As we approach the date for celebrating our country’s birth, I wondered how our ancestors celebrated this holiday. Back before there were cars, radios, TV, and various other technological advances that help to bring us the huge parades, fireworks displays, and concerts that rock our nation in modern times, how did our ancestors celebrate?
It was not until 1870 that the U.S. Congress declared the 4th of July a federal holiday. Over the years, there has been dispute about when the celebration should actually take place. Congress secretly voted for independence on July 2, 1776, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved July 4, 1776, the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence took place July 8, 1776, and delegates began signing the document on August 2, 1776. Controversy over the appropriate date for celebration has occurred, but July 4 th is the date that tradition has held.
In early years following our independence, readings of the Declaration of Independence were often accompanied by symbols of celebration such as muskets and cannons being fired, picnics and bonfires were held, parades took place, and there would be a speaker at the courthouse or church, generally a city official, such as the mayor or some other person of reputable standing. This fulfilled John Adams description of how a celebration should be conducted when he wrote on July 3, 1776, that it should be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” It is nice to know that 241 years later we are still living up to that vision.
In the early years of celebration, after the community speech was completed, the men would go into the tavern. Here, they would conduct 13 regular toasts honoring the 13 colonies. This was a tradition that began in 1777 and continued for over a century. The first toast generally went to the current President, the second to George Washington, and then an assortment that may have included our American Boys who have arms for their girls or for their country’s foes, a hempen neckcloth for all traitors, a toast to Uncle Sam, a toast that may foreign fashions never corrupt American manners, a toast to Our Native Land, one to the Tree of Liberty, one to the land we live in – let him who don’t like it leave it – and a toast to the glorious memory of our ancestors who shed their life’s blood to establish our liberty, with the thirteenth toast being for women.
Over time the celebration gradually changed, and around the 1850s, celebrations began to look similar to those festivities we hold today. The holiday moved away from large community events, and people were more inclined to enjoy the holiday in small gatherings of family and friends. Then, during the Civil War, the celebrations became more militaristic, with men marching through the streets fully armed and holding fake battles to display what was taking place on battlefields.
The celebrations took another shift around 1863, when events moved from militarism to escapism. People no longer wanted to remember battles; they wanted to escape from them. Widows and orphans who were the innocent victims of war struggled to survive, and fundraisers were conducted to provide for them.
The tradition of fireworks was established in Philadelphia in 1777 when Congress ordained the tradition, enjoying “a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons” as reported by The Evening Post. Those thirteen fireworks represented the thirteen states, an important symbolism for the Fourth of July. The popularity of fireworks grew throughout the country until, by the time of the centennial celebration in 1876, they were being set off from large platforms creating images of flags, bells and other such icons as cities attempted to outdo each other with their displays.
Today, we continue to host parades and have large fireworks displays. Unfortunately, the knowledge of our citizens has deteriorated to the point where citizens do not know the significance of the holiday symbols. Many cannot tell you the year of our independence, why we celebrate the 4th of July, or what the 13 rockets represent. They do not know our National Anthem. These things are important to the heritage of every American citizen. They are what our ancestors fought for, so we can live freely. Every citizen should know and understand their importance.
The St. Clair County Family History Group will meet on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, at the ST. CLAIR COUNTY LIBRARY - MAIN BRANCH at 6:30 p.m. The library is located at 201 McMorran Boulevard in Port Huron. Please note change of both time and location for this July meeting. Janet Curtis of the library's archives will tell about researching at the library and some of the new things in the Michigan Room. The meeting will last until 9 p.m., and there will be some time to do some of your own research after her talk.
(The St. Clair County Family History Group typically meets the fourth Wednesday of every month at 7:30 pm in the Port Huron Museum.) We welcome guests and new members to our meetings. Anyone interested in local history or researching their family tree is encouraged to become a member of our group or just attend one of our programs. Information about the group can be found online at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~misccfhg/index.html or call 317-600-7813.