Throughout its history, Philadelphia has played host to celebrations as diverse as its neighborhoods, from Columbus Day and Washington’s birthday to the Emancipation Exposition and the annual Mummer’s Parade. And from the first commemoration of Independence Day to the Bicentennial, these celebrations historically have been infused with notions of citizenship, public space, and civic identity. As historian Gary Nash notes, civic observances provide a means of binding diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups together, as well as connecting the past to the present. Ultimately, public celebrations are rarely just fun festivities, but also rituals that convey and reinforce national beliefs and values. In the case of Philadelphia, such values, much like the celebrations themselves, are often points of conflict and debate that provide a unique window into the city’s history.
By and large, Independence Day is the holiday most associated with Philadelphia and rightly so since the city was among the first in the nation to mark the day with now traditional customs like parades, picnics, and fireworks. The city’s first July 4th celebration took place in 1777, just one year after the Declaration of Independence was issued and in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Festivities began around noon, as crowds gathered at the seaport to admire ships bedecked with red, white, and blue bunting and witness the discharge of thirteen cannon shots, one for each of the states in the Union. A Hessian band provided music and a private dinner for members of Congress followed in the afternoon before a parade of horses and troops made their way to Second Street. The festivities concluded that evening with a fireworks display that included thirteen rockets, another symbol of the newly united nation.
From that first celebration, Philadelphia’s Independence Day festivities developed into a highly ritualized affair that, over the next few decades, brought the city’s disparate groups together and increasingly equated participation with patriotism. More so than other civic rituals, parades became displays of both common nationhood and civic unity in a city that, despite serving as the nation’s capital until 1800, was still a largely provincial town. In the 1790s, Philadelphia’s city limits merely extended about a mile and a half west of the Delaware River and citizens of different social backgrounds often lived in close proximity. Generally publicized in advance, parades followed published routes that underscored these physical and social realities, as they wound through densely interconnected streets and drew together a broad cross-section of the city’s population. Notably, when Philadelphia celebrated both Independence Day and the adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1788, it organized the largest parade yet in the United States, with 5,000 people marching in procession before 17,000 gathered for a celebratory afternoon dinner.
Notably, as public rituals like parades wove into the fabric of civic life, they also became strategic maneuvers by the nation’s first political parties to assert power and lay claim to the nation’s Revolutionary heritage. Throughout the first decades of the republic, the Federalist and Republican parties of Philadelphia marked Independence Day with competing celebrations that voiced their conflicting views on the Revolution’s legacy. While Federalists commemorated independence from Great Britain and emphasized reverence for government, Republicans underscored natural rights and the ongoing fight for liberty, for them exemplified by the French Revolution. By and large, newspaper accounts of these celebrations reflected the newspaper’s political sympathies and Republicans in particular used the holiday to demonstrate their opposition to Federalist policies and their support for French rebels. In 1792, Republicans even went so far as to display both French and American flags at their July 4th festivities and wore Liberty caps modeled after those of the French revolutionary forces.
As the commemoration of Independence Day intertwined with politics, both Federalists and Republicans increasingly organized other celebrations that likewise reflected their political beliefs. Naturally, election days were prime opportunities for public gatherings, as voters, politicians, and spectators crowded the streets and victors celebrated with bonfires and parades. In concert with the Society of Cincinnati, Federalists first celebrated Washington’s Birthday in 1789 with a procession of civil and military officers and a reception at Washington’s Presidential residence. After his death, Federalists commemorated Washington’s Birthday with an annual ball against the objections of Republicans, who believed honoring public officials in this way was undemocratic. For their part, Republicans organized public celebrations to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration as President, as well as the Louisiana Purchase and, after Federalists divided over supporting John Adams’ re-election, were the only party to organize Independence Day celebrations in Philadelphia. In the early 1800s, the Federalists re-emerged to publicly celebrate Washington’s Birthday once again and in 1814 organized an elaborate procession of 2,000 participants down Arch and Spruce Streets to the Olympic Theatre. Ultimately, as these celebrations show, how and what was commemorated in Philadelphia in the republic’s early years was a snapshot of the city, its people, and its politics, one that would evolve in the coming decades and continue to be reflected in Philadelphia’s civic celebrations.
James R. Heintze. Fourth of July Celebrations Database. American University. Washington, D.C. http://www1.american.edu/heintze/fourth.htm#Beginning.
Albrecht Koschnik, “Political Conflict and Public Contest: Rituals of National Celebration in Philadelphia, 1788-1815,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 118, no. 3 (July 1994): 209-248.
Gary B. Nash, First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
Edwin Wolf, Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City (Philadelphia, PA: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990).