"A Nation's Gratitude and Joy": The Fourth of July in Washington, D.C.

Researched by James R. Heintze. All Rights Reserved

On July 4, 1828, at a Fourth of July dinner celebrated by the District of Columbia printing houses, the following toast to the city was offered:

The Mayor and Corporation of Washington, their civility deserves our highest thanks--may their patriotic efforts for the public good be crowned with the most abundant success.

That was followed by another to

The citizens of the District of Columbia. Affable, sociable, and sensible. May their united exertions in connecting the Eastern and Western waters, be speedily crowned with success. (National Intelligencer, 7 July 1828, 3).

In 1828, Washington City was not only affable, but also thriving and vibrant. Having been established in the 1790s, the town, compared to others, got off to a late start celebrating the Fourth of July. The elements that made up a typical celebration had already been set and in practice elsewhere. That tradition included parades and processions, the ringing of bells and firing of artillery, the reading of the Declaration of Independence coupled with an oration for the day, dinners complete with toasts, accompanied by good conversation and laughter, and evening events capped off with fireworks.

Some of the largest and most significant parades to date had already occurred. In 1788, Philadelphia had a procession over a mile long, with many of the participants in costume. But significant changes in the way the event was celebrated also took place. In that year political factionism had taken over the venue--Federalist and anti-Federalists attempting to use the day to gain support for the adoption or rejection of the proposed Constitution. Fights broke out, lives were lost. On the Fourth of July in Albany, New York, when a copy of the new Constitution was burned by anti-Federalists, Federalists--over 800 strong--marched to the spot of the incident and planted a liberty tree, to the accompaniment of a ten-gun salute. On their return to town, they were met by men armed with clubs, stones, and a cannon. A brawl occurred resulting in one dead, several seriously wounded (Connecticut Courant,14 July 1788). Clearly, the framers of the Declaration had not anticipated the direction the Fourth would take and the potential power of the day they thought would be devoted principally to remembrance and reflection.

By comparison, celebrations in the Washington area a decade later were quiet affairs. A typical event occurred outside, depending on the weather, and persons gathered under a grove of trees or near a spring in order to find relief from the hot day. In 1795, for example, 100 persons--a large group for that time--met near Rock Creek for a dinner prepared by the owner of the Washington Tavern. Fifteen toasts were drunk, including those to George Washington, the city, the Congress of 1776, and the French and Dutch allies (Columbian Chronicle, 7 July 1795). Commonly, such dinners were prepared by and for men; however when events were advertised as "public" affairs, women accompanied their counterparts.

Not too long after, Washington City was quickly propelled into exhibiting an active Fourth of July tradition, and competed well with the grandeur and excitement of celebrations held in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, the three outstanding cities for magnificent celebrations. Each town claimed a direct connection to the Revolutionary movement. Philadelphia's aura was home for the framing of the Declaration; Boston claimed its environs as the setting for the "first shots heard 'round the world"; and New York laid claim to the presence of Revolutionary forces.

Washington, however, was unequaled by virtue of its institutions--the presidency and Congress, both of which were national icons, symbols of the Fourth. They influenced the tenor of celebrations elsewhere. Newspapers in other towns eagerly reported what happened in Washington City on the Fourth of July.

The nation's capital was remarkable as well for its grand and noble buildings--the President's mansion, the Capitol, and later the Washington Monument. It was at these magnificent structures where persons of distinction gathered, interesting programs were presented, and memorable orations, addresses, and speeches were given.

Washington was also unique in that it had duel governments--a federal and local presence, each influencing the manner, character, and content of Independence Day.

Washington had noteworthy natural and man-made geographical features: the Potomac River, Rock Creek, springs and spas, and the C & O Canal, each of which played an important role in contributing to holiday life.

Washington City's celebration customs were established in the early 1800s. On July 4, 1801, "ordinary business [was] suspended" establishing that practice for the rest of the century National Intelligencer, 6 July 1801, 2). Businesses that remained open included taverns, hotels, ice cream and confectionary saloons, ice houses, and shops that sold fireworks. In 1807, owners of the Washington National Intelligencer newspaper announced to their readers that they would give their compositors and pressmen the day off so they could enjoy scheduled events (National Intelligencer, 3 July 1807, 2). The practice of giving newspaper employees the day off in Washington was carried over by the Evening Star, beginning in the 1850s. In most towns, that was not a typical reason given for shutting down a newspaper on the Fourth of July; usually, they closed their doors simply to honor the day.

In 1804 the need to provide leadership in planning for the Fourth of July program was the responsibility of a committee of arrangement, chaired by Gen. John Van Ness. Among the events of the day was Van Ness's Independence Day address at the Treasury Department (National Intelligencer, 2 July 1804, 3).

During that decade, celebration dinners were provided at Stelle's Hotel, Long's Tavern, McKeowin's Hotel, and the Lindsey Hotel, for example. Churches such as "Mr. Laurie's church on F Street" served as gathering places for services, programs, and addresses. Attendees often included the presidents and heads of departments.

In 1807, the first parade of citizens was requested as a show of support for the Navy and the nation. Citizens had expressed their outrage at the attack of the British man-of-war Leopard when, three weeks earlier, she opened fire and disabled the USS Chesapeake on the waters off Norfolk (National Intelligencer, 3 July 1807, 3).

It wasn't until 1824 that the first organized citizen procession occurred. On that day civilian groups, including the Masonic Lodges, associations of Columbian College, various societies, and tradespersons, such at the cordwainers, masons and stone cutters, painters, and plasterers processed with the military up 17th Street, past the Executive Mansion, and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. It was described by the newspaper as "our first attempt at any thing like a regular procession, [and] was of remarkable length, and presented really an interesting and splendid appearance" (National Intelligencer, 7 July, 1824, 3).

The presidents contributed greatly to the Fourth of July tradition in Washington. It was Thomas Jefferson who hosted the first Fourth of July celebration at the Presidential Mansion in 1801, establishing the tradition for future events there. The doors were opened to both District of Columbia citizens and strangers alike, and refreshments were served. Females were invited to accompany the men and the newspaper made a point in mentioning that (National Intelligencer, 6 July 1801, 2). It was also on that day that Captain Thomas Tingey became the first known soloist to perform at the Executive Mansion when he sang, accompanied by the U.S. Marine Band.

The Marine Band had an important responsibility in providing music for many future celebrations, not only there, but throughout the city and elsewhere. They played for both government and private functions, some held in taverns and in churches, at the Capitol, Mount Vernon, Washington Monument, Navy Yard, on boats, vacation spots, and at political and social partisan events. They even played at temperance celebrations. In 1828 the band performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the C & O Canal, north of Georgetown. President John Quincy Adams presided over the affair.

How were Independence Day events in Washington chosen? Who decided how the day was celebrated? Evidence indicates that, throughout the 19th century, decisions were made both in the private sector and at various levels of local and federal government. The private sector determined what commercial businesses in the city would close. Generally, by 1830, banks were closed on the Fourth of July (National Intelligencer,2 July 1830, 1). Georgetown, Alexandria, Va., and other surrounding towns mustered their own celebrations and, accordingly, made their own decisions. When the Fourth fell on a Sunday, everyone usually celebrated on the next day. Occasionally there were celebrations on July 3.

A president had the authority to close the Executive Mansion and did so usually when he or members of his family were ill. The first such closing occurred on July 4, 1813; President James Madison was infirmed on that day (National Intelligencer, 5 July 1813, 3). The President, however, more than made up for that closing by hosting wonderful entertainments on the following two Fourths. A president also closed the White House to the public when he was out of town. James Monroe, who followed Madison as President, was the first Chief Executive to use the Fourth as an opportunity to tour around the country; on July 4, 1817, he was in Boston and also visited other towns in New England ("The President's Tour," National Intelligencer, 8 July 1817, 2).

Apparently, the federal departments each decided unilaterally if their employees would have the day off. On July 3, 1871, clerks in the Treasury Department were let off at noon so they could make arrangements to celebrate on the following day (Evening Star, 3 July 1871, 1).

Congress met occasionally on the Fourth of July, especially during times of war and other crises, and also to deliberate important bills. At times the Senate and/or House met and immediately called for a vote of adjournment. Contrary to what one may believe, however, that most congressmen would have preferred to adjourn on the Fourth of July, that was not always the case. For example, on July 4, 1832, the Senate met, the vote called to adjourn failed to pass; the tally was 15 for, and 28 against (National Intelligencer, 6 July 1832, 2). And on July 3, 1856, the House voted to dismiss over the holiday weekend, but by only 1 vote: 94 for, 93 against (Evening Star, 5 July 1856, 3).

When members of Congress were not in Washington, there seemed to be somewhat less interest in mounting elaborate celebrations. In 1834, for example, a reporter for the National Intelligencer (7 July 1834, 3) commented on the holiday as "not celebrated in this city with as much vivacity as usual," and thought "the apathy apparent on the occasion" was "attributable to the recency of the termination of the Session of Congress."

In 1841, when July 4 fell on the sabbath causing the celebration to occur on the 5th, the House was in session, much to the disappointment of House Reading Clerk Benjamin B. French. Aware that everyone else was having fun on Independence Day, while he was compelled to listen to an address by Congressman Henry A. Wise from Virginia that went on for three hours and fifteen minutes concerning a bill to appropriate the proceeds of the sales of the public lands (National Intelligencer, 6 July 1841, 2), French lamented, "And while all this celebration was in progress the House of Representatives to show their great economy of time, sat and listed to speeches, and there was I in the midst of them! I consoled myself by writing the following rhymes in the minute book. . . :"

The bells are ringing merrily,
The people moving cheerily;
The soldiery are all en route,
The ladies, bless them all, are out;
E'en Nature doth her charms display,
For this is Freedom's holiday!

The cannon sends its peal to heaven,
While, by its voice, the welkin's riven;
Millions of swelling shouts arise,
And freedom's incense fills the skies.

But we--ah, me!--we working boys,
Must sit and listen to the noise--
This House, this cruel House, won't play,
Although 'tis Freedom's holiday!
(Evening Star, 5 July 1870, 4).

French was also likely aware that while the House was in session, the Senate had adjourned and the Executive Departments were closed (National Intelligencer, 5 July 1841, 2).

Locally, the Mayor of Washington took the responsibility of issuing a number of ordinances for the Fourth. For example, by 1865, local laws were in effect prohibiting the discharge of firearms and firecrackers in the city, particularly after 10 p.m. Although safety was a concern, it was as much or more to stem the noise and racket that often went on all night. But authorities occasionally looked the other way, rather than make arrests. In 1869, it was reported as far away as Cincinnati that the juveniles in Washington had shot off firecrackers "in contempt of the Mayor's [Sayles J. Bowen] proclamation" (Cincinnati Evening Chronicle, 6 July 1869, 1) that had totally banned the firing of guns, use of gunpowder and firecrackers. Yet, in that year, fireworks were readily available to the public at Ruppets on 7th, near D Streets (Evening Star, 3 July 1869, 1-2).

In 1871, another ordinance was in effect:

Unlawful to sell to children under the age of 17 years, firearms, gunpowder, gun caps, or other explosive substances. $5 for each offense. Unlawful to set off fireworks in any street or avenue within one hundred yards of any dwelling house. (Evening Star, 1 July 1871.)

An unusual ordinance regarding explosives was issued in 1881, when the Chief of Police banned all fireworks in the District of Columbia on July 4 that year in respect for President James Garfield who lay dying from an assassin's bullet.

Sometimes the weather influenced decisions regarding celebrations. On July 4, 1817, the only military parade in Washington was that of the Marine Corps, and they processed at 4 a.m. due to the expected heat that day (National Intelligencer, 7 July 1817, 2). (One wonders how many spectators were up at that hour!) In 1855, due to rain, fireworks were postponed until July 9. To the disappointment of many, a number of fireworks had been damaged; someone had left them out in the rain (Evening Star, 9 July 1855, 3).

Orations and addresses by prominent persons served as focal points for some of the best celebrations. In 1831, when the city was politically divided due to partisan sentiments, Francis Scott Key spoke in the Rotunda of the Capitol addressing supporters of President Andrew Jackson. He asked those assembled to share with him

what the blessing is which calls forth, on this day, a nation's gratitude and joy. What it is which, throughout the limits of our spreading country, calls together countless multitudes, assembled, like ourselves, to testify their reverence for the day. What it is that raised their song of triumph, as if one heart animated all the mass, and beat in every pulse of our population. (National Intelligencer, 15 July 1831, 2.)

Not to be outdone, at the Mechanic's Association, a group that represented the National Republicans who were followers of Henry Clay, featured Philip R. Fendall, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, as orator at their celebration in City Hall. And if that didn't get everyone's attention, the dinner that night did. Highlighted was "a revolutionary blast" on the horn by Jacob Gideon, Sr., "who had officiated during the Revolutionary War as trumpeter to the commander-in-chief, and [who] had acted in that capacity at the surrender at York Town" (Daily National Journal, 6 July 1831, 3).

On July 4, 1851, Daniel Webster, Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore, and who was considered by many as the foremost speaker of his day, gave an oration at the Capitol on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of the new Capitol ediface (National Intelligencer,7 July 1851, 3). This was Webster's final Fourth of July oration after having presented several Independence Day addresses during his career.

The most significant and far-reaching address of the nineteenth century in not only the District of Columbia, but arguably the entire nation ws given by Abraham Lincoln in the Capitol on July 4, 1861. The President had called an "extraordinary" session of both houses of Congress in order to ask for support for his plan for dealing with Southern seccessionist states. The speech was, in effect, a declaration of war which, as a result, significantly changed the substance and the way future Independence Day celebrations would be held (New York Times,6 July 1861, 4) .

The liveliest decade of the nineteenth century for celebrating the Fourth of July in Washington was the 1850s. Citizens chose from a variety of programs and events to attend. Ceremonies were provided by many churches, schools and societies, such as the Phoenix and Irving Lyceums, and Union Academy, the Odd Fellows, to name a few. There were events at Georgetown College, the Smithsonian Institution, the Corcoran Library, the Capitol, and the White House. There were ceremonies and fireworks on the Washington Monument grounds, at Monument Square located in front of the White House, and on Capitol Hill. In 1859, there were two large simultaneous fireworks displays: one on the south grounds of the White House and the other on Capitol Hill (Evening Star,2 July 1859, 3). There were also private parties in Washington. Some residents preferred to celebrate uptown in Kalorama and Glenwood. Each of these communities mustered their own fireworks displays.

Excursions were very popular as well. Many residents decided to get out of Washington for the day to escape the heat. Daytrips to Great Falls, Little Falls, Mount Vernon, Potomac Creek, and Aquia Creek were well received. Washingtonians enjoyed themselves immensely on these trips, but not all excursions were free of mishaps. In 1844, when the boat Sydney, under the command of Captain Nevitt "who is well known in the District as a prudent and experienced officer," was returning from a Fourth of July outing to Aquia Creek, the vessel broke down in front of Mount Vernon trapping the passengers on board for the night. The U.S. Marine Band was present and happily provided music for dancing which went on all night in the cabin and on the upper deck. The next day the steamer Oceola,returning from a celebration trip to Piney Point, Md., picked up the stranded passengers and transported them back to D.C. (National Intelligencer,4 and 8 July 1844, 3 and 3, respectively).

Overnight trips were also very popular. Excursions advertised included those down the Potomac River to Piney Point, Cape Henry, and Old Point, Norfolk, for example, and north on the C & O Canal to Harper's Ferry. In 1856, a trip to Harper's Ferry on the packet boat Argo started off from Georgetown at 6 a.m., taking 12 hours to reach its destination. To us this seems to be a demanding trip, perhaps not worth the effort, yet among all of the excursions offered for the holiday that year, the editor of the local newspaper considered the Harper's Ferry trip the most attractive proposal:

Decidedly the cheapest and most desirable excursion which we have seen advertised for the Fourth, is the one which is going to Harper's Ferry on the fine packet Arago [sic]. Every inducement is offered the seekers of pleasure of recreation to avail themselves of its advantages. Only think of it; for the small sum of $3.50 you can have the pleasure of riding over one hundred and twenty miles, seeing beautiful and romantic scenery, the government works at the Ferry, feast uppon all the delicacies of the season, and that, too, without any fear of being blown up or run off the track. (Evening Star,1 July 1856, 3.)

The guests danced the night away at the United States Hotel and returned the next day arriving at Fisher's Lock, four miles above Georgetown (the water had been let out of the Canal below that point). Omnibuses were waiting for the passengers to bring them back into town (Evening Star, 1 and 7 July 1856, 1 and 2 respectively. For an article that describes a trip on the Canal, see "Trip Up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal," National Intelligencer, 8-9 July 1839, 2 and 3, respectively).

Additional highlights of Fourth of July celebrations to the end of the civil War included one held in the House of Representatives in 1820, when a "disputation of Indian chiefs," including Chief "Big Bear," was in the audience listening to an oration presented by Thomas Randall. The group included members of the Osage tribe, some of whom stayed at Davis's Hotel (National Messenger, 7 July 1820, 3 and Washington Gazette, 5 July 1820).

Mention should be made as well of the laying of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument on July 4, 1848, when one of the largest groups of officials to date gathered on the grounds there: President James Polk, Vice President George M. Dallas, heads of departments, senators, congressmen, special guest Dolley Madison, and "thousands of American citizens" (Evening Star, 5 July 1870, 4). Benjamin B. French was Grand Master of Masons and had the honor of presiding over the ceremony of the placement of the stone (National Intelligencer, 6 July 1848, 2). He recounted years later some of the words contained in his address:

We commence here, a great, a patriotic, a glorious work; when it shall have been completed, who that shall visit this city, but will come to the spot, and while contemplating the monument of a nation's affections, but will feel his bosom warm, and his heart expand with the holy fire of patriotism? His thoughts will not recur to him alone whose name it shall bear, but also to that galaxy of great names, who not only pledged everything, but risked everything, that we might stand here, this day, in the proud position which we occupy before the world. (Evening Star, 5 July 1870, 4.)

A landmark event occurred on July 4, 1865 when the National Colored Monument Association celebrated in memory of Abraham Lincoln on the grounds of the Treasury Department. It was the first national Fourth of July celebration by African-Americans in the United States and paved the way for future similar celebrations in Washington and elsewhere. The purpose of the gathering was to raise funds to establish an educational institution for African Americans with the name Lincoln Monument Institute and to put forth a call for "the immediate, complete, and universal enfranchisement" of all African Americans (Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Syphax and John F. Cook, 1 July 1865). John F. Cook, Chairman of the Association, led the event, and letters of tribute were read from a host of notables, including Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Douglass. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts was orator of the day and he and the event drew national attention (an extract of Wilson's speech is in Norwich Weekly Courier, 6 July 1865, 4; see also, a headline article in Indianapolis Daily Journal, 4 July 1865, 1).

In that year as well the esteemed Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia was established (7 December 1865; see Evening Star, 8 December 1865, 1) and held their first Fourth of July event in the following year, initiating that annual tradition.

Not all Independence Day celebrations went off smoothly. On July 4, 1842, at the military companies' celebration held at Parrott's Woods near Georgetown, immediately after Congressman Joseph R. Underwood from Kentucky delivered his oration, the speaker's platform collapsed throwing Underwood, District of Columbia Mayor William W. Seaton, General Smith, G.W.P. Custis, "and several other gentlemen" to the ground. "Fortunately, no lives were lost, no limbs broken" (National Intelligencer, 6 July 1842, 3).

On July 4, 1843, at a fireworks display at President's Square, "Mr. Francis Ward, of this city, received a severe contusion on the head from the bursting of a mortar, out of which the fire- balls were discharged. . . .Another young man had his arm very severely injured from a similar cause"(National Intelligencer, 6 July 1843, 3).

On July 4, 1845, at a fireworks display on "the lower plain on the south of the President's House . . . a catastrophe occurred of which . . . suddenly closed the exhibition and turned the rejoicings of the day into general gloom and sorrow." It was estimated that six or eight thousand persons had gathered on the south lawn and the surrounding streets to witness a splendid and "most magnificent display, . . . nothing of the kind half so brilliant was ever before seen in this city." A newspaper report described what happened:

Near the close of the display, as the pyrotechnist was about firing a stand of twelve rockets, it fell, so as to direct the missiles, not upwards, but ranging a few feet above the heads of the crowd on the flat, though precisely in the right direction to strike among those on and around the south wall surrounding the grounds of the President's House. Mr. James Knowles, a worthy and industrious citizen of Washington, was transfixed through the heart by one, and was instantly killed. His poor wife hung on his arm at the time. Some ten or twelve others were struck, and more or less injured; though, at present, we are unable to give the names of the unfortunate sufferers. There were, probably, seven or eight hundred people congregated on the hundred yards square over which these missiles of death were scattered. (National Intelligencer,7 and 9 July 1845, 3 and 3, respectively.)

Knowles was a member of the Franklin Fire Company. Also killed was Georgiana Ferguson. William Magee and his three children were injured (Washingtonian, 12 July 1845, 3 and National Intelligencer 9 July 1845, 3).

The most exciting Fourth of July celebration in nineteenth-century Washington occurred on the eve of the Civil War in 1861. It was a festive atmosphere that lasted well into the night. Most Washingtonians were in the city as excursions were out of the question due to the presence of secessionist forces nearby and the danger of running into skirmishes. Numerous strangers had entered the city from points south, escaping the impending war. During the days preceding the Fourth, northern troops had steadily filed into the city. By the Fourth of July between twenty and thirty thousand soldiers were present, the largest influx of military ever in the history of the city. There were over 20 New York regiments alone. Volunteer troops also flooded the city with the intention of joining up and demonstrating their eagerness to get in the inevitable fray. Some 32 West Point graduates had arrived in Washington for duty assignments (Evening Star, 3 July 1861, 2). By 9 a.m. that day, the streets were already crowded. The sound of horses' hoofs as groups of calvary made their way through the city and clanking swords of military officers walking about, resounded through the streets and alleys. Citizens on foot and in carriages and omnibuses made their way through the hubbub taking in the sights, hoping to catch a glimpse of renowned and distinguished persons. Some of the omnibuses and boats were filled with the "ladies of Washington" on their way to Union camps nearby to provide appropriate sendoffs to the men. One group of females was spotted on its way to Camp Davis, located near Chain Bridge, where they presented a "handsome set of colors" to Company E of the Washington Light Infantry (Evening Star, 3 July 1861, 2). Another group of 40 young ladies was seen leaving for Camp Stone in Montgomery County, Maryland, where the boys there had prepared a picnic for the women. They ate and danced until 7 p.m. that evening (Evening Star, 6 July 1861, 2).

A sense of tension was evident, however, as persons eagerly awaited the President's written address to Congress which was read on 5 July. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln was seen in and about the city that morning attending to various ceremonies. At 8 a.m. the regiments began their march along Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House where Lincoln, members of his cabinet and General Winfield Scott were seated atop a wooden platform. General Scott seemed to draw as much attention as Lincoln. ". . . Each military and civil eye were turned in passing was the towering form of the commander-in-chief of the national forces, General Winfield Scott" (Evening Star, 5 July 1861, 3).

Following the review, Lincoln, escorted by the New York Seventy-First Regiment, proceeded to the south front of the Treasury Department building, where a flag was presented to the city of Washington by the Union Committee of New York. The crowd assembled there "persistently" called for a speech from the President, but Lincoln declined saying "that he had made a great many poor speeches, and now felt relieved that his dignity did not permit him to be a public speaker." The people responded with laughter and loud applause (Evening Star, 5 July 1861, 3). With that the President raised the flag up the new 100-foot flagstaff that had been erected for the occasion.

Fourth of July celebrations after 1865 were subdued, as if the city was exhausted from the toils of the war years. Noted Washington historian John Clagett Proctor concurs, stating "By 1885 there seems to have been a general lagging of enthusiasm on America's great patriotic day" (Sunday Star, 4 July, 1943, C4). In 1868 it was reported to a New York newspaper just how quiet Washington was:

The national anniversary has been observed here in a very quiet and peaceful manner. There have been no public observances of any kind, and the citizens and strangers have spent the day in quiet personal enjoyment, according to their own tastes. Nearly half of Congress is out of town, as well as nearly all politicians. The day has been intensely hot--thermometer ninty-seven degrees. ("Observances Elsewhere," New York Times, 6 July 1868, 8).

In 1886 a report about the Fourth of July that year echoed the 1868 report:

Washington was in a state of suspended animation on Monday. There is no duller town in Christendom on any public holiday. The big Government buildings were locked, and all the Department people rushed for steamboats and railroad trains to take them down the river or into the country. Nearly all the heads of Departments were out of the city. The only sign of life was at the south end of the Capitol, where the House, without a sympton of patriotic emotion, held a perspiring session, grinding away upon the general deficiency bill. An opportunity to see the House in session was about the only thing that afforded any satisfaction to the crowd of rustics who were allured to the city by half-fare on the railroads. The law prohibiting the combustion of powder in any shape was enforced with rigor. The only redeeming feature was a fine display of fireworks at night in the White House lot, which attracted an enormous crowd. . . . ("The Fifth in Washington," National Tribune, 8 July 1886, 5).

At the turn of the century, a resurgence of interest in the Fourth of July emerged. First, a new nationalism based on an image of the United States as a world power, brought about in part as a result of the Spanish-American War, was evident. Second, Washington, D.C., was carried along on a national reform movement to create what were called "safe and sane" celebrations.

In 1898, when the United States became a "global empire," through its new territorial possessions--Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines--the significance and meaning of the principles inherent in the Declaration of Independence were reinterpreted. The national consciousness regarding this magnificent holiday would never again be confined solely to issues focused within this country's shores. Representative Thomas H. Tongue of Oregon, speaking at the ceremony at the Washington Monument on July 4, 1898 (Evening Star,11), reflected on this new sentiment: "The benefits of the American Revolution were by no means confined to America." Democracy, freedom, and civil rights were inalienable internationally and America's natal celebration was the appropriate day to recognize that. As evidence, on July 4, 1901, the American military handed over control of the Philippines to a civilian administration and on July 4, 1946, independence was granted to the Philippine people.

The United States functioning in the international arena fostered new sentiments. For example, on July 4, 1951, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an "extraordinary" session of the House of Representatives took place. The Declaration of Independence was read in the presence of packed public galleries and an impromptu motion by Representative John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) that the Declaration be readopted so as to "affirm independence of foreign domination," was put forward. It didn't pass, however. The session lasted exactly 13 minutes (New York Times, 5 July 1951, 8).

Throughout the twentieth century, a new national awareness had emerged regarding the role and importance of the immigrant to the American heritage. Groups of immigrants were commonly given citizenship on the Fourth of July in ceremonies held in cities across America. On July 4, 1925, in the D.C. Central High School Stadium, 400 men and women took the oath of allegiance for citizenship, followed by Jesse C. Suter, President of the city's Federation of Citizens' Associations, who gave each new citizen a copy of the Constitution (Evening Star,4 July 1925, 1 and 3).

Foreign-born citizens living in the District of Columbia also eagerly participated in Independence Day events, such as the pageant, "Democracy Triumphant," an enactment performed before government officials at the Capitol in 1918 (New York Times, 5 July 1918, 1 and 11).

It was also in 1918 that Fourth of July celebrations in the District of Columbia were first carried out through the authority of the Community Center Department of the public school system, "with the co-operation of a committee of prominent citizens, appointed by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, upon the request of the Community Center Council." That practice continued for some two decades (Evening Star, 4 July 1933, 4).

In 1903, a national anti-fireworks movement was established, initiated, in part, by the American Medical Association, in order to deal with the high casualty rate caused by the use of explosives on Independence Day. For the period from 1903 to 1910, it was reported that 4,543 citizens had been killed or injured from explosives in some 83 cities across the nation (Diana K. Appelbaum, Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, an American History. N.Y.: Facts on File, 1989, 138). A surge of national interest in this problem helped establish a nationwide campaign commonly referred to as a "safe and sane" Fourth of July. The movement quickly gained momentum (Ibid., 132 and 137).

The District of Columbia joined Chicago and Cleveland as the first major cities to lead the way in 1909 with safe and sane celebrations (see, Safe and Sane Celebration of Independence Day at the National Capital, 1911. Washington: Judd & Detweiler, 1911, 3). In order to stem the use of fireworks by private citizens in the District of Columbia that year, daylight fireworks were provided in several places. A daylight fireworks display took place on the Elipse at 2:30 p.m.; but there were evening fireworks there as well (Evening Star, 5 July 1909, 1).

Highlights of Fourth of July ceremonies in the District of Columbia during the period included President Woodrow Wilson's speech at the dedication of the new American Federation of Labor building in 1916 (New York Times, 5 July 1916, 1) and in 1926, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, Rep. Harry R. Rathbone's call for homerule for the District of Columbia (New York Times, 6 July 1926, 7).

From the 1920s on the Washington Monument grounds once again became a principal focal point for celebrating the Fourth of July and a number of premieres took place. In 1926, the U.S. Navy Band provided the first nighttime musical performance at the Sylvan Theater there as an accompaniment to the fireworks (Evening Star, 5 July 1926, 1). In the following year, the first formal Independence Day ceremony at the Theater took place (Evening Star,4 July 1933, 4). In addition to music provided by the U.S. Marine Band, Charles F. Carusi, President of the D.C. Board of Education, read the Declaration of Independence (Evening Star, 5 July 1827, 2). Charles Carusi was the grandson of none other than Nathaniel Carusi, a local musician who performed for a splendid Fourth of July event in Annapolis in 1816 (see James Heintze, American Musical Life in Context and Practice to 1865. N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 1994, 102). And on July 4, 1947, the ceremony on the Monument grounds was televised for the first time (Evening Star, 5 July 1947, A3).

Events during the 1950s and after were equally noteworthy. In 1956, Washington's Association of Oldest Inhabitants held its final Fourth of July celebration in the Old Union Engine House (located at 19th and H Streets, N.W.) which was scheduled for demolition. The first celebration in that structure had taken place in 1909 (Washington Post, 5 July 1956, 13). In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech at the laying of the third cornerstone in the 166-year history of the U.S. Capitol (Washington Post, 5 July 1959, A1).

In 1962 a group of 200 persons gathered to honor Elbridge Gerry, Vice President of the U.S. in 1813-14 and who was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in Washington (Washington Post, 5 July 1962, B1). In 1970, "Honor America Day," initiated by Rev. Billy Graham and Hobart Lewis of Reader's Digest was celebrated (Washington Post, 5 July 1970, A1). In 1974, the 122nd anniversary of Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech was celebrated at the Kennedy Center with a reading of "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" originally read in Rochester, N.Y. (Washington Post, 5 July 1974, B1). In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, recovering from an assassin's bullet, left George Washington Hospital for the first time to view the fireworks held at the Lincoln Memorial (Washington Post, 5 July 1981, 1). In 1993, popular singer Johnny Cash recited a patriotic poem, "Rugged Old Flag," in Washington, while citizens there held flags in honor of prisoners of war and servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War.

The District of Columbia has a distinguished history in celebrating the Fourth of July. The city has represented the nation well--in spirit, spectacle, and sound. President Bill Clinton said on July 4, 1996, "America is a work in progress, and we have strived through decades of challenge and change to become what our Founders envisioned on our first Independence Day." And so too, the District of Columbia is a work in progress. And although, we may not know exactly how future Independence Days will be celebrated, we can rest assured that Washington will continue to serve as a beacon of light reflecting the spectre and soul of the nation.

(Please note: this paper was presented by James Heintze at the 26th Annual Conference on Washington, D.C. Historical Studies held at the city's Martin Luther King Memorial Library on October 29, 1999. Also available is "Orations, Speeches, and Readings of the Declaration of Independence and Other Documents in Washington, D.C. and Surrounding Towns on the Fourth of July, 1801-1870")

Some Sources

"Grand Old, High-Flying flags Sell." Chicago Tribune, 4 July 1998, 2.

Wheeler, Linda. "In Midst of War, A Peaceful Holiday: Fourth of July Was Quiet, Purposeful in 1942." Washington Post, 29 June 2000, MG, 1

_____. "On July 4, 1899, Noisy Celebration." Washington Post, 4 July 1999, C8.

This page last updated June 10, 2008.

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