[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]
On the history, symbolism, and limitations of an American tradition.
As detailed in this Slate article, the intersection of fireworks and the 4th of July literally goes back to the first, 1777 celebrations of the holiday (the first because in 1776 July 4th was the date of the Declaration’s actual dissemination and readings, rather than a holiday commemorating that occasion). I had more to say about the John Adams letter referenced in that piece in yesterday’s post, so here I’ll keep this paragraph short and say that you should certainly check out that Slate piece by senior editor Forrest Wickman for a clear, concise depiction of the longstanding histories (both American and international) of fireworks.
While fireworks might have been present from those earliest Independence Day celebrations on, however, I would argue that their July 4th symbolism really took hold after the War of 1812, and more exactly after Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the aftermath of the siege of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during that conflict. After all, the central image of our national anthem is a contrasting visual one, of seeing the flag through the darkness—eventually “by the dawn’s early light,” but even more importantly by the glow of “the bombs bursting in air” that “gave proof through the night.” It’s a compelling and powerful image, the idea of a light in the darkness that allows us to keep an eye on our national ideals. And whether fireworks actually create a flag of fiery lights (as they often do for the 4th) or simply burst in the night sky for our collective vision and inspiration, they capture this defining national image in a visceral and affecting way.
Visceral and affecting as fireworks might be, however, what they are not is thought-provoking; indeed, as with many spectacular entertainments, they require us not to think at all in order to get the most pleasure from their spectacle. To be clear, as a fan of Star Wars and the James Bond films, among many other spectacles, I don’t have any problem with such entertainments being part of our culture and society. But as a commemoration of our nation’s independence day, such a spectacle does seem to represent another example of what I’ve elsewhere described as the celebratory, easy form of patriotism, the kind that asks nothing more of us than our awed appreciation. So while such awe can and perhaps should be a part of our July 4th celebrations, I’d love if there were space as well for more reflective engagement with our history and community. Am I arguing for Frederick Douglass-shaped fireworks? Maybe not—but I could definitely get behind a brief reading from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” before every July 4th fireworks ceremony. Give it a couple years and it’d be just as much a part of the tradition as those fiery bombs bursting in air.
Next July 4th context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?