Fireworks are as much a part of America’s Independence Day celebration as 4th of July barbecues, family parties, flag-waving, and heart-stirring patriotic music. But how did an ancient Chinese custom, rooted in war, come to be the quintessential American expression of freedom? You can thank John Adams.
Harken back to the sweltering summer of 1776. That was when the Continental Congress moved from passing a resolution that the colonies should abolish their colonial constitutions in favor of their own, independent constitutions, to ultimately declaring independence from the Crown. When all was said and done, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, and explained how he felt the event should be commemorated.
“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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
What you may not know is that the date to which Adams was referring was July 2, not July 4. Nothing really happened on July 4, except for a procedural vote in which Congress voted to approve Thomas Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence. Congress actually voted to declare independence two days earlier, on July 2, according to this Inquisitr report.
— US National Archives (@USNatArchives) July 2, 2018
The following year – July 4, 1777 – Philadelphia put on a grand display of fireworks (what Adams called “illuminations”), according to Slate, and an American tradition was born.
But why fireworks (in addition to “pomp and parade” and all that)?
Even by Adams’ time, fireworks had been around for centuries, having been developed in China beginning around 600 CE to 900 CE, according to Time. They made their way across to the West, made possible by the opening of the Silk Road in the 13th century. By 1533 they were in use in England, having been launched to commemorate the coronation of Anne Boleyn as Queen of England.
Of course, as Slate writer Forrest Wickman notes, fireworks are unmatched when it comes to their entertainment value.
“As with many festive decorations, including streamers, confetti, festival lights, and balloons, people often appreciate them simply for their bright colors. Others may appreciate the technical ingenuity and the choreography that goes into the show. And others just like dramatic loud noises, the sense of destruction, and the thrill of danger.”
And of course, no discussion of fireworks would be complete without the obligatory discussion of safety. In many states, you can buy just about everything from snakes and sparklers to nuclear warheads at your local fireworks shop. And YouTube is filled with videos of people whose backyard fireworks displays went horribly wrong. If you’re going to launch your own fireworks this Independence Day, follow these tips from the National Council On Fireworks Safety.