The fireworks, they would come later. The crowd on the Mall could wait. As the sun slipped away last evening, the man and his sister-in-law stood before the bronze of Mr. Jefferson, in his memorial on the Tidal Basin. The man, from Centreville, had been there many times. The sister-in-law, from Oregon, never.

So it was that Scott La Du, a confessed romantic, began reading Jefferson's passages, chiseled in Georgia marble, to his audience of one, Linda La Du: We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .

"You take a look at those words over there," said Scott, 33, pointing up at them through the twilight. "Just the first three or four lines. That's pretty powerful stuff. Gives you goose bumps."

On the Fourth of July, people actually say such things. With feeling.

It was a day of mint condition, of high heat but blessed breezes, of corn and cliche and, of course, firework finale. Some 400,000, the police said, made it down to the Mall -- or at least out to a viewpoint -- for the nation's 214th anniversary. Nearly all of them, it seemed, got the memo about wearing shorts.

They watched from mid-Potomac, on bobbing boats. They barbequed. They did crossword puzzles. They played with every type of object invented by man: footballs, baseballs, soccer balls, volleyballs, Frisbees, flying plastic rings, jai lai balls, dice. They wore T-shirts: "Comfortably Numb." "I'd Rather Be Watching All My Children." They took photographs. They checked each other out. ("Helllllo, ladies!") They tried to stay in the shade. A radio blasted "Sympathy for the Devil." A group on the Sylvan Theatre stage at the Washington Monument sang "Aquarius." There was that vintage about it all.

In short, was this America on summer holiday, or what?

"People do what they want, say what they want. I like that," said Christina Favaro, 35, of Brazil, who, with a handful of her compatriots, had come to the Mall to make money, via homemade T-shirts they were peddling for $15. Well, $10. Well, who knows. "Americans are just more relaxed {on the Fourth}, opened up, outgoing. They just express themselves more. They don't have to come down here and wear their yuppie suits."

The multitudes were peaceful, mostly. Police made 25 arrests, for narcotics violations, disorderly conduct and other minor infractions. There were scattered injuries, some stemming from accidents, some from differences of opinion, a number proclaimed low for this kind of gathering. One incident delayed the fireworks for 15 minutes; a helicopter had to swoop down for an 11-year-old girl suffering an asthma attack.

The crowd noticed its own tranquility and commented on it.

"Everybody's keeping mellow. No fights, man," said a young man. He declined to provide a name because, well, he would be smoking dope, he proclaimed, down at the "Smoke-In," a gathering of "punkers, Dead Heads, everybody" near the Lincoln Memorial designed to openly consume marijuana to win its legalization.

Few were as openly thoughtful about the meaning of the day as Scott and Linda La Du. "No one talks about it," said Lloyd Jackson, 50, of Northwest Washington. "It's lost in the fireworks." In fact, a National Park Service ranger at the Jefferson Memorial said those paying respects to the man of the day were no larger in number than normal, even though tens of thousands of people sat or lay within sight of his statue.

But don't get the wrong idea. This crowd had its thoughts about the state of the nation. Marion Barry (sad). Ozone degradation (bad). Nelson Mandela (inspiring). Jackson and his friend, Cliff Parish, 33, of Southeast Washington, waxed poetic as they lay on a blanket beneath trees along the Tidal Basin.

"As a black, it was really hard to identify with it," Jackson said of the holiday. "But as an American, you start to identify with it as you get older. It goes out beyond one's blackness, into freedom."

"All colors are represented here, all nationalities," said Parish. "It's like the fireworks. There are separate colors exploding up there. These colors blend. Each has its own place, but they all blend."

What was on Col. Rick Couch's mind was what he called D-squared, E-squared: Dramatic Developments in Eastern Europe. He sat not far from the Washington Monument with Army Maj. Rick Scales. They were dressed as civilians. It didn't matter; everything about them said military.

"Here Mr. Gorbachev, by doing a few simple things, has essentially disarmed us," said Couch, 43, an Air Force pilot who has helped test the B-2 Stealth bomber. "What if they throw him out tomorrow? Let's hope not."

Al Guertin was Air Force too, but younger, 18, and lower, just airman. He was flying a kite nearby. Had it up a thousand feet at one point. He had a Fourth of July soliloquy.

"Why are they concentrating on finding things on other planets? They should be trying to keep this planet alive. Go over to that tree right there" -- he pointed toward 14th Street -- "people are living there. Bunch of luggage piled right in front of it. We got the president right there, and there are people starving."

Ah, freedom of speech.

Linda La Du wondered about Gorbachev too. What would he think if he stood at the Jefferson Memorial as she did and read those carved words? Would he be inspired? Would he be moved by Jefferson?

"If you come late at night," Scott La Du said as the couple prepared to exit for the fireworks, "you can even hear his voice."

"I feel," said Linda, "like I ought to be wearing a dress."