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Fireworks are as traditional on the Fourth of July as the Flag itself. But do we really know why fireworks go hand in hand with the celebration of Independence Day?
Congress led the way for the encouragement of fireworks on the Fourth of July by authorizing a display on July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia, a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
According to James R. Heintze, of American University, Washington, D.C., “At night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with 13 rockets on the commons.” Another colorful display took place in Philadelphia on July 4, 1779: “In the evening a set of brilliant fireworks were exhibited, particularly excellent rockets, which, after ascending to an amazing height in the air, burst, and displayed 13 stars.”
The first fireworks in Boston took place on July 4, 1777. Boston had another display in 1779 when 13 rockets were fired.
Worcester, Mass., planned for its first fireworks display on July 4, 1779, and by 1783 fireworks were available for sale to the public in Philadelphia.
Charleston, S.C., reported an evening “grand display of fireworks” on July 4, 1783. Due to fear of the fireworks starting a fire, all the fire engines were ordered out, and placed in different parts of the town.
Three years later, in 1786, the New York Common Council met and agreed that on July 4, “on account of the danger of fire,” there were to be no “fireworks of any kind in the evening.
That same year, Charleston, S.C. enacted a similar proclamation, strictly forbidding “illuminating the city, or throwing any fireworks or combustible matter in the streets.”
During the American Revolution, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain occurred on July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence that had be proposed in June by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.
After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to the Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining this decision, which had been prepared by a committee of five with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the Declaration, finally approving it on July 4.
A day earlier, John Adams had written to his wife, Abigail: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
While Adams missed the targeted date by two days, he went on to set the stage for what we still celebrate as the most memorable occasion in the history of our nation. Americans chose, at that time, to celebrate independence on July 4, the date shown on the Declaration of Independence, rather than on July 2, the date the resolution of independence was approved in a closed session of Congress.
His letter to Abigail continued: ”It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It 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 and forever more.”
So, we’re still not sure exactly what the fireworks are supposed to represent. But there is one thing for certain. They have always been used to signify Americanism. It is a little ironic that most of the fireworks purchased here to celebrate patriotism and our political freedom are actually manufactured in China.