On the morning of July 4, 1801, a bareheaded President Thomas Jefferson, his “grey locks waving in the air,” watched from the front steps of the White House as crowds celebrated America’s 25th birthday with a military parade, horse races and cockfights. At noon, the president opened the doors to greet guests including ordinary citizens, diplomats, military officers and five Cherokee chiefs.
The Marine Band played in the entrance hall. Inside, about 100 guests were served cakes, wine and punch. “All appeared to be cheerful, all happy. Mr. Jefferson mingled promiscuously with the citizens,” said a woman who attended the event.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s plans to insert himself into the celebration of Fourth of July by delivering a speech at the Lincoln Memorial came under attack by House Democrats, who warned it “could create the appearance of a televised, partisan campaign rally on the Mall at public expense.”
In contrast to Trump, early presidents took part in more low-key events. Presidents George Washington and John Adams attended celebrations in various towns around the country. Adams, however, did spark the association of celebrations with the Fourth of July. After Congress approved the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the date “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.”
As the first president to reside in the White House on a July 4, Jefferson started the tradition of holding receptions on Independence Day. President James Madison hosted “heads of departments” one year. In 1825, President John Quincy Adams went to Capitol Hill to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence before hosting a White House gathering.
In 1841, President John Tyler hosted a dinner that included turtle soup made from a 300-pound turtle from Key West, Fla. “That evening Tyler and his guests walked out onto Lafayette Square to enjoy a fireworks display,” according to the White House Historical Association.
In 1845, President James K. Polk featured fireworks at the White House itself. Unfortunately, the presidential pyrotechnics had a tragic end. Nearly 8,000 people gathered “to witness a most magnificent display of fireworks,” the Washington Union reported. Near the close of the display, 12 rockets were accidentally fired into the crowd. “Mr. James Knowles, a worthy and industrious citizen of Washington, was transfixed through the heart by one and was instantly killed.” A woman, Georgiana Ferguson, also was hit and died the next day.
July 4 was a fateful day for some presidents as well. Both John Adams and Jefferson died on that day in 1826. President James Monroe died on July 4, 1831. Then there was President Zachary Taylor. On a steamy July 4, 1850, “Old Rough and Ready” walked over to ceremonies at the location where the Washington Monument was being built. Later, back at the White House, he gulped down cherries and iced milk. He came down with cholera and died on July 9.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave what became known as his “Fourth of July” speech from a second-floor window of the White House to a crowd accompanied by a band celebrating the fall of Vicksburg. The date was July 7, but the speech got its name because Lincoln talked about the importance of the Fourth of July to the nation.
President Ulysses S. Grant began a new July 4 tradition for presidents in 1872, according to research by James Heintze, author of “The Fourth of July Encyclopedia.” Grant left town and went to Long Beach, N.J. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison spent the Fourth in Cape May, N.J. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Pittsburgh, where he gave a speech to 200,000 people.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft was at his new “summer White House” in Beverly, Mass., when the District of Columbia conducted its first official Independence Day celebration. More than 40,000 people turned out to see daylight and evening fireworks on the Ellipse behind the White House. The celebrations have continued every year since.
President Harry S. Truman is the only president to ever take an active role in the Washington celebration. With more than 150,000 people at the Mall on July 4, 1951, for the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Truman gave a speech from the Washington Monument about progress in the Korean War.
President Richard Nixon videotaped a message that was played on the Mall at July 4 ceremonies in 1970 when bottle-throwing anti-Vietnam War protesters disrupted the event.
In 1976, the nation celebrated its bicentennial year with a record of more than 1 million people jamming onto the Mall. President Gerald Ford watched from the White House after speaking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
President Ronald Reagan got involved in the 1983 Washington celebration when his Interior Secretary James Watt banned the Beach Boys from singing at festivities on the Mall. Watt said the group would draw “the wrong element.” He replaced the rock group with the family-friendly U.S. Army Blues band and Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton.
President Reagan, at the behest of his wife, Nancy, overturned the ban. Mrs. Reagan said her children grew up listening to the Beach Boys’ music, and the group’s members “are fine, outstanding people.” The group didn’t perform that year, but it did the next before more than half a million people. Lead singer Mike Love drew cheers when he addressed the crowd as “all you undesirable elements.”
President Bill Clinton reviewed Navy ships in New York on July 4, 2000. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama presided over naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. citizens. Last year on July 4, President Trump and his wife, Melania, hosted a White House picnic for military families.
This year President Trump has tweeted about a “Salute To America” that would feature “an address by your favorite President, me.” Trump plans to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Critics said that would turn the historically nonpartisan celebration into a Trump political rally.
It’s too soon to say how the plans will work out. What does seem certain about this year’s July 4 celebration is that, in more ways than one, there will be fireworks.
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