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Fourth of July Celebrations 1776 to the Present

— July 2021

For those of us who made it through 2019, 2020, and the first half of 2021, the arrival of summer is a blessing for which we are deeply grateful. The pandemic, economic changes, and social issues over the last two years have given each of us an uncomfortably loud and necessary wake-up call. If we weren’t previously thinking about the fragility of health and life and the importance of freedom, we are…or we should be thinking about it now.

As we prepare to celebrate one of our country’s most important holidays, on what will we focus? How will we celebrate?

Although the seeds of democracy began growing among British colonists at their arrival on American soil in 1607, it wasn’t until the start of the Revolutionary War in April 1775 that colonists acted to establish their independence from Great Britain. Within a year of that spring and amidst growing hostilities toward dictates of the monarchy, however, the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice became widespread. By 1776, most colonists were intent on total independence and the formation of an egalitarian government founded on social, civil, political, and economic equality.1,2,3

Americans have been celebrating their independence from the British crown since July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to separate the thirteen colonies from Great Britain. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, colonial delegates adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence with principles that are the foundation of our government and define our identity as Americans.1,2,3

Since its inception, the Declaration of Independence has been an inspiration
for all people to pursue democracy, justice, freedom, and equality.

Even before all fifty-six signers had added their names to Thomas Jefferson’s July 4, 1776 draft, the Declaration of Independence was already in circulation throughout the colonies. By August 2, 1776, fifty men had signed the document, and by January 1777, all 56 signatures were in place. Seven months later, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, severing colonial ties to Great Britain.1,2,3

In 1870, nearly a hundred years after its creation, Congress designated July 4 a national holiday as part of a bill to recognize notable dates; but it wasn’t until 1941 that the United States established July 4 a federal holiday.4,5

Historians suggest that celebrations to commemorate American independence came from the tradition of birthday celebrations for King George, III, which included processions, bells, bonfires, and speeches.4,5,6

Almost immediately after declaring independence, colonists in 1776 celebrated with mock funerals for the king. On July 2, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail that the country’s independence “…will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” He added, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival … solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”7

Without question, colonists wanted to commemorate the birth of the country’s independence with spirited festivities even though they had not resolved the conflict. Despite ongoing war, for example, Philadelphia established its first annual celebration of colonial independence on July 4, 1777, including fireworks to symbolize the battles and a 13-gun salute to honor each of the thirteen colonies. In Boston Commons on July 4, 1777, the Sons of Liberty also ignited celebratory fireworks to recognize the colonists’ fight for independence. In 1778 and 1781, George Washington ordered extra rum rations for colonial soldiers so that they could celebrate the birth of the country’s independence and boost morale.3,4,5,6

Since the end of the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783, 
Americans have celebrated Independence Day 
with public readings of the Declaration of Independence, 
battle reenactments with cannon and musket fire, 
parades, fireworks, concerts, bonfires, and speeches.3

The War of 1812, in which the US fought Great Britain for the right to peaceful trade, further stirred Americans to celebrate patriotism and independence.8

As of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, leisure activities, including singing the Star-Spangled Banner, firework displays, and cookouts designed to gather family, friends, and communities, characterize Fourth of July celebrations. However large or small, July 4 celebrations have continued to punctuate American summers with hearty expressions of patriotism across the country.4,5,6

Although the first Fourth of July celebration in Chatham, New Jersey, took place in the late 1940s, lifelong Chatham resident, Jack Conlan, remembers the celebrations as of July 4, 1953, when he was a teen. “I was in high school then,” says Mr. Conlan, “and I helped put up barricades for the parade.”

An honored veteran of the Chatham Fire Department, Mr. Conlan said the procession, sponsored by the Chatham Fire Department, “…started at Hillside Avenue, went down Main Street to Washington Avenue, crossed Chatham Street, and traveled down Fairmount to the train station, where it ended.” He adds, “Members of Chatham’s service organizations, including the Kiwanis Club, Women’s Club, Historical Society, Minisink Pool, Fish and Game Club, Colony Pool, Girl Scouts, Brownies Troop, Boy Scouts, and Cub Scouts were invited to participate in the parade.”

The Chatham Historical Society and League of Women Voters
celebrate 100 years of women’s right to vote at the July 4, 2019, parade.

Now in their mid 80s, Mr. and Mrs. Conlan (née Duchamp) both have warm memories of Chatham’s Fourth of July celebrations. Mr. Conlan’s wife, Diane, remembers that Chatham residents were “…10 people deep at the curb in the center of town, with at least a couple of thousand people at the parades.”

“For many years,” says Mrs. Conlan, “the Fire Department also held a picnic for parade participants at the pumping station behind the middle school. As the size of the parade grew,” she adds, “the picnic moved to the middle school playing fields; and many Chatham residents continued Fourth of July celebrations with family gatherings at home and neighborhood picnics on their streets after the parade.”

“Chatham originally held its firework displays
at the Lum Avenue field,” says Mr. Conlan.
“By the mid 1960s, 
as the firework displays became more elaborate
and the crowd size grew,” he adds,
“fireworks moved to the high school field.”

Mrs. Conlan also reminisces about Chatham’s Fourth of July celebrations during the 1960s, when the Fire Department arrived at Memorial Park to give out bags of peanuts after a Little League tournament. “It might not seem like a big deal now,” says Mrs. Conlan, “but it was a big treat then. The kids and parents loved it. It was a simple tradition that many residents have missed since it ended.”

Mr. and Mrs. Conlan and both of their fathers were born and raised in Chatham. In addition, Mr. Conlan’s grandfather moved to Chatham in 1866. As a result, both Mr. and Mrs. Conlan have many relatives in town. “We pulled our families together before the Fourth of July parades at Skip’s and Marge’s (Mr. Conlan’s brother’s and sister-in-law’s) big gold house on Hillside and Main,” says Mrs. Conlan. “It wasn’t unusual for 40 of us to gather there for the parades,” she adds.

Balcolm Parcells (left), Jack Conlan in the driver’s seat,
and Jack’s niece, Laurie Duchamp-Caraballo,

enjoy the sunny Chatham 2019 Fourth of July parade together.

The Conlans have celebrated every Fourth of July in Chatham. Mrs. Conlan believes Chatham’s Fourth of July celebrations have evolved in a positive way over the years. She says, “The parades, of course, have grown as the town has gotten bigger. In the old days, everyone knew everyone else; but it’s good to see so many young people at the parades, eager to carry on the tradition.”

Kids enjoy riding on the fire truck with firemen John Mowen (driving)
and Fred Germerhausen (left) during a July 4th parade of
 the 1960s.

To the disappointment of many residents, Chatham cancelled its traditional 2020 and 2021 Fourth of July parades to help ensure everyone’s health and safety. But thanks to last year’s letter from Emma Zapata, a 12-year-old Chatham resident who offered a safe-distancing solution for the parade, Chatham residents will enjoy this year’s parade just as they did last year.

In her letter, Emma recommended that the parade be redirected from its usual route to travel down each street in the borough. Her approach meant residents enjoyed the parade from their own yards while maintaining social distancing.

In recognition of Emma’s thoughtful service to Chatham Borough last year, Mayor Kobylarz named her Honorary Grande Marshall of the 2020 parade. Together with her parents, Emma rode in one of the parade fire engines.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom:
first, by reflection, which is noblest;
second, by imitation, which is easiest;
and third, by experience, which is bitterest.”
— Confucius

In light of losses from COVID-19, economic challenges, and the many discomforts to which social unrest has awakened us, this year’s Fourth of July parade is likely to mean even more to many of us than parades of years’ past.

Perhaps this year we will thoughtfully consider challenges our forebears met as they established the foothold of independence we so deeply value. Perhaps we will reflect on what freedom means to each of us, and, more importantly, what the lack of it means to many Americans and people around the world who do not feel free and safe.

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 6
—Preamble to the Declaration of Independence

As I watch the parade from my yard this year, I will thoughtfully consider the meaning of each phrase from the Preamble of the Declaration. I will savor memories from Fourth of July celebrations of years’ past, especially those my children and I shared with my late husband, Tut. I also will say a word of thanks for this year’s much-needed parade, resolutions for the pandemic, and the restoration of our economy.

Last but not least, I will pray that every person on our fragile planet is blessed with the same freedoms we want and deserve as citizens of our great nation.

Enjoying a 1994 Fourth of July picnic in Chatham
with my little Annie and new baby Will.




  1. Nettels CP. The Roots of American Civilization: A History of American Colonial Life. 1938: 200-297.
  2. Lovejoy, D. The Glorious Revolution in America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.1987: 120-170.
  3. A&E Networks. Fourth of July – Independence Day. 2009. Accessed June 20, 2020.
  4. Heintze JR. How the Fourth of July was Designated an Official Holiday. Fourth of July Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2007. North Carolina and London. Google E Books. June 20, 2020.
  5. Heintze JR. Federal Legislation Establishing the Fourth of July Holiday. Fourth of July Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2007. North Carolina and London. Google E Books. Accessed June 20, 2020.
  6. Heintze JR. The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies. Fourth of July Encyclopedia. Appendix. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2007. North Carolina and London. Google E Books. Accessed June 20, 2020.
  7. National Archives. Founders Online. John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776. Adams Family Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society. Accessed June 20, 2020.
  8. Walton, GM. The New Economic History and the Burdens of the Navigation Acts. Econ Hist Rev. 1971: 24(4);530-542.