What do you think Independence Day celebrations were like for those who actually fought in the Revolutionary War? Or for the signers themselves? What was the 4th of July like ten or twenty or fifty years after the signing when some of these men were still living?
Today, we meet as communities or families to celebrate our nation’s birthday. The holiday, though, is actually the day the initial signatures were placed on the Declaration of Independence.
But how did our ancestors celebrate this day? And what happened when the north was fighting the south during the Civil War? Did we quit celebrating down here in the south during those War years?
I’ve been researching the time period in North Florida between 1827 and 1871 for my book “Palmetto Pioneers.” It was a time when Florida was a territory until 1845, when the Seminole Wars raged until the late 1850s, and when Florida seceded from the nation to join the Confederacy in the early 1860s. We call these eras Territorial Florida, Antebellum Florida, and War & Reconstruction Florida.
Remember, though, that 1827 was only about 50 years after the Revolutionary War. To Floridians in 1827 the American Revolution would have been remembered much like some of us today remember the assassination of President Kennedy or the Vietnam War, both of which happened only 50 years ago.
So the 4th of July celebration to these Floridians would have been valuable indeed. There would have been veterans of that war living in their communities and maybe even within their families.
In some of their home states, there would still have been scars from the battles which were fought in these areas. Mary’s family came from near Kings Mountain and the Cowpens, both well remembered Revolutionary Battles.
So just how did they celebrate the 4th of July over 150 years ago? I found several pieces of research to give us an idea–most of which were newspaper articles, but one of which was an actual program used in 1851.
My main character Mary Adeline Walker came to Monticello, Florida about 1828, and the first recorded Independence Day Celebration there was one year later in 1829.
Jefferson County and Monticello were named after President Thomas Jefferson and his home respectively. The county itself had just been formed in 1827 from Leon County just one year after President Jefferson died.
The newly formed county originally stretched from its original western boundary near its current western boundary just east of Tallahassee all the way east to the Suwannee River.
Of course, every school child knows that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but did you know that Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th in 1826, the very day we celebrate his actions for signing the Declaration of Independence. It was an amazing coincidence.
There is also something else very interesting about Monticello and the 4th of July. There were people living around Monticello who were kin to Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson’s mother’s maiden name was Randolph and his grandson Francis Eppes moved to Florida along with the Randolphs establishing a plantation about 12 miles northeast of Monticello called L’Eau Noir (Black Water).
I’m very familiar with this beautiful land where the Black Water Creek flows east of Tallahassee. It crosses US 90 between Tallahassee and Monticello west of Balm. I’ve hunted turkey near and along the banks of that creek both immediately north and far south of that crossing.
This is the land where I cut my teeth–calling birds for the first time. I could shoot turkeys all day with a guide, but the real challenge was to call in a bird all by myself. This is where I got the most practice. I bumped birds all over this land and got to know it intimately. Some of my best turkey hunting stories took place on this property. At the time I had no idea that this land once belonged to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson.
So a lot had happened to little Monticello in the three short years after Jefferson County was formed; and Monticello became the place to observe Independence Day as early as 1829. People from all over Middle Florida came there to celebrate. The little town was not much more than a crossroad then, only a village. But Independence Day in America at that time was a very important event.
Normally, the people gathered in the center of the village for Independence Day. A parade was staged to begin at the edge of town and to end at the appointed place at the appointed time, which was noon. So at the center of Monticello and beginning at noon and after the prayer, the Declaration of Independence was read. In every 4th of July celebration, I noticed that this was the highlight–the reading of the Declaration.
Afterwards, a chosen orator spoke. He (yes, it was always a man) talked about the Revolutionary War itself or the people who fought or the founders or any other topic related to our nation’s independence. Afterwards, there were numerous toasts, most of which were followed by liberal quantities of spirits. Most of the toasts and speeches were directed at the nation’s birthday.
We know that in 1829 in the center of the town Rev. William Mathers opened the ceremony at noon with a prayer. The Declaration was read and Philip Willie delivered a rousing address tracing the history of the US from Columbus’ voyage down to an “animated picture of the present”.
A sumptuous dinner was served, after which Dr. Thomas White and James Parish began the toasts. White praised the “venerable sage of Monticello” after whom the county was named. Parish toasted Joseph White (Florida’s representative to Congress) as “in every respect white, clear white.” Other toasts were delivered to Florida “the youngest child of this great family of States”. They also toasted several of the founding fathers and prominent men of the day.
After 1829 people began coming from all over the territory to celebrate the nation’s birthday in Monticello. Year after year they came. It was a tradition. Although it began in the center of town, years later it was moved to a nearby park. A crowd gathered wherever it was held.
By 1832, the day began with the firing of a cannon and small arms at noon in the center of town. I wonder what happened to that cannon. I grew up in Monticello, and I can’t remember there ever being a cannon fired in town except for when the local team took the field down at the football stadium on Friday nights in the 1980s. That one was bought while Kelly Kilpatrick was the principal.
Then a procession formed in front of Martin Palmer’s tavern and moved to a stand prepared for the occasion in the center of town. We know from research that there still was no courthouse, and that court was held in this tavern when needed. I wonder if that raised platform set where the courthouse sits today? I also wonder if the toasts had gotten out of hand so they moved it indoors away from the women and children.
After Rev. Mather’s prayer, the Declaration of Independence was read and then George Warner spoke about the oppressed colonies in the days just before the revolution. It is believed that the women and children were there for this part of the celebration, but not for what followed as discussed earlier.
After the oration the men moved on to Palmer’s Tavern where Thomas Randolph and William Bailey presided over a dinner. It was recorded that 13 toasts were drunk. The one receiving the most attention was to “The Tariff may it be immediately adjusted to the satisfaction of all”. Darius Williams toasted “public school, the best guarantee of social progress.”
And Giles Easter toasted, “May we act with reason while the bottle is circulating.” That was probably the toast right around the sixth round, and obviously they paid it no heed.
There is mention years later that maybe the toasts were getting out of hand. I imagine the women added their own thoughts to this. So later they decided that there should be a committee for toasting.
The earlier orations stayed to the revolution itself or to the freedom that all Americans cherished; but later, the speeches began to more accurately reflect the issues of the day.
By 1838 there was concern about statehood and at 11 a.m. a large Independence Day procession of inhabitants and visitors from adjoining counties formed at the courthouse under the direction of Minor Walker, marshall of the day. It moved to a grove of oaks near a spring outside of town where a preacher opened the ceremonies with a prayer. The Declaration was read and an oration delivered. A barbecue dinner followed, again followed by the toasts.
By 1839, they decide to form a committee for toasts to try to keep the number of libations within bounds. It must have helped though because by 1841 the Tallahassee Star of Florida reported that at the Independence Day festivities in Monticello 50 men drank four toasts each.
At the 1839 celebration they held an old fashioned Virginia barbecue which was planned by Smith Simkins, Zachariah Bailey, W. C. Smith, John Cuthbert, William Ware, John Tucker and J. R. Rowles. The committee on toasts was comprised of R. B. Houghton, B. C. Pope, B. Waller Taylor, W. H. Smith and William Wirt, Jr.
The orator and reader were selected by R. W. Tone, Andrew Denham, John Palmer, Ware and Cuthbert. Houghton delivered the oration and Abram Bellamy read the declaration. The Tallahassee press again carried this news.
These Monticello celebrations continued until the Civil War, but the town was not the only city in Florida to hold such August celebrations. While researching I ran across an actual program for the 4th of July Celebration held in Madison, just east of Monticello.
I often wondered if the south continued to celebrate Independence Day during the Civil War, and I ran across an editorial in the “Family Friend”, Monticello’s weekly newspaper, dated in 1861. It said that Florida’s legislature did propose in 1861 to strike out the 4th of July from the days which public offices should close, but the proposal was ultimately rejected.
The newspaper’s publisher went on to say that Independence Day should be held in perpetual remembrance. He pointed out that the south holds claim to the author of the document just as much as the north.
He added that our declaration sets forth that when a government becomes subversive, as had the north, then it was the right and the duty of the people to throw off such a government. He said that the south had done just that. And that as a body of people the south should cherish the declaration and continue to celebrate it.
He added that these principles which gave birth to our former union can never be destroyed until we all are slaves or are left to submit to tyranny and oppression.
So I guess that is what I carried away from all this is the realization that it is the Declaration itself that we should celebrate. Our ancestors understood that.
Happy Independence Day–no matter where you are or how you celebrate it!