• Who Launched The First Fireworks For Independence?

    Which state first sealed their fate with illuminations?

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    Which state launched the first fireworks celebrating independence? Was it Massachusetts? Pennsylvania? Georgia? Weeks before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1777, another group of colonial leaders met to decide their destiny.

    On May 15, 1776, 112 men attended a convention in Williamsburg, Virginia. Their goal was to give instructions to the Virginia delegates for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They cited their attempts to reconcile with King George III.

    “For as much as all the endeavors of the United Colonies, by the most decent representations and petitions to the King and Parliament of Great Britain, to restore peace and security to America under the British government, and a reunion with that people under just and liberal terms, instead of a redress of grievances, have produced, from an imperious and vindictive administration, increased insult, oppression, and a vigorous attempt to effect our total destruction,”[i] the Pennsylvania Ledger published on June 1, 1776.

    A year earlier the Continental Congress had sent King George III an Olive Branch Petition. Without even reading it, the king had declared war on the colonies.

    “By a late act, all these colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British Crown, our properties subjected to confiscation, our people, when captivated [i.e., made captive], compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countrymen, and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just.

    “Fleets and armies are raised, and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes.”[ii]

    At the time of the Williamsburg convention in May 1776, the royal governor of Virginia was aboard an armed ship. He was seizing property along Virginia’s rivers and coast. These Virginians’ choices were dire.

    “In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and government of Great Britain, uniting and exerting the strength of all America for defense, and forming alliances with foreign powers for commerce and aid in war.”[iii]

    The Virginians unanimously voted on a resolution cutting their ties with King George III and England.

    “That the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body TO DECLARE THE UNITED COLONIES FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.”[iv] They proposed that the Continental Congress issue a declaration of rights to “secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.”[v]

    These men, which included James Madison and George Mason, were so happy that they collected money for a celebration of pageantry and to treat the soldiers in town to a feast. The first independence celebration took place on May 16, 1776, nearly two months before July 4.

    The soldiers “ ... paraded in Waller’s Grove, before Brigadier General Lewis, attended by the gentlemen of the Committee of Safety, the members of the General Convention, the inhabitants of this city...”[vi]

    After reading the resolution aloud to the Virginia militia, they toasted America’s independent states, the Continental Congress, General Washington and victory to America. They discharged artillery and small arms, and shouted acclamations.

    Instead of flying the Union Jack of Great Britain, they raised a new flag with thirteen red and white stripes with a small version of the British flag in the upper left-hand corner. How did their celebration end? With fireworks, of course!

    “…[T]he evening concluded with illuminations (fireworks), and other demonstrations of joy, everyone seeming pleased that the domination of Great Britain was now at an end, so wickedly and tyrannically exercised for these twelve or thirteen years past, notwithstanding our repeated prayers and remonstrances of redress.”[vii]

    A Pennsylvania newspaper soon reported on these festivities, which may have inspired John Adams to write Abigail Adams a few weeks later on July 3:

    “The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epocha, in the history of America.—I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. 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 forever more.”[viii]

    John Adams was a bit ahead of the game. After writing this letter to Abigail on July 3, the next day, July 4, 1776, proved to be the “memorable epocha” when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

    Within days newspapers were printing the entire document, which took up most of a newspaper’s standard four pages. The document was printed on broadsheets and distributed throughout the colonies. George Washington’s men heard the declaration as it was read aloud to them on July 9, 1776, in New York. They celebrated by shouting “huzzah” and then melted Lower Manhattan’s statue of King George III into musket balls.

    When the people of Williamsburg learned about the Declaration of Independence, they again celebrated their new fate as a state with fireworks, their second display of fireworks in two months.

    The tradition caught on. Bostonians and Philadelphians launched fireworks on the nation’s first anniversary, July 4, 1777.

    [i] “In Convention Present 112 Members (in Virginia) Wednesday, May 15, 1776,” The Pennsylvania Ledger, June 1, 1776, Genealogy Bank, accessed January 17, 2022, https://www.genealogybank.com/nbshare/AC01111014165929282711643045718.

    [ii] Ibid.

    [iii] Ibid.

    [iv] Ibid.

    [v] Ibid.

    [vi] Ibid.

    [vii] Ibid.

    [viii] John Adams, Letter to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776, Founders Online, accessed January 13, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0016.

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    Jane Hampton Cook

    Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian, former White House staffer and author of 10 books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Janecook.com.

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