A Tradition of Celebration by the Adams Family

Researched by James R. Heintze. All Rights Reserved.

No other family has had a longer legacy of celebrating the Fourth of July than the Adams family. From 1776 to 1892, the Adams family had been involved in a myriad of Independence Day activities. John Adams (1735-1826) was instrumental in negotiating in favor of independence at the Continental Congresses (1774-78), signed the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams' famous letter of July 3, 1776, in which he wrote to his wife Abigail what his thoughts were about celebrating the Fourth of July is found on various web sites but is usually incorrectly quoted. Following is the exact text from his letter with his original spellings:

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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. (The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Harvard University Press, 1975, 142).
Writing that letter was an act of celebration.

In 1778, Adams and Benjamin Franklin went to Paris to try to solidify an American alliance with France for the war effort. While there, on July 4, they hosted the first American Independence Day celebration on the European continent with a dinner for "the American Gentlemen and ladies, in and about Paris" (Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 2:317 and 4:143-44).

John Adams' second cousin Samuel Adams (1722-1803), likewise a Revolutionary patriot, helped organize the Sons of Liberty (1765), wrote articles for the press giving his arguments for independence (a doctrine that would later be familiar to all patriots). He too celebrated his dream of independence by affixing his signature to the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Adams' grandson, Samuel Adams Wells, presented a "truly patriotic oration at the Meeting House in Boston, on July 4, 1819. "The oration contained an exact and lucid history of the origin and first settlement of our country; of the rise, progress, and termination of the revolution, and of the late war [of 1812] with England" (Independent Chronicle & Boston Patriot, 7 July 1819, 2).

John Adams' eldest son, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) gained considerable experience in the political arena through the posts he held abroad, later as Secretary of State (1817-25) under President James Monroe, and then as President (1825-28). Adams was aware of the importance celebrating the Fourth of July. In 1787, at the age of twenty, he was in Boston at the old brick meeting house listening to a Fourth of July oration (Diary of John Quincy Adams, Harvard University Press, 1981, 2:249). But not long thereafter, he was actively participating in Independence Day activities. For example, "at the request of the inhabitants of Boston," he gave an oration there on July 4, 1793 (printed, Boston: Benjamin Edes and Son, 1793).

In 1821 when President Monroe was ill on July 4 (the Executive Mansion was closed to the public), Adams represented the Executive Department at the ceremony held in the Capitol. He read from an original copy of the Declaration of Independence there and gave an address (printed, Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821; see also Woodstock Observer,17 July 1821, 3). During his presidency as well, Adams was very active in Independence Day activities, whether in hosting open-door dinners at the Executive Mansion, giving orations, or being involved in civic and military parades. In 1826, for example, Adams marched in a parade to the Capitol where he heard Judge Joseph Anderson give an oration.(National Intelligencer, 5 July 1826, 2). In 1828, Adams was the chief participant in the ground-breaking ceremony for the excavation of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal just above Georgetown. He gave a speech on that occasion and also heard music played by the U.S. Marine Band. See Alexandria Gazette, 7 July 1828, 3). Other Fourth of July orations given by John Quincy included:

  • 1831, Quincy, Mass. (printed, Boston: Lord and Holbrook, 1831)
  • 1837, Newburyport, Mass. (printed, Newburyport: Morss and Brewster, 1837)

    In 1839, John Quincy was invited to attend a celebration in Canton, Massachusetts, but declined. In place of being there, he agreed to send a toast to be offered at the dinner celebration:

    Quincy, July 1st, 1839. Dear Sir--A wish was intended that in the place of my personal attendance I would send a sentiment for the celebration at Canton. With my best wishes for the happiness of all the company, I offer the one below and remain respectfully, your very obedient servant, J.Q. Adams. "The Grand Climacteric of our Country--May her old age never fail to fulfil the promise of her youth."
    (New Bedford Mercury, 19 July 1839, 1.

    George Washington Adams (1801-1829), the eldest son of John Quincy Adams, was a member of the class of 1821 at Harvard University. In 1824 on Independence Day, he presented an oration (published, Boston: E. Lincoln, 1824) in Quincy, Mass. Also in Quincy, Mass., on July 4, 1826, an ode he wrote on the occasion of a flag presentation was performed to the tune of "Adams and Liberty" (Columbian Sentinel, 22 July 1826, 1).

    Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886), younger son of John Quincy Adams, was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1841-44) and state senate (1844-45). At the onset of the Civil War, he resigned from Congress to accept an appointment by President Lincoln as minister to England. In 1843, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Adams had the honor of giving the oration. His father John Quincy was in the audience. A local newspaper reported:

    We have heard the Oration spoken of, in high terms of praise, by those who are fully competent to decide upon its merits. It was characterized by strength of language, boldness of thought, and fearless independence. The venerable John Quincy Adams was present, and listened to the discourse of his son, with evident deep feeling and interest. (The Atlas, 6 July 1843, 2.)

    Other Fourth of July orations given by Charles Francis Adams included:

  • Quincy, "before members of the schools," 1856 (printed, Boston: Little, Brown, 1856)
  • Fall River, 1860 (printed, Fall River: Almy and Milne, 1860)
  • Taunton, Mass., "Progress of Liberty in a Hundred Years," 1876 (printed, Taunton, Mass.: C.A. Hack, 1876)

    As a testimony to the life of Charles Francis Adams, in 1887, a year after he died, the noted speaker William Everett (1839-1910) presented an "Address in Commemoration of the Life and Services of Charles Francis Adams" on July 4 in the Stone Temple at Quincy, Massachusetts.

    Charles Francis Adams' son, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835-1915), was a Union soldier in the Civil War and eventually attained the rank of brigadier general. After the War, he spent considerable time as a historian writing about the War. In Boston, Charles Francis, Jr. gave an oration (printed, Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1872) on July 4, 1872. On July 4, 1874, he gave another address titled "Wessagusset and Weymouth, an Historical Address," at Weymouth, Mass., on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the town (printed, Weymouth: Weymouth Historical Society, 1905). In 1892, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the town of Quincy, Mass., he delivered an oration in the First Church there. A local newspaper quoted a portion of his speech:

    The time will never come when to secure good municipal government all citizens will have to do is to cast a ballot. In Chicago, Philadelphia, New York Boston, and the other large cities municipal government is not in the hands of the citizens, but in those of interested parties. (New York Times, 5 July 1892).

    This page last updated January 2012

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