As we celebrate the country’s birthday on this long July 4 weekend, let’s have a look at a timeline on the National Park Service website that outlines how the presidents have “fit Independence Day into their busy schedule over the years.”
You can view the whole timeline at nps.gov/articles/what-did-the-presidents-do-on-july-fourth.htm. We’ve picked items that strike us as especially interesting and have added a bit of commentary as we skip around on the timeline. By the way, the NPS credits James Heintze, librarian emeritus, at Washington D.C.’s American University for compiling the information.
Let’s start with President Taft whose activities present the only Connecticut reference in this timeline. In 1909, Taft is in residence at the new “summer White House” in Beverly, Mass. He attends church on Sunday, July 4. On the fifth, he observes the 250th anniversary of Norwich, Connecticut with a military parade and a public reception.
Now backtrack to George Washington, who in 1791 celebrated in Lancaster Pennsylvania with an address, fine cuisine, and a walk about town.
In 1801, President Jefferson presided over the first July 4 public reception at the White House. In 1812, President Madison is at the Capitol to review a military parade, then entertains guests at the White house. In 1825, President John Q. Adams listens to the Marine Band at the White House and reviews volunteer companies. At the Capitol, he listens to a reading of the Declaration of Independence followed by a White House reception.
But not every July 4 is a formal occasion for our presidents. They like their R & R, too, and a few spent that time on the Jersey shore, which makes sense given its proximity to D. C.
In 1855, President Pierce and the first lady took a beach vacation at Cape May, New Jersey. And in 1872, President Grant vacations at Long Beach, New Jersey with “a joyful backdrop of cannon fire, bell ringing, and a fireworks display.” In 1891, President Harrison also takes a vacation in Cape May.
Sometimes the festivities are quite historic as in 1848 when President Polk witnesses the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, with future President Lincoln in attendance, followed by a military parade.
Speaking of Lincoln, in 1863, ever the iconoclast, he delivers a “Fourth of July” speech – on July 7 – from a second floor window of the White House to an “immense” crowd.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Schenley Park, Pittsburgh where he speaks before 200,000 people. Amazingly, there is archival video of that address at the Library of Congress website.
Now for some sad news. In 1850, President Taylor attends a Washington Monument tribute. After returning to the White House he consumes cherries and milk. He falls ill and dies on July 9. One of the grimmest of these holidays, was July 4, 1881 as President Garfield had been hit two days earlier by an assassin's bullet. The nation was uncharacteristically subdued on the holiday.
Other notable historic July 4 events include the following. In 1868, President Johnson executes a Third Amnesty Proclamation that exonerates all who participated in the Confederate Rebellion. In 1914, President Wilson, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, interprets the meaning of the Declaration and speaks the memorable line, “Our country, right or wrong.”
In 1926, President Coolidge is in southern New Jersey for the opening of the Delaware River bridge. He plants a willow tree, similar to the one at Washington's grave, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Declaration.
In 2008, President G. W. Bush hosts a naturalization ceremony for 72 new U.S. citizens from 30 countries.
Often, the presidents opt for some “me time.” For instance: In 1928, President Coolidge enjoys time trout fishing in Superior, Wisconsin. In 1930, President Hoover vacations on the Rapidan River in Virginia. In 1934, President Roosevelt spends the holiday in the Bahamas. In 1946, President Truman retreats to Roosevelt’s Shangri-La in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.
In the “no surprise here” category, we find that, in 1953 and 1954 President Eisenhower is at Camp David. He plays golf at a nearby course. In 1956, he goes to his Gettysburg farm for the holiday. In 1961, President Kennedy is at Hyannis Port, Mass. for sailing and fireworks. In 1964 and 1965 President Johnson is at his ranch in Texas. President Nixon is in Key Biscayne, Florida, in 1969, for the holiday and in 1970, he’s at the Western White House in San Clemente, California wher he meets with Vietnam peace talks representative David K. E. Bruce. Later that evening, the President’s taped July 4 message is played on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Can’t resist this one – Nixon did love to tape stuff.)
In 1976, for the country’s bicentennial anniversary, President Ford travels to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He signs legislation that transfers management of the park to the National Park Service.
1977 - President Carter returns from Camp David and views fireworks from the White House balcony. 1983 - President Reagan is in Santa Barbara, California, at Rancho Cielo.1989 - President G. H. W. Bush is in Kennebunkport, Maine.
That brings us up to more current times when in 1999, the Clintons watched the fireworks from the Truman balcony. In 2004, President G. W. Bush goes to Charleston, West Virginia to praise troops in Iraq and the National Guard. In 2010, President Obama held a barbeque for 1,200 U.S. Armed Forces, on the south lawn of the White House. And in 2017, President Trump tweeted “Getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with a big crowd at the White House. Happy 4th to everyone. Our country will grow and prosper!”
Added commentary by weeklies Assistant Editor
Olivia L. Lawrence.