“Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”: Celebrating Independence

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel. Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y C. ca. 1859. Oil on canvas. Artist Johannes A. S. Oertel, working in the mid-nineteenth century, provides an imagined depiction of the destruction of George III's statue in Bowling Green, the first victim of New Yorkers' reaction to hearing news of the Declaration of Independence. Oertel places women, children and Native Americans among what eyewitnesses recorded as a rowdy crowd of soldiers and civilians. No true image of the statue itself survives. However, contemporary descriptions inform us that the King was sculpted in Roman garb, not the eighteenth-century royal dress shown in the painting. More accurate is the view of the statue reconstructed by Charles M. Lefferts at right.

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, NYC (ca. 1859) by Johannes A. S. Oertel. Painting in the mid-1800s, Oertel created a thrilling but historically inaccurate depiction of  New Yorkers destorying a statue of George III after hearing news of the Declaration of Independence.  The event did happen but much of Oretel’s painting is fanciful. Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia.org

Writing to wife Abigail following Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams famously outlined his vision for how future generations would celebrate the historic moment. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote in an oft quoted passage. “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.”

Adams’ prediction was borne out immediately.  News of independence spread from Philadelphia across the new American states like a circle of ripples on a great lake.  By July 10, 1776, the first word arrived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, hometown of General George Washington and where his mother Mary still lived.  Indentured servant John Harrower, who served as tutor for Colonel William Daingerfield’s family at Belvidera plantation about seven miles downstream from Fredericksburg on a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock, recorded the moment in his journal. [1]

“Wednesday 10th. At 6 pm went to Mrs. Battaile’s & teach’d until sunset and then returned home & soon after hea[r]d a great many Guns fired towards Toun. About 12 pm the Colo. Despatc[h]ed Anthy. Frazer there to see what was the cause of [it?] who returned, and informed him that there was great rejoicings in Town on Accott. of the Congress having declared the 13 United Colonys of North America Independent of the Crown of great Britain.” [2]

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Young members of the Continental Army recreate a charge during Fourth of July at Ferry Farm!

Some days later, on July 26, when the Declaration was officially read out in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital, the proclamation was made “amidst the acclimations of the people, accompanied by firing of cannon and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded.”

One year later, Adams prediction continued to bear fruit, as the infant nation celebrated its First Birthday.  In Charleston, South Carolina, on July 4, 1777 “ringing of bells ushered in the Day” and “At sun-rise American colours were displayed from all the forts and batteries, and vessels in the harbour.”  There was a parade of military troops and then “at one o’clock the several forts, beginning at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, discharging seventy six pieces of cannon . . . and the militia and artillery fired three general vollies.”  The new state’s leaders gave a banquet with thirteen toasts and “double the number [of guests] that ever observed the birthday of the present misguided and unfortunate King of Great Britain.”  To end the day-long celebration, “the evening was concluded with illuminations, &c. far exceeding any that had ever been exhibited before.”.

Back north, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ships were also “dressed . . . with the colours of the United States and streamers displayed.” The crews climbed into the rigging and stretched out across the yardarms to salute the day and each ship fired thirteen cannons. On land, a banquet was held for Congress during which “The Hessian band of music taken at Trenton the 26th of December last, attended and heightened the festivity with some fine performances suited to the joyous occasion, while a corps of British deserters, taken into the service of the continent by the State of Georgia, being drawn before the door, filled up the intervals with feux de joie.” A feu de joie, French for “fire of joy”, is the firing of guns into the air in quick succession. It is sometimes described as a “running fire of guns.”. The dinner also included many toasts.  The late afternoon featured a parade of military troops and the ringing of bells. “At night there was a grand exhibition of firework, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets.”

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After flying for a year over Washington’s boyhood home, one U.S. flag is retired replaced with a new flag during the Patriotic Flag Retirement Ceremony at Ferry Farm’s Fourth of July celebration.

Whether in Virginia in 1776 or South Carolina and Pennsylvania in 1777, all of these acts of celebration were quite traditional and had been used for decades to celebrate the monarch’s birthday each year.  In 1727, Willliamsburg marked the king’s birthday.

“The colors were displayed at the Capitol and salvos fired from the cannon at the Palace, at the forts, and on board the king’s ships in Virginia waters at the time.  In the evening the Capitol, the Palace, the College, and ‘most of the Gentlemen’s and other House of Note’ were illuminated and bonfires were sometimes set in public squares in the city.  At the governor’s dinner the drinking of all the loyal healths consumed a great deal of time, a variety of choice wines and liquors, and a large store of gunpowder. The populace was sometimes treated to ‘plenty of liquor’ and drank the same healths outside the Palace or at one of the taverns. The day’s festivities closed with the governor’s ball for all the ladies and gentlemen in town.” [3]

More than two centuries later, we still celebrate the Fourth of July with decorations of red, white, and blue, ubiquitous American flags, military parades, cannon fire, large amounts of food, the enjoyment of spirited beverages, music, and fireworks.  John Adams vision was far-reaching indeed!

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Celebrate Independence Day where George Washington spent his boyhood years!

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See more photos from last year’s Fourth of July at Ferry Farm here.

This year’s theme, “We The People” focuses on The Declaration of Independence with a variety of activities and entertainment for young and old alike. Learn about archaeology at Ferry Farm, enjoy a patriotic flag retirement ceremony,interact with colonial and Civil War re-enactors as well as members of the Patawomeck tribe, listen to patriotic music, and participate in educational programs, crafts and games, and hands-on activities for the whole family.  Visit kenmore.org/events.html to learn more.

Cost: $1 per person
Parking: Eagles Lodge – 21 Cool Spring Road Fredericksburg, VA 22405
Shuttles will run between the Eagles Lodge and Ferry Farm.

[1] John Harrower, The Journal of John Harrower: An Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773-1776, edited by Edward Miles Riley, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1963: xvi.

[2] Harrower, 158.

[3] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989: 93.