July Highlight: The First Anniversary

Research Highlights LogoHolidays and anniversaries can often sneak up on people. That seems to be the case in Philadelphia on the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1777.

In the defense of the Continental Congress, they were a bit busy. In that first year of independence, they had made what would be the first of several evacuations, meeting in Baltimore for several months while the British occupied Philadelphia. During their time in Baltimore, the Congress had commissioned the first printing of the Declaration of Independence to include the names of (nearly) all the signers.

In some ways, things had changed very little in the year since independence was declared. John Hancock was still the President of the Continental Congress. The war with Great Britain raged on; although word didn’t reach Philadelphia until later, the days surrounding the anniversary saw the Siege of Fort Ticonderoga, and the irony of American troops retreating from Mount Independence.

In other ways, things had changed dramatically. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence had died — John Morton in April 1777, and Button Gwinnett in May. In addition to Hancock, only 17 delegates who had been present for the debates and/or signing of the Declaration of Independence were still in Congress the week of July 4, 1777.

According to John Adams, whose letter of July 5th to his daughter Abigail ("Nabby") serves as the best record of how that first anniversary was celebrated in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress all but forgot to recognize July 4th: “The thought of taking any notice of this day, was not conceived, until the second of this month, and it was not mentioned until the third.” By that time, it was too late for anyone to prepare a sermon for the occasion. What happened instead was a celebration not unlike modern Independence Day events.

On the morning of July 4th, a variety of ships were hauled into the Delaware River, “several of them beautifully dressed in the colours of all nations, displayed about upon the masts, yards, and rigging,” according to Adams; the newspapers noted “the colours of the United States and streamers” were displayed. At 1:00 pm, the ships were all manned, and Adams, Hancock, “and several gentlemen of the Marine Committee” boarded the frigate Delaware. The men were welcomed by “a discharge of thirteen guns, which was followed by thirteen others, from each other armed vessel in the river; then the gallies followed the fire, and after them the guard boats.” The wharves and shoreline were crowded with people eager to celebrate, “all shouting and huzzaing, in a manner which gave great joy to every friend to this country, and the utmost terror and dismay to every lurking tory.”

Arch Street Ferry, Philadelphia, by William Russell Birch, 1800
1800 view of the Delaware River by William Russell Birch

At 3:00 pm, the Continental Congress (which had adjourned for that day) dined together along with other officials at the City Tavern. Dinner music was supplied by a band of Hessians, taken prisoner at Trenton the previous December. These Hessians, likely oboists, were likely paid for this and other events, but the symbolism of Hessians providing the soundtrack for celebrating independence struck a chord with the delegates. In a letter to Richard Caswell written July 5th, Thomas Burke of North Carolina remarked, “a Hessian band of music which were taken at Princetown performed very delightfully, the pleasure being not a little heightened by the reflection that they were hired by the British Court for purposes very different from those to which they were applied.” 

Toasts inside the tavern were accompanied by vollies from of a company of soldiers that had positioned themselves on Second Street; according to the Pennsylvania Gazette, these soldiers were “a corps of British deserters, taken into the service of the continent by the State of Georgia.” An impromptu parade of light-horse and artillery units who happened to be in or passing through the city also proceeded down Second Street. Between the display of ships on the river and the troops marching through the city, the daytime celebration ended up being distinctly military. 

“In the evening,” as Adams described it, “I was walking about the streets for a little fresh air and exercise, and was surprised to find the whole city lighting up their candles at the windows. I walked most of the evening, and I think it was the most splendid illumination I ever saw; a few surly houses were dark; but the lights were very universal.” Many of the “surly houses” belonged to Tories, but they weren’t the only ones with dark windows amid an illuminated city. Due to their pacifist, and in some cases loyalist, leanings, Quakers who did not light up their homes and stores suffered the consequences of broken window panes. Quaker diarist Elizabeth Drinker poignantly noted, “the Town illuminated and a great number of Windows Broke on the Anniversary of Independence and Freedom.”

Tories and Quakers weren’t alone in their dislike of the pomp and circumstance. William Williams, signer of the Declaration of Independence from Connecticut, wrote to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. on July 5th that the 4th was “poorly spent in celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” though he thought it his duty to be a good sport and participate, so as to not reflect poorly on his home state. “A great Expenditure of Liquor, Powder &c took up the Day,” Williams continued, “& Candles thro the City, good part of the night, I suppose.” He, too, noted that, “much Tory unilluminated Glass will want replacing &c.” 

The theme of illumination continued with a fireworks display that began and concluded with thirteen rockets. Bells rang out, as they had a year earlier. As John Adams summarized the events, “I was amazed at the universal joy and alacrity that was discovered, and at the brilliancy and splendour of every part of this joyful exhibition… Had General Howe been here in disguise, or his master, this show would have given them the heart-ache.”

This celebration — both hurriedly organized and spontaneous, at a time when the fight for independence was far from over, and in a city that had been occupied by the British just months earlier — echoes through the communal meals, salutes, parades, concerts, and fireworks that epitomize July 4th to this day. Though he incorrectly predicted the exact “Independence Day”, in 1776 John Adams correctly foresaw the celebrations that would take place in 1777, and ever since: 

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.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.”

For more:

  • Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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By Emily Sneff