Culture  /  Origin Story

The Sounds of Independence

How was the Fourth of July celebrated during the Revolutionary War?
Jessica Griffin/Associated Press

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.”

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