Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Fighting for the 4th of July

By Claude Fischer


As usual, officials around the nation spent part of June trying to confiscate fireworks or at least discourage their use – in San Bernardino County, California, and in Prince William County, Virginia, for example. These routines are the residues of what were once were much wider struggles over how the Fourth of July should be celebrated.

Many communities try to stage what they call “traditional” or “old-fashioned” Fourths of July – and many bemoan their failure to do that. The effort to reclaim a “traditional” Fourth goes back at least a couple of centuries. Americans have long had differing ideas about what that tradition is or should be, arguing over how to properly celebrate our Independence Day. Are we really looking to find a traditional Fourth or to invent one?

Defining the Fourth

Commemorations of the Fourth of July in the early 19th century were caught up in a political tug-of-war between the Jeffersonian Republicans who revered the Declaration of Independence and the Federalists who were less enthusiastic. (The Federalists preferred to ignore or downplay those French-like passages about universal rights, equality, and the virtue of revolutions.) As the founding generation was dying off – both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826 – civic leaders became more eager to preserve the history of the Revolution and to promote the nation’s birthday. The Jeffersonians won.

When the conflict over slavery heated up, abolitionists, of course, deployed the Declaration’s clarion call for equality as a rhetorical weapon. And slavery’s defenders rejected that call. In 1848, South Carolina’s famed senator, John C. Calhoun, announced that “There was ‘not a word of truth’ in the notion that men were created equal” and an Indiana senator said five years later that “the supposed ‘self-evident truth’ of man’s equal creation was in fact ‘a self-evident lie’” (quotes from historian Pauline Maier).

But the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln solidified the Fourth as a celebration of rights and equality. (Here I follow Gary Wills.) In an 1858 Fourth of July speech, Lincoln argued that many Americans of his day – the recent immigrants – could not literally trace their ancestry back to the Founding Fathers. But they could trace it spiritually:

when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

The immigrants of that day – many of them despised in their time – had equal moral claim to equality in America.

Later, in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Lincoln defined the Civil War – and more widely, the raison-d’etre of the nation, and thus the commemoration of its founding – as being centrally about liberty, equality, and democracy.

Celebrating the Fourth

While politicians and intellectuals fought over the meaning of the Fourth, average Americans differed over how to celebrate it – publicly and respectfully; publicly and boisterously; or privately and leisurely.


Nineteenth- and early 20th-century celebrations of the Fourth – like celebrations of many holidays in that time – ran toward rowdy public displays (often accompanied by considerable alcohol), sporting events, hazardous fireworks, and shooting of guns. Immigrants in the cities were especially enthusiastic. One headline in a Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper read: “Italian Celebrates: Couldn’t Speak English but Could Fire Revolver Shots” (source here).

In 1909, the New York Times reported (pdf), “Sixty-one dead and 3,246 injured are the [national] returns to date from the two-day Fourth of July celebration of 1909.” Toy pistols, fires, explosions, and runaway horses were major sources of death and injury. But, noted the Times, “the encouraging feature of the figures is the reduction in casualties in the cities which did away altogether with the sale of fireworks.”

"I love my patriotic hometown of Waxhaw, NC" -- BeeRealty via flickr

Community leaders increasingly sought to tame these celebrations. The “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July movement took hold about a century ago; it insisted on taking dangerous fireworks out of the hands of individuals. By the 1920s and ‘30s or so, the more civil Fourth took hold. We now have Fourths that have many more official fireworks, as well as parades and concerts, and far fewer deaths than a century or so past.

Skipping Town

Many middle-class Americans even in the 1890s found the Fourth a good time to leave town (and possible rowdiness). Railroad and trolley companies organized excursions to the shore or the mountains for the day or weekend. Then, as Americans by the millions bought automobiles, the race out of town was on.

Community elders – particularly merchants – kept trying to stage local Fourth of July events. Sometimes, neighboring towns would take turns hosting the festivities. But these were on-again, off-again events. There appeared to be a surge of interest in the early 1900′s, perhaps again around World War I, sporadically in the 1920s, and so on. Newspaper stories about the holiday often included regrets that citizens could “no longer” come together for a “traditional” Fourth.

My research team for an earlier book tracked celebrations in three northern California towns from 1890 to 1940. The communities hosted parades on and off over the period, but organizing the events seemed always a struggle. In 1913, a letter-writer to the Palo Alto Times castigated his fellow citizens for lacking patriotic spirit and going off to the mountains or beaches on the Fourth. In 1931, the Antioch Ledger announced that “Antioch will take on the appearance of a ghost town” on the Fourth because hundreds of residents were off to resorts.


Americans still want their “old-fashioned” Fourth of July. This year Aspen, Colorado, advertised its “old-fashioned 4th of July” (first on the list of events is the “Saturday Market,” where you can “enjoy shopping”). A few blocks from my home in Berkeley, California, neighbors – mostly ardent left-wingers, of course - stage a friendly, flag-waving, children’s parade on the Fourth. We love what we imagine to be our traditional Fourth.

But, of course, Americans want a safe and sane Fourth; and we want it politically non-controversial; and we want to celebrate the declaration that asserted equal rights and freedom for all. Anything but a really traditional Fourth.

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

A few sources:

  • Applebaum, Diana Karter. 1989. The Glorious Fourth: An American Holiday, an American History.
  • Bodnar, John.  1992. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century.
  • Kammen, Michael.  1991. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy. 1985.  Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920.