Past celebrations were more formal
Today in Illinois, the Fourth of July is a holiday for boating, barbecues and fireworks. In the state’s earliest days, the celebrations were more organized and formal — though the fireworks were a constant.
The first Fourth of July celebrations after Illinois was granted statehood in 1818, as elsewhere, often were loosely scripted. First on everyone’s minds was reverence for the Revolution, which had taken place less than 50 years earlier.
Samuel Wheeler is state historian of Illinois and director of research and collections at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
“Americans of the 1820s and 1830s were closer to the Revolution than we are to World War II," Wheeler said.
"They understood how significant the Revolution was, and held the men and the leaders of that time in very high esteem.”
A typical Fourth of July in the era began with the boom of a cannon or the crackling of gunfire, followed by a parade of the leaders of the town, including tradesmen, business owners and militia members, with musical accompaniment.
Then the Declaration of Independence was normally read aloud before an array of patriotic speeches was delivered.
“Celebrations of the Fourth of July usually followed an agenda,” Wheeler said. “There was a kind of order on how things were to be done.”
Afterward, the men of the town gathered at a local tavern or hotel for dinner, complete with 13 formal toasts — one for each of the original colonies.
The number 13 was a recurring theme in many July Fourth celebrations nationwide, and some towns featured the firing of 13 guns or cannons as part of the festivities.
“Today, the number 13 is considered unlucky,” Wheeler said. “But in that era, everyone knew what 13 meant. That honored the colonies that had banded together and created this audacious new experiment in popular government.”
The toasts, too, followed a script. One was for the heroes of the Revolution; another was for the sitting president; and a third was for George Washington.
Even the number of cheers after each toast was planned ahead of time. The last of the 13 toasts usually was dedicated to women, who were rarely present at the dinner.
“Women in the 19th century weren’t going to be a part of that,” Wheeler said. “Men and women lived in separate spheres in that era. But the women usually celebrated July Fourth in their own way.”
In one instance in the early 1840s, about 400 women in Springfield held their own outdoor celebration to mark the day.
Fireworks, though, were a mainstay of Independence Day celebrations.
“Fireworks or some sort of aerial display were always a feature,” Wheeler said. “That really hasn’t changed much in the decades since.”
Revolutionary veterans were cherished members of early 19th century society in Illinois and elsewhere, especially on July Fourth.
“Now, our Greatest Generation includes the veterans of World War II, but in that era, it was the Revolutionary veterans,” Wheeler said. “People of that time certainly appreciated what those men had done to ensure a new form of government that we continue to enjoy today.”
Note to readers: Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 oráilcivilwar@yahoo.com. This article was sponsored by Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com. This is the latest story in the Illinois Important Dates series, sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association.