Independence Day Historical Background

by Tom Kelleher, Old Sturbridge Village

In the 1830s, Independence Day was both a day for celebration for some and work for others. More organized festivities included bell-ringing, processions by militia units and citizens, patriotic orations by ministers and other distinguished personages, and "pic-nic" dinners under tents or in a grove, often for hundreds of people, at tables set with linen, ceramics, glass and flatware. These large dinners typically concluded with prepared and impromptu patriotic toasts or resolutions. While “toasting” was a masculine activity, ladies in attendance were not to be denied and also offered toasts (euphemistically called “sentiments”) appropriate to the occasion. Celebrations also typically included public readings of the Declaration of Independence. 

Boys set off whatever fireworks they could find. Then as now, fireworks were illegal in Massachusetts unless one obtained a license for a public display, although firecrackers and rockets were still widely available to boys, as attested to by multiple letters and diary references. Men and boys fired musket and artillery salutes early in the day, so as to wake their neighbors.

While “the glorious 4th" was a general excuse for revelry, it was not universally indulged in. Charles Frances Adams, for example, in 1830 "…declined going to town," but, "passed [his] day in reading." Yet he noted that, "this was the day for celebration and noisy enough at the house at Quincy, there being a celebration just above at the Railway [the horse-drawn railway of the local granite quarry]. We drank John's birthday in a glass of pretty indifferent Champagne. I was sleepy and stupid."

Many others worked while their neighbors or even hirelings celebrated. And those who did take the day off did so without pay. (Even Federal employees did not get July 4th as a paid holiday until 1938.) Center village artisans and professionals were more likely to take the day off than those who labored on their own farms. Connecticut farmer and storekeeper William Townsend noted in his diary: "All hands wishing to be about from the Store as it is a day to be celebrated in the City, I went over early 5 o'clk and stayed in the store all day, returned home at 8 o'clk." With many people gathered in town to celebrate, no doubt Townsend's store was indeed a busy place that day. There was no rest for his sons on their farm, either: "Sidney plowed…then he and Daniel and Julius hoed…. They all picked cherries after dinner and dug ½ bu. potatoes."

In 1830 the Hampshire Gazette reported that, "We had in this place [Northampton, MA] the usual ringing and firing – a very good oration from Mr. Huntington and another from Mr. Knight. Most of the farmers and many others quietly pursued their usual occupations." Then the editor added sourly, "The noise and tumult made by the boys …have long been a public nuisance."

The Reverend Thomas Robbins of Stratford, Connecticut described a simple Independence Day celebration, and took notice of labor, too in his diary: "Read. Dined out. Afternoon we had a public exercise at our meetinghouse. I delivered a part of my address written last year…. Saw rye cut." Eleven years later in Mattapoisett he recounted a more festive, albeit temperate, celebration: "Independence. A number of people here went a sailing…. We had good services and a procession, and a dinner in a grove with a great many people. No spirits or wine, and great harmony. Mr. Bates, of Wareham, gave the address."