Fourth of July celebrations across the Adirondacks and foothills are rooted in regional and national traditions. The principal components — parades, social gatherings, feasts, and fireworks — have endured since the early 1800s. They’re actually based on suggestions by one of our Founding Fathers.
During the first century of the nation’s existence, memories of the revolution remained strong, spawning several customs that have since disappeared. Besides parades, food, and fireworks, it was common during that time to skewer King George in a variety of ways. Some towns presented plays with characters from the revolution, generating boos and hisses when the king’s character appeared on stage. All events of those days featured speeches that were widely anticipated, including at least one mocking King George for his treatment of the colonies. Another highlight in every city, town, and village celebration was a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Each July, newspapers recounted the festivities held in communities large and small, from Albany and Troy to Plattsburgh, Ogdensburg, Watertown, and scores of small villages. Reading of the Declaration of Independence at each location was a revered tradition and truly the heart of every celebration.
It’s not well known that both old and modern observances of our independence are based on suggestions by John Adams, who wrote to his wife Abigail in July 1776: “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Fourths of July in the 1800s followed those themes, featuring day-long celebrations beginning with cannon fire at dawn, a parade (often including a wide variety of costumed characters from revolutionary days), grand feasts, stage plays, speeches, patriotic songs, gun salutes, competitive games and contests, light displays, and fireworks at day’s end.
Newspapers provided in-depth descriptions of the events, along with commentary and even speech texts. Among my favorites, featured in 1856 in the Lewis County Banner, was a passage injecting a bit of humor while describing the many freedoms enjoyed by Americans: “In this great and desirable country, any man may become rich … become well educated … may become great, and of weight in the community.” And then came the punchline: “Any man in this country may marry any woman he pleases — the only difficulty being for him to find any woman that he does please.”
Particularly during the centennial year of 1876, pride and patriotism were openly expressed in editorials, typified by comments in the Ogdensburgh Daily Journal: “Let the cannons boom, let the bells ring, let the flags wave, let bands play, let the procession march, let the orator soar, let the yachts sail, let the games progress, let the races go on, let the balloon ascend, let the masqueraders parade, let the glare of the illumination light up the sky, and all the people celebrate, for tomorrow is the centennial jubilee of the freest people under the sun.”
We still celebrate in the style suggested by Adams, but missing today are two long-abandoned traditions that once served as annual reminders of why we were and must remain united: at least one short but effective speech on our history and patriotism, delivered by a dynamic speaker, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence, which is, after all, the very bedrock of why we celebrate in the first place.
Photo: Headlines, Ogdensburg Daily Journal, July 1876 Centennial