On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
Christopher Marshall wrote in his diary from Philadelphia on July 6, 1776, "the King's arms there are to be taken down by nine Associators, here appointed, who are to convey it to a pile of casks erected upon the commons, for the purpose of a bonfire, and the arms placed on the top."
On July 8, 1776, Marshall reported that he "went to State House Yard, where, in the presence of a great concourse of people, the Declaration of Independence was read by John Nixon. The company declared their approbation by three repeated huzzas. The King's Arms were taken down in the Court Room, State House same time...Fine starlight, pleasant evening. There were bonfires, ringing bells, with other great demonstrations of joy upon the unanimity and agreement of the declaration."
As the news spread throughout the colonies, other celebrations took place. The Virginia Gazette of July 26, 1776 which was published in Williamsburg reported that most of the townsfolk were joyful on July 25, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for all to hear "at the Capitol, the Courthouse, and the Palace, amidst the acclamations of the people." Citizens in Williamsburg celebrated even further with a military parade and the firing of cannon and muskets.
In New York, the "Declaration of Independence was read at the head of each brigade of the continental army posted at and near New York, and every where received with loud huzzas and the utmost demonstrations of joy...the equestrian statue of George III" in New York City was torn down. The Virginia Gazette reported that the lead from the New York monument would be turned into bullets for upcoming battles.
ed in Williamsburg. )
A much less elaborate but heartfelt celebration took place a year later. In the midst of the Revolutionary War on July 4, 1778, at his headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey, General George Washington directed his army to put "green boughs" in their hats; issued them a double allowance of rum; and ordered a Fourth of July artillery salute.
Throughout the Revolution, men & women spontaneously celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, before it became an officially sanctioned holiday at the end of the war. In 1781, the Massachusettes Legislature resolved to have the 1st official state celebration of the Fourth.
Boston was the first municipality to designate July 4th as a holiday, in 1783. In the same year, Alexander Martin of North Carolina was the first governor to issue a state order for celebrating the independence of the country on the Fourth of July.
Other proclamations by governors included Governor William Livingston of New Jersey who declared on July 4, 1787, that "the present day naturally recalls to our minds an event that ought never to be forgotten, and the revival of the military spirit amongst us, affords a happy argument of our determined resolution to maintain under the auspices of heaven, that glorious independence, the anniversary of which it has pleased God to preserve our lives this day to celebrate" (Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, 14 July 1787)
1776- The Pennsylvania Evening Post is the first newspaper to print the Declaration of Independence, on 6 July 1776;
the Pennsylvania Gazette publishes the Declaration on 10 July;
the Maryland Gazette publishes the Declaration on 11 July;
the first two public readings of this historic document include one given by John Nixon on 8 July at Independence Square, Philadelphia, and another on the same day in Trenton;
the first public reading in New York is given on 10 July;
the first public readings in Boston and Portsmouth, N.H., take place on 18 July;
three public readings take place on the same day (25 July) in Williamsburg;
a public reading in Baltimore takes place on 29 July;
in Annapolis on 17 August at a convening of the convention, "unanimous" support of the tenets of the Declaration are expressed
1777- At Portsmouth, N.H., Americans are invited by Captain Thompson to lunch on board a Continental frigate;
in Philadelphia, windows of Quakers' homes are broken because Quakers refuse to close their businesses on holidays that celebrate American military victories;
the first religious sermon about Independence Day is given by Rev. William Gordon in Boston before the General Court of Massachusetts
1778- From his headquarters in New Brunswick, N.J., General George Washington directs his army to put "green boughs" in their hats, issues them a double allowance of rum, and orders a Fourth of July artillery salute;
at Princeton, N.J., an artillery salute is fired from a cannon taken from Burgoyne's army;
in Philadelphia, guns and "sky rockets" are fired, but candles are not used for illuminations due to their scarcity;
at Passy, France, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin host a dinner for "the American Gentlemen and ladies, in and about Paris;"
the first Independence Day oration is given by David Ramsay in Charleston, S.C. before "a Publick Assembly of the Inhabitants;"
on Kaskaskia Island, Ill., George Rogers Clark rings a liberty bell as he and his Revolutionary troops occupy Kaskaskia (under British rule) without firing a shot;
at Mill Prison, near Plymouth, England, Charles Herbert (of Newburyport, Mass.) and other captured American prisoners of war celebrate the Fourth of July by attaching home-made American flags to their hats which they wear the entire day
1779- The Fourth falls for the first time on a Sunday and celebrations take place on the following day, initiating that tradition;
in Boston, continental ships fire a "grand salute" from their cannons;
in Philadelphia, although 14 members of the Continental Congress object to having a celebration, an elegant dinner at the City Tavern, followed by a display of fireworks, is given.
1781- The first official state celebration as recognized under resolve of a legislature occurs in Massachusetts;
at Newport, R.I., the militia hosts French officers at a celebration dinner
1782- At Saratoga, N.Y., the "officers of the Regement" of the Continental Army celebrate with toasts and a "volley of Musquets at the end of each"
1783- Alexander Martin of North Carolina is the first governor to issue a state order (18 June) for celebrating the Fourth and the Moravian community of Salem responds with a special service and Lovefeast;
Boston is the first municipality to designate (by vote on 25 March) July 4 as the official day of celebration;
the governor of South Carolina gives a dinner at the State House in Charleston and at the celebration there, 13 toasts are drank, the last one accompanied by artillery guns firing 13 times and the band playing a dirge lasting 13 minutes
1786- In Beaufort, N.C., the Court House burns down, the result of an errant artillery shell during a celebration there
1787- John Quincy Adams celebrates the Fourth in Boston where he hears an oration delivered at the old brick meeting house and watches no less than 6 independent military companies process
1788- Fourth celebrations first become political as factions fight over the adoption of the Federal Constitution; pro- and anti-Constitution factions clash at Albany, N.Y.;
in Providence, R.I., an unsuccessful attempt is made by 1,000 citizens headed by William Weston judge of the Superior Court, on July 4, to prevent the celebration of the proposed ratification of the Constitution;
in Philadelphia, a "Grand Federal Procession," the largest parade in the U.S. to date, occurs under the planning of Francis Hopkinson;
in Marietta, Ohio, James M. Varnum delivers the first Independence Day oration west of the Alleghany Mountains, in what was then known as the Northwestern territory
1791- The only Fourth of July address ever made by George Washington occurs at Lancaster, Pa.
1792- In Washington, a cornerstone for the "Federal Bridge" is laid by the Commissioners of the Federal Buildings
1794- Forty Revolutionary War soldiers celebrate near Nicholasville, in Jessamine County, Kentucky, at the home of Colonel William Price
1795- A mock battle engagement with infantry, cavalry and artillery units occurs in Alexandria, Va.;
in Boston, the cornerstone for the Massachusetts State House is laid by Paul Revere and Gov. Samuel Adams
1796- In Baltimore, the Republican Society meets at Mr. Evan's Tavern
1798- George Washington attends the celebration in Alexandria, Va., and dines with a large group of citizens and military officers of Fairfax County there;
in Portsmouth, N.H., the keel of the 20-gun sloop of war Portsmouth is laid
1799- The "musical drama," The Fourth of July or, Temple of American Independence (music by Victor Pelissier?), is premiered in New York;
George Washington celebrates in Alexandria, Va. by dining with a number of citizens at Kemps Tavern there.
For much, much more on July 4th celebrations, see:
The Fourth of July Encyclopedia by James R. Heintze (2007)
Music of the Fourth of July: A Year-by-year Chronicle of Performances and Works Composed for the Occasion, by James R. Heintze (2009)