Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why We Celebrate the Fourth the Way We Do

1876 ODJ4thJulyFRFourth 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

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    It seems patriotism in our country is becoming a thing of the past, at least in city areas, so it is nice to see an article about it. I note the Adirondack Almanack seems to cover all kinds of events all across the Adirondacks, but I don’t think I see any coverage in the Almanack of the Memorial Day activities across the Adirondacks. I’m glad to see an article about July 4th.

  2. Charlie S says:

    I would bet half the people who blow up fireworks and make as much noise as they possibly can on the 4th have no idea what the hay they are celebrating. I’d also bet they are clueless as to all the damage this country has created in places around the world. And these so-called patriots! From what I see it’s the American way of life that they love….not their country. It is very common to see the flags of so-called patriots favorite football teams flapping in the wind next to their old glories.

    There’s not to much to be proud about in this country of late….especially since what we did to Iraq and the instability we created in that region of the world!!

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