This revelation started me wondering how Washington commemorated our country’s independence, considering he was a distinguished general and commander in chief of the colonial armies during the American Revolution and later the nation’s first president.
Although July 4 didn’t become a legal holiday until 1870, the tradition of Independence Day celebrations goes back to the 18th century, following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Concerts, bonfires, parades and the firing of cannons and muskets often accompanied the first public readings of the important document. In his general orders, dated July 3, 1778, Washington gives these instructions:
“Tomorrow, the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence will be celebrated by the firing of thirteen pieces of cannon and a feu de joie of the whole line; the Army will be formed on the Brunswick side of the Rariton at five o’clock in the afternoon on the ground pointed out by the Quarter Master General. The soldiers are to adorn their hats with green-boughs and to make the best appearance possible. The disposition will be given in the orders of tomorrow. Double allowance of rum will be served out.”
The following year, Washington wrote in his general orders that the day would be commemorated “by the firing of thirteen cannon from West Point at one o’clock p.m.” In the same missive, he granted a general pardon to all army prisoners under sentence of death.
A few diary entries make passing commentary on Washington’s celebration plans. On July 4, 1791, while visiting Lancaster, Penn., during a presidential tour of the “southern” part of the country, Washington wrote, “This being the anniversary of American independence and being kindly requested to do it, I agreed to halt here this day and partake of the entertainment which was preparing for the celebration of it.”
It was here he made his one and only speech about the Fourth of July.
After his presidency, Washington retired to his Mount Vernon estate where he received guests and was seen about town. According to his diary entry of July 4, 1798, the morning was clear but breezy with temperatures around 78 degrees. He participated in an Independence Day event near Alexandria.
From an annotation to his diary entry: Gen. Washington was escorted into town by a detachment from the troop of Dragoons. He was dressed in full uniform and appeared in good health and spirits. At 10 o’clock . . . uniform companies paraded . . . the different corps were reviewed in King Street by General Washington and Col. Little, who expressed the highest satisfaction at their appearance and manoeuvering; after which they proceeded to the Episcopal Church, where a suitable discourse was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Davis.
The Library of Congress is home to the papers of George Washington.