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Fourth of July

Hot dogs, fireworks, parades: Americans love July 4th. How Independence Day evolved.

The Fourth of July is a day to honor the generations who came after the Founding Fathers.

Stewart D. McLaurin
Opinion contributor

This Fourth of July week will feature the picnics, parades and fireworks that Americans love. But with just two years left until the 250th anniversary of our independence, it’s important to look at how our nation’s birthday has evolved and how the White House’s role on this holiday has contributed to our national identity.

We should begin by remembering how audacious it was for revolutionaries to break away from their mother country – and to pledge “our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to one another.

“That was more than rhetoric,” President Ronald Reagan reminded Americans on July 4, 1986, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. “Each of those men knew the penalty for high treason to the crown.” 

If our second president, John Adams, had his way, we’d celebrate on July 2 – the day in 1776 that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia officially declared freedom from Great Britain. But the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed for two more days, and it was Adams’ successor, Thomas Jefferson, who began the tradition of observing the Fourth of July at the White House in 1801

The early Fourth of July celebrations at the White House

On that day, President Jefferson opened the White House to diplomats, civil and military officers, citizens and Cherokee chiefs in what was known as the Oval Saloon (today’s Blue Room). The Marine Band played in the Entrance Hall, and a festival on the north grounds featured horse races and parades, along with cakes, wine and punch for the revelers.

The celebration on July 4, 1803, featured a history-making reveal, when Jefferson stood on the front steps to announce news of the Louisiana Purchase, which had just reached the White House.  

This black-and-white photograph shows a large crowd gathered on the White House lawn during a Fourth of July celebration in 1903. Three thousand people attended patriotic speeches held under the shade of trees on the South Lawn.

As annual receptions and other commemorations became customary, the national symbolism of Independence Day grew stronger in 1826, when Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4 – exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Five years later, James Monroe, the last Founding Father to become president, also died on July 4.

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Fireworks were sometimes part of these early July Fourth celebrations, including a tragedy in 1845, when they discharged into a crowd assembled along the south wall of the White House, killing a local carpenter.

On July 4, 1848, President James Polk witnessed the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. (Future President Abraham Lincoln was also in attendance.) 

Lincoln's last Fourth of July was historic

This portrait photograph of President Abraham Lincoln was taken by Alexander Gardner, likely on February 5, 1865.

Some of the most important and resonant days of the Civil War came on July 4, with the president and the White House at the center.

On Lincoln’s first July 4 as president, just a few months after the war began in 1861, he reviewed New York militia regiments marching on the White House lawn, raised an American flag at the Treasury Department, and addressed Congress to call for more troops and war funding.  

After the Union won a decisive victory at Gettysburg on the day before July 4, 1863, Lincoln harkened back to America’s Independence Day, citing its writing “four score and seven years ago” when he visited the battlefield that November to deliver his iconic Gettysburg Address.

The following July 4 – the last of Lincoln’s life – the president opened the White House South Grounds to picnickers from Black schools, churches and religious groups, moving the nation one symbolic step closer to fulfilling the promises made on the first Fourth of July. 

Becoming a federal holiday

It wasn’t until 1870 that Independence Day was made an official federal holiday. On our nation’s 100th birthday in 1876, President Ulysses Grant and first lady Julia Grant greeted guests and opened a centennial exposition in Philadelphia by starting up a newfangled Corliss steam engine that powered most of the exhibits.

Presidents sometimes used Independence Day to get away from the office and the heat. President Andrew Jackson went home to the Hermitage, Presidents Polk and Grant vacationed in New Jersey, while Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft escaped to “summer White House” locations farther north. President Woodrow Wilson returned to Gettysburg on the battle’s 50th anniversary.

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Calvin Coolidge – the only U.S. president born on July 4 – traveled to Philadelphia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our founding.

“Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics,” he said, “every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence.”

America celebrates 200 years of independence with Queen Elizabeth

President Harry S. Truman (behind podium) addresses the crowd in 1951 at the Fourth of July ceremonies commemorating the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

President Harry Truman marked the 175th with an address at the Washington Monument, saying, “The ideas on which our government is founded ‒ the ideas of equality, of God-given rights, of self-government ‒ are still revolutionary.”

By 1976, the celebration of the 200th anniversary of American independence became more elaborate. President Gerald Ford spent the day shuttling to Valley Forge, to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and to the New York Harbor to ring a bicentennial bell on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal – ending the night at the White House, watching fireworks over the National Mall with first lady Betty Ford from the Truman Balcony.

The Fords also invited a special guest ‒ Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, who appeared on the Truman Balcony three days later with President Ford to greet 7,000 guests on the White House lawn. A state dinner was held in her honor (in a tent in the Rose Garden), broadcast live on public television, and featured a Julia Child interview with White House Executive Chef Henry Haller as he made Maryland vegetables and Georgia peach custard.  

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July 4 'unleashed not merely a revolution against the British'

During recent Independence Days, the White House South Lawn has been opened to staff, military families and special guests for barbecue, ice cream and a seat on the grass to watch the fireworks burst over the National Mall.  

As we approach our nation’s 250th birthday, we’ll have many opportunities to look beyond the bands and fireworks to consider that day in Philadelphia that changed world history.

As President John Kennedy said on Independence Day 1962, the Declaration of Independence "unleashed not merely a revolution against the British, but a revolution in human affairs.” 

Stewart D. McLaurin

July 4 is not just a day to celebrate our ideals and the people who envisioned them. It’s also a time to honor the generations who came after our Founders, to fulfill these promises and renew our nation. That’s why a number of presidents have marked the holiday by attending naturalization ceremonies where new citizens take their oath of allegiance to the United States.  

“From this day forward,” President George W. Bush told new Americans in 2008, “the history of the United States will be part of your heritage. The Fourth of July will be part of your Independence Day.”  

Here’s hoping that your July 4 weekend includes rest, relaxation and reflection – on our nation’s history, its promise and the part we can all play in carrying forward the American experiment.

Stewart D. McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961. 

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