Numerical Symbolism and the Fourth of July

Researched by James R. Heintze. All Rights Reserved.

Numerical symbolism was an important component of many Fourth of July celebrations. Numbers were used to represent the thirteen colonies, the number of states in the union, seventy-six for 1776, and so on. Numbers were depicted through toasts drunk at dinners, artillery blasts, allegorial depictions in parades, and a myriad of other ways.

The tradition can be traced back to Philadelphia in 1777 when a number of ships in the harbor discharged 13 cannons honoring " the 13 United States." That evening "a grand exhibition of fireworks . . . began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons." (Virginia Gazette, 18 July 1777, 2-3.) In that year as well, the number thirteen was used quite imaginatively at a meeting of a lodge of Free Masons. It is not clear from the newspaper report where this event happened but it could have occurred in Philadelphia or Williamsburg.

. . . It accidently happened that thirteen members met, that at dinner they had thirteen dishes of meat on the table; they drank thirteen loyal American toasts; sang thirteen songs; their bill for liquor was thirteen bottles of wine, and thirteen bowls of toddy; their reckoning thirteen pounds; and they spent thirteen hours, viz. From eight o'clock in the morning until nine o'clck in the evening, in the greatest harmony and good humour, which caused it to be remarked that it was in some degree emblematical of the union, friendship, harmony, and freedom of the Thirteen United States of America." (Virginia Gazette, 11 July 1777, 1.)
In the following year, at the Continental Army's camp near Brunswick, N.J., "13 pieces of cannon were fired at the park." (Pennsylvania Packet, 14 July 1778.)

In 1788, in Philadelphia, Federalists participated in a large parade which featured a number of numerical depictions. These included "a lofty ornamental car," thirteen feet high, a "Federal Ship Union" pulled by 10 horses (to depict the 10 states that had ratified the Constitution). (Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth. Amherst: University of Mass. Press, 1997, pp. 73-74.)

On July 4, 1811, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, guests at the dinner served there were seated at 13 tables. (Columbian Centinel, 6 July 1811, 2).

On March 4, 1791, Vermont entered the Union as the 14th state, but in July of that year the Cincinnati Society of Savannah, Georgia still drank 13 toasts at their Independence Day meeting in honor of the thirteen original colonies, not states. (Georgia Gazette, 7 July 1791, 2.) In 1793, however, in Richmond, Virginia, fifteen cannons were discharged to honor the 15 states (Kentucky had entered the Union on June 1, 1792). (Virginia Gazette, 10 July 1793, 3.)

In Providence, Rhode Island in 1801, at "Mr. Aldrich's hotel," the gentlemen present drank 16 toasts (Tennessee is now a state), and toast number 13 went to "The Town of Providence" (Rhode Island was the 13th state to enter the union). (Providence Journal, 8 July 1801, 3). After Ohio entered the Union on March 1, 1803, for the next nine years, 17 toasts and/or 17 artillery salutes were the typical number in practice.

In the years that followed, as states entered the union, the number grew and many thought it would be too cumbersome to fire off such a large number of artillery salutes or tip the glass so many times. Accordingly, many towns reverted back to celebrations using the number 13.

Throughout the Civil War, in a number of places in the North, towns wanted to depict the importance of maintaining the Union. At St. Albans, Vermont, for example, in 1865, thirty-six guns were fired off at sunrise (Fourth of July at St. Albans, Vermont Transcript Print, 1865.)

Perhaps the grandest symbolic celebration of all time occurred in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of the nation's centennial, the 100th anniversary. At sunrise, 100 guns were fired, at noon, another 100, and at sunrise a final 100 blasts, for a total of 300 that day!

This page last updated May 20, 2008.

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