From sparklers to bottle rockets to the huge barrages fired in New York, fireworks have always been a part of Fourth of July celebrations. Contrary to some belief, the tradition didn’t start just because Americans love loud noises and the smell of gunpowder (although, many of us do). In fact, there’s an important historical reason behind why we include the dazzling performances.
The Fourth of July Was Almost the Second of July
Let’s go back to the start of the Revolutionary War. During the first few months, the only “fireworks” were the bombs and rockets Francis Scott Key wrote about in his poem.
At the time, the delegates of the thirteen colonies gathered to discuss secession from Great Britain and King George III. By early July, all the colonies agreed—independence from Britain was imperative. On July 3, the men began drafting the Declaration of Independence. They delivered the final draft the following day.
However, to John Adams, the day to celebrate when 12 out of 13 colonies voted for secession—July 2nd. The only colony that voted against it was New York, which would later change its vote on the ninth.
In a letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams told her the happy news of the colonies’ collective decision. He declared that the American people would remember the second of July forever.
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” Adams wrote.
Adams was not the only one with a different date in mind, either. In fact, some former colonists celebrated the holiday on July 8th, when the declaration’s first public reading occurred. However, as time would tell, July 4th was the more popular date. The first official Fourth of July celebration occurred in 1777 in Philadelphia.
Fireworks Became an American Staple
In the same letter that John Adams wrote to Abigail, he crafted the classic way Americans celebrate their nation’s independence today.
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote. “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
On July 5th, 1777 in Philadelphia, the Evening Post reported the previous night’s celebrations.
“Yesterday the 4th of July, being the anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this city with demonstrations of joy and festivity,” the paper read.
Following a 13-gun salute and demonstration of decorated ships, the real spectacle began.
“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells,” reported the Evening Post, “and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”
Now a time-honored tradition, no Fourth of July celebration is complete with fireworks.