Williamsburg celebrates Independence Day exactly the way John Adams wanted to, just on a different day. The Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence on July 2. The next day, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
The final version passed on July 4, a day whose symbolism would only increase after Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died exactly 50 years later. Today “solemn acts of devotion” clearly take a back seat to cookouts and fireworks, but how did Williamsburg mark the day in the nation’s early years?
The Declaration of Independence did not surprise the people of Williamsburg in 1776. Weeks before its adoption, Richard Henry Lee had carried the resolution for independence from the colonial capital to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Still, it was two weeks before word officially arrived in town. The Virginia Gazette published its text on July 20. Five days later, Williamsburg celebrated the event for the first time:
“Yesterday afternoon, agreeable to an order of the Hon. Privy Council, the Declaration of Independence was solemnly proclaimed at the Capitol, the Courthouse, and the Palace, amidst the acclamations of the people, accompanied by firing of cannon and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded on that solemnity.”
We know from a Revolutionary War pension application that it was Benjamin Waller, Clerk of the General Court, who read the Declaration to the public.
Williamsburg marked the 4th of July more quietly than many of America’s cities, especially after Richmond became Virginia’s capital in 1780. But citizens of the town still kept up with reports of more lavish affairs through the Gazette. Less than three months before British troops occupied the city, Philadelphia held a very large, very symbolic Independence party:
“About noon all the armed ships and gallies in the river were drawn up before the city, dressed in the gayest manner, with the colours of the United States and streamers displayed. At one o’clock, the yards being properly manned, they began the celebration of the day by a discharge of thirteen cannon from each of the ships, and one from each of the thirteen gallies, in honour of the Thirteen United States. …
“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.”
Public revelry on the 4th became common in many American cities, but if the newspaper accounts are to be believed, Virginians tended to be just a tad more serious.
In 1795 the Virginia Argus described a march from Richmond to nearby Goochland in celebration of the 4th, with a complete list of the ceremonial toasts to patriotic causes including three cheers for “Peace with all the world, and a rapid extinction of the national debt.” What could be more traditional?
Williamsburg’s 1802 celebration “was admirably adapted to keep alive that spirit which produced our happy revolution, and well calculated to gratify the patriot and the philosopher.” Militia performed exercises in front of the courthouse, and a series of orations were offered at Bruton Parish Church.
Francis Carr of Albemarle “gave a vivid coloring to the well drawn picture of American distresses and maternal oppression: paid a tribute of gratitude to the revolutionary heroes, and exhorted his countrymen to follow their noble example.” Other speakers did not shy away from political issues. One called for broadening the right to vote, and for every citizen “to exercise his portion of the sovereignty.” Another “made a masterly enquiry into the justice and policy of capital punishment.”
As a day of national unity, the failure of the Declaration to deliver its promise to all Americans went unremarked upon. 1837’s observance was filled with “all the enthusiasm and spirit of freemen.” Slave uprisings were a serious concern in Virginia, but without any sense of irony a Williamsburg observer wrote, “On this day our forefathers smote off the chains of their vassalage, and hurled them at the authors of their tyrannical oppression.”
In 1847, citizens dined at a “festive board” and toasted “the blessings of a free government” in the Raleigh Tavern’s historic Apollo Room, where the House of Burgesses had formed a nonimportation association in the days leading up to the American Revolution. One particular toast seemed to represent a search for unity at a time of increasing sectional conflict: “Liberty of Speech: The safety-valve of the passions of men of all parties.”
This July 4th visitors to Williamsburg will walk in the footsteps of Jefferson and Washington and Patrick Henry, but they will also be part of the 238-year history of pomp and parade celebrating America’s independence.