John Adams on Celebrating Independence

"Illuminations from one end of the country to the other." Including Butte, Montana.

“Illuminations from one end of the country to the other.” Including Butte, Montana.


“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 shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

John Adams, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote these celebratory words (including random capitalization) in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776. The future president was actually writing about July 2, when the Second Continental Congress arrived at agreement on a resolution of independence.

Following the momentous vote for independence, Congress turned its attention to the Declaration of Independence, drafted by the Committee of Five, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

The names of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin remain well known to this day. Roger Sherman has been mostly forgotten, though he’s worth remembering. Sherman served on the Committee of Five to draft the Declaration. He also served as the first mayor of New Haven, Connecticut and as a representative and senator in the Congress of the new republic. Significantly, he was the only person to sign all four great state papers of the republic, including the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson said of him, “That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.”

Robert Livingston served on the Committee of Five to draft the Declaration, though he was recalled by his state before he had a chance to sign the document. Nevertheless, in 1777, the British Army still burned his house down. From 1777 to 1801 he was the first Chancellor of New York, the highest judicial officer of the state. In 1789, as Chancellor, he administered the oath of office to President George Washington. As U.S. Minister to France under President Jefferson, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

Here in Butte, Montana, we’ve been celebrating the 4th of July for a long time. Our first 4th of July parade was in 1876, celebrating the Centennial of the United States. Presumably, nobody among the crowds lining the streets of the young city was aware that a week earlier, General George Armstrong Custer and a total of 268 soldiers from the 7th Cavalry died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, roughly 300 miles east. The news of the disaster was published in the Butte Miner newspaper on July 6, the same day the story ran in the New York Times.

Moving to the present, illuminations, presumably meaning fireworks, continue as a part of the 4th of July celebrations. While the public fireworks display the night of July 3 gets a big audience, it’s always a good question where the real show is. From a vantage point on Big Butte, the fireworks display is glorious, though the view across the city, with hundreds of aerial displays from backyards near and far, can also be impressive.

An old friend and neighbor when we lived in North Dakota, Hank, liked to tell of his father, a small town rural mail carrier and his 4th of July ritual.

Sometime on the afternoon of the 4th of July, he’d head for the top of the hill on the north end of town. He’d bring an old metal washtub and a stick of dynamite, and after checking to make sure nobody was in any danger, he’d set off the stick of dynamite and blow the washtub to kingdom come.

Everybody in town would hear the explosion and nod to each other and say something to the effect, “Yup, it’s officially the 4th. Red just blew up his washtub.”

Finally, another thought by John Adams, from another of his many letters to Abigail. “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.”

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