John Adams saw fireworks in our future

Monday July 2, 2012


One of my grandfathers loved the Fourth of July. Appar ently, he loved a whole string of holidays, in spite of the fact that he was a hard-working farmer whose sons grumbled that he was addicted to work and expected them to be likewise.

Despite their father's insistence that they spend many hours in his fields, my aunts and uncles did recall that the Fourth was a favorite and they would wake in the morning to find a supply of caps and pistols on their bureaus. They had sparklers, too, and remember racing up the long driveway with them (probably not the safest thing in the world to do).

We also had cap pistols and caps, and we loved them. Liked the snap, liked the smell of the tiny explosion, hated to shoot the last roll.

Our father was more interested in firecrackers, so he would get a few, park us on the steps and then set them up under a can or other object so we could watch from a distance and scream when they went off, the can flying through the air. That was before fireworks became illegal in Massachusetts for non-professionals.

Such elements of a celebration seem miniscule today when those who want to flout the law can buy a stash of exotic and expensive fireworks and spend hours setting them off with little fear that the authorities will interfere.


Why fireworks on the Fourth? Some say it reflects the national anthem with the "rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" phrasing that recalls the tension of the American Revolution. Would the flag be still there at dawn, the lyricist wondered.

In just one of the legendary letters John Adams wrote his wife Abigail, he said he believed people would celebrate July 4, 1776, with bonfires and parades and "illuminations" for generations. The letter, sent to the wife who was seeing to the farm in Massachusetts while Adams was working at liberation from England, was written July 3, 1776, and Adams was sure Independence Day celebration would be a forever thing.

In this, history has proved him quite right. Fireworks were commonly called illuminations in his day, but they were hardly new, dating back a thousand or more years to Chinese ingenuity.

Shakespeare mentions fireworks in his plays, Henry VII had them at his wedding in 1487 and, when Elizabeth I ascended the throne, she was so enamored of fireworks that she created a Fire Master of England. So, for the English who came to New England in the 17th century, fireworks were part of life and celebration and have been such on these shores ever since. The colonists didn't toss out everything English when they gained their freedom.

But even John Adams could not have imagined the 1986 Fourth of July in New York City when a host of other countries joined the United States in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

From boats and other vantage points, technicians sent 22,000 gorgeous creations into the sky.


In one of those fascinating twists of fate, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- co-creators of a new nation, adversaries on many issues, sometimes friends and sometimes far from it -- both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In Massachusetts, according to various historians, including Joseph Ellis in "Founding Brothers," Adams remarked at the end that Thomas Jefferson "still lives." But communication was a little different in those days, and the truth was that Jefferson, far away in Virginia, died five hours earlier.

So part of the Fourth of July celebration -- in addition to Pittsfield's famous parade and other places around the nation -- ought to be a moment of remembrance of two men without which July 4, 1776, certainly would not have taken place. And our guy from Massachusetts was sure we'd still be whooping it up -- so we will.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. She lives in Richmond.


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