This post accompanies “Celebrating the Fourth,” episode 245 of Ben Franklin’s World. At the bottom of the post you can find suggested readings on celebrating independence in the early United States and a special bonus clip from Shira Lurie.
by Emily Sneff
The Fourth of July is a noisy holiday. From morning parades featuring marching bands and military groups, to afternoon pool parties and barbecues, to evening concerts and orchestrated fireworks shows, the day is a patriotic cacophony. But what about the earliest celebrations of independence? In a newborn country at war, when freedom from British tyranny was still tenuous, what did the Fourth of July sound like?
Across the United States in the late 1770s and early 1780s, Americans met the dawn of July 4th with the ringing of bells or discharging of cannon. In Newport, Rhode Island in 1781, thirteen cannons were fired at sunrise and sunset. On July 4, 1783, Bostonians were awakened by both bells and cannons. In some celebrations, cannons continued to boom and gun shots rang out at intervals for the rest of the day. One has to wonder, would waking up to the sound of cannons have energized townspeople? Would repeated firings throughout the day have been a joyful reminder of independence or an unnerving reminder that independence was not yet secure?
How and even whether a community was able to commemorate Independence Day depended on the movements of the British and American forces. Military pomp permeated early celebrations of the Fourth, and military groups ranging from local militias to the Continental Army were the noisiest contributors to the festivities, as they fired their cannons and small arms, performed drills, and paraded down city streets. Salutes, including the feu de joie, in which a line of troops fired in rapid succession, were typical despite shortages in gunpowder. George Washington issued very clear orders for the Fourth of July celebration that took place in New Brunswick just days after the Battle of Monmouth, calling for the firing of thirteen cannons and a feu de joie, as well as a “double allowance of rum” for his soldiers. That same year, Princeton celebrated by discharging cannon taken from General Burgoyne, to which a large crowd responded with three loud huzzahs, “all exulting in the opportunity of expressing their gratulations in being delivered from the yoke of a merciless tyrant and his execrable minions.” In Boston, Portsmouth, and other port cities, residents celebrated independence by firing cannons from the forts and vessels in and around their respective harbors. In Charleston on July 4, 1777, there was a discharge of seventy-six cannons from the forts around the city. That same year in Philadelphia, each of the ships in the Delaware River was decorated for the occasion and fired thirteen cannons. Thus, the festivities extended beyond the shoreline, to ships that supported the war effort.
Bells could be heard throughout the day, calling the public together or preceding military parades and fireworks displays. In Charleston on July 4, 1783, “the morning was not ushered in with the ringing of bells, for amongst other property wantonly and wickedly taken away by the British, these made a part,” but by the following year, the ringing of bells was part of the festivities once again. When the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday, celebrations were typically held on Monday, but the ringing of bells was apparently one of “such demonstrations of joy as could be observed on the Sabbath day.”
Newspaper accounts of Independence Day celebrations indicate that readings of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th did not become popular until the late eighteenth century. But in these early years, ministers and other public figures regularly delivered sermons and orations on independence, as well as eulogies for those who had sacrificed their lives for that cause, in morning gatherings at churches and public sites. In the early evening, distinguished individuals, including those who had participated in the morning’s events, shared an elaborate meal and drank toasts together. Typically thirteen toasts were offered, often punctuated by music or salutes by artillerymen stationed near the door of the house or tavern where the group was congregated. In Philadelphia in 1777, each toast was followed by a discharge from a corps of British deserters stationed near the door of City Tavern and “a suitable piece of music” played by a Hessian band captured at Trenton the previous December. In between toasts in Charleston in 1783, artillery fired thirteen rounds and a band played, and following the thirteenth toast—to “a lasting and happy peace, and to the memory of our patriotic brethren, who greatly fell in obtaining it, by sea or land”—the artillery discharged and the band performed “a very solemn dirge” for thirteen minutes. Though the townspeople excluded from these festive dinners of elite white men could not hear the words of the toasts, they could certainly hear the gunshots, and likely some of the music, as well.
Long before Woody Guthrie, Irving Berlin, or even Francis Scott Key, the Fourth of July consisted of marches and overtures, as well as odes on the subject of independence. Many of the tunes played during these early celebrations would have been British. The music we recognize as “The Star-Spangled Banner” may have been heard, though the words were not composed until 1814, because the tune was originally written in the 1770s by John Stanford Smith for the Anacreontic Society in London. Even “God Save the King” may have been played, because Samuel Francis Smith, who wrote the lyrics for “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” in 1831, was far from the first person to craft pro-American lyrics for this familiar melody. Though the music of these early celebrations may sound unusual or unfamiliar to the modern ear, across the early United States, Independence Day closed out in a manner very familiar to modern Americans: with dramatic fireworks displays. The fireworks often concluded with thirteen rockets, and in Boston in 1779, thirteen rockets were fired at once as “an emblem of the Thirteen Rising States.” In 1777 in Philadelphia, both fireworks and the shattering of glass pierced the night, as the city was illuminated by candles and rockets, and those who did not participate (whether Quaker, disinterested, or tory) had their windows smashed by raucous celebrants.
These festivities were not invented for Independence Day. Rather, Americans reappropriated the forms of celebration they had previously used to mark royal birthdays, accession days, and other holidays tied to the empire. This explains why so many towns across the United States forged such similar Fourth of July traditions—they took something familiar and made it their own as they marked a clear turning point in their history as a people.
Focusing on the soundscape of these early celebrations emphasizes the communal aspect of Independence Day. As indicated by the number of cannon discharged, toasts offered, and even fireworks launched, thirteen was the most powerful symbol in these initial anniversaries. This aural volley, repeated in different forms and at different times during the day, was a reminder that delegates from thirteen states had approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and that all thirteen states were united in their goal of being able to celebrate that day in perpetuity, as a free nation. Regardless of gender, race, or status, anyone within earshot of the cannons and guns discharging, orations being delivered, bells ringing, and fireworks whizzing through the sky on the Fourth of July would have been a part of the celebration.
Emily Sneff (@emily_sneff) is a doctoral student in the History Department at William & Mary and a digital apprentice at the Omohundro Institute. Before graduate school, she was the research manager of the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard University.
 Newport Mercury, July 7, 1781.
 (Boston) Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser, July 10, 1783.
 “General Orders, 3 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0014.
 (Trenton) New-Jersey Gazette, July 8, 1778.
 For examples, see (Boston) Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser, July 9, 1778; (Portsmouth) New-Hampshire Gazette. Or, State Journal, and General Advertiser, July 14, 1778.
 (Boston) Continental Journal, July 31, 1777.
 (Philadelphia) Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, July 8, 1777.
 (Charleston) South-Carolina Weekly Gazette, July 5, 1783; (Charleston) South Carolina Gazette, and General Advertiser, July 6-8, 1784.
 (Trenton) New-Jersey Gazette, July 12, 1784.
 (Philadelphia) Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, July 8, 1777.
 (Charleston) South-Carolina Weekly Gazette, July 5, 1783.
 (Boston) Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser, July 8, 1779.
Eliga Gould, “When Did America Really Become Independent?” Uncommon Sense, July 4, 2017.
Charles Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., vol. 2, no. 3 (July 1945): 237-272.
James R. Heintze, The Fourth of July Encyclopedia (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2007).
Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
Benjamin E. Park, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: OIEAHC, University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (New York: Liveright, 2014).
Sandra Moats, Celebrating the Republic: Presidential Ceremony and Popular Sovereignty, from Washington to Monroe (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).
Ray Raphael, Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past (New York: The New Press, 2007).
Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: OIEAHC, University of North Carolina Press, 1997).