THE NATION'S BIRTHDAY started out as a big all-day affair -- solemnized, according to John Adams in 1776, "with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations."

For the first few years, however, Independence Day was celebrated on July 2. This was the date in 1776 that the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia approved the formal motion to sever ties with Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was actually accepted on July 4, but it was only a formality.

Philadelphia led the way in celebrating the first anniversary of independence on July 2, 1777. Bells tolled throughout the day; in the evening, bonfires lit the streets and fireworks were ignited. Continental soldiers were given an extra gill of rum, and Hessian prisoners were forced to provide music at a dinner for the city's leaders. Even individual homes participated in the festivities: "The whole city," observed Adams, "{was} lighting up their candles at the windows. I think it was the most splendid illumination I ever saw."

By 1788, the year the Constitution was ratified by the requisite number of states, the holiday was being celebrated on the official date of July 4, and the model of a typical Independence Day celebration had emerged: decoration of houses the day before, an early morning firing of volleys, displays of the Stars and Stripes, a morning parade (often taking three hours to complete), an afternoon picnic highlighted by "Orators of the Day," and an evening display of fireworks.

The speeches were long and flowery, the food abundant and delectable, the attendees numerous and boisterous. And the original poetry devised for the day -- well, what it lacked in style was offset by good intentions and numerous exclamation marks:Lo! Our Fathers from the SkiesBend, to-day, with Beaming Eyes,Bend with Love to See our Clime,Marching in its Course Sublime,And Winning all our Birthright Claims,The Guerdon, Glory of their Names!Let us Stand Where they have Stood,Stand for Justice, Right and Good!Stand Erect on Freedom's Sod!Blest by Duty, Blest by God.Hail Columbia, Proud and Free!Hail the Nation's Jubilee!Land of Beauty, Virtue, Worth,Wonder, Glory of the Earth!

In 1810, D.C.'s first celebration of the Fourth was more a fizzle than a bang. There were early-morning volleys, then a quiet oration in the Baptist Church near the White House. President James Madison and Cabinet members were in attendance and afterward held a small reception. Public officials attended two dinners, one at Lindsay's Hotel, the other at Long's. No rockets' red glare, no parades and no crowds.

Washington's July 4 observance became a bit more animated and democratic on the semi-centennial observance in 1826 and during the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in 1848. But for most years of the 19th century Washington seemed to forego any obvious pursuit of happiness on July 4. The really big Independence Day holidays were held elsewhere. In 1853, for instance, The New York Times used superlatives to describe the all-day events in the Big Apple, Philadelphia and Boston but only a one-liner for the District of Columbia:

"The Fourth was very generally observed here, and passed off without any serious casualty."

No doubt Congress and the president were mostly to blame for the national capital's somnambulance. They vacated Washington for their home districts or cooler climes. Other Washingtonians followed suit, according to a July 5, 1859 story in the Washington Evening Star: "Within our city limits the entire day was decidedly more quiet as a general thing than we usually see it on the Sabbath."

The situation deteriorated by the late 19th century: The Centennial celebration in 1876 was held in Philadelphia; and in presidential election years, the Democratic National Convention usually opened in another city on Independence Day. On July 5, 1894, The Washington Post's coverage of the nation's birthday made it clear that the District of Columbia was scarcely a capital area:

There were really not so many people to celebrate the day in the city, for all those who could go else where went, as was testified by the loaded trains and steam boats . . . In the city, stores and offices and departments were closed tight, and the Avenue, for the greater part of the day, looked deserted, the only signs of life being the cable cars, scantily loaded for the most part . . . The greatest celebration of the day in Washington was the gathering of the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution . . . at the base of the Washington Monument.

Washington was the only major city in 1910 to record no injuries from fireworks on July 4. Little wonder that the following advertisement for remedying pyrotechnic abuse was found in the newspapers of other cities: Then Charley, Clair, and Harry gay,To honor Independence DayIn a big explosion were not slowTo let their bombs and crackers go,Till burned and bruised at every point,And sprained at wrist and ankle joint -- Quickly Pond's Extract came in turnTo take the smart from sprain and burn.

By the early 20th century, certain holiday truths were self- evident: The traditional patriotic model of celebration was breaking down, even outside Washington. What had kept the events recreating 1776 intact earlier -- actual Revolutionary War veterans and immediate descendants -- were no more. Regattas, sporting events, balloon ascensions, beach trips, even attempts to negotiate Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel or boat were becoming the things to do on Independence Day.

There was one notable exception to the Fourth's declining fortunes. That occurred in 1919 when the foreign governments beside which the United States had fought in World War I staged a big July 4 celebration in Washington as a token of appreciation. At the Washington Monument a series of huge tableaux represented such subjects as "world service," "liberty," "children" and "peace." Numerous floats sponsored by the various nations moved along a parade route from the Treasury to the Capitol. There on the East Front an Independence Day Pageant acclaiming the return of peace was the focus, highlighted by a thousand-voice choir accompanied by the Marine Band.

As the all-day patriotic celebration of the Fourth faded into history, the fireworks would remain, however, made more alluring by perceptive capitalists who took advantage of the American yen for foreign-sounding devices, such as "Wah Shang Tung" and the most popular cracker, the "Yang Kee." And before cities began to pass laws regulating their use, some Americans seemed to be pledging their fortunes and their lives to the big bang. A study in the wake of Independence Day in 1927, for instance, revealed 111 fatalities in 36 states. An observer in the same year calculated that since 1776 more Americans had been killed and injured in celebrating the Fourth (about 40,000) than had been killed and injured in the entire Revolutionary War (about 34,000).

In the recent course of human events (and especially after 1951, when Philadelphia was the center of the 175th anniversary), Washington would take the lead in Independence Day ceremonies culminating in a massive fireworks display. The most stirring holidays occurred in 1941 as America was being drawn into World War II and in 1950 after the Korean War had broken out in late June. In both instances the crowds mushroomed; from 75,000 in 1940 to 150,000 a year later. The fireworks budget in 1941 for the first time topped a thousand dollars. Then in 1958 some 200,000 people attended the dedication of Theodore Roosevelt Island on July 4. And the biggest bang ever in D.C. -- thanks to some 22 tons of fireworks -- was recorded at the Washington Monument during the Bicentennial in 1976.

For that spendid "illumination" John Adams would certainly have been proud -- and maybe even misty-eyed.

Historian Thomas V. DiBacco is the author of "Made in the USA," published in February by Harper & Row.