends with the parade on July 4th. In between are concerts, fireworks, a drum corps show, a firefighters muster and a Fourth of July ball.
Coincidentally, the parade committee in Bristol, Vt., boasts that the Bristol Vermont Fourth of July parade is the oldest continuous parade in Vermont.
The parade committee is silent on when the parade first started, simply saying it has been going on for ‘decades.’ Bristol did host a parade for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. Today Bristol’s fireworks are said to rival Burlington’s, and the parade runs for an hour and a half.
In 1980, the Bristol parade featured the first annual Outhouse Race. Contestants participate in teams, with two runners and one rider who sits inside the outhouse frame. The outhouse frame must have a door for privacy. The race runs from St. Ambrose Catholic Church to the finish line at the traffic light, and there are usually three or four outhouses in each of the four heats.
For a youtube video of the outhouse race, click here.
Images: Old State House, Boston, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=221678; Bristol, R.I., parade: By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49912345; Buddy Cianci By Notyourbroom – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7211464; Bristol, RI, street scene By TwoSheds (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12287639