There has been much hand-wringing over President Trump’s plans for the Fourth of July celebration. Some have criticized him for making military hardware play a central role in the celebrations, while others say that by centering the celebration upon himself, Trump risks rendering the national celebration divisive and partisan. Both suggest that Trump is deviating from the tradition of celebrating America’s birthday.
That depends on what you mean by tradition. Citizens of the early American Republic would be startled to hear that the military today has no place in the celebrations or that people think that the events should avoid the appearance of partisanship. These two elements were central facets of early 19th-century Fourth of July celebrations.
However, they might have balked at their combination in celebrating a strongman presidency, implying the military should be personally loyal to the occupant of the White House.
Fourth of July celebrations used to be quite partisan
In the early 19th century, Fourth of July celebrations were heavily politicized. Historian David Waldstreicher has suggested that by 1800, attempts to separate the Fourth of July celebrations from everyday politics were faltering under pressure from Jeffersonian democratic political culture. By the 1810s, the celebrations were often overtly partisan affairs — for instance, when the “Federal Republicans” met on the banks of the Merrimack in Concord, N.H., in 1810 or when the “Republicans of Portland” met in Maine in 1816. Even when they were not, they often served a political purpose. The celebrations proceeded in three parts. The celebrants would meet and process to a given point. Once there, a selected partisan orator would provide a nationalist Fourth of July address. The oration would be followed by toasts.
The toasts signaled political allegiances and were reprinted in partisan newspapers. Sometimes they were banal tributes to the Constitution, the people of the United States or commerce, but they could also endorse particular politicians or positions. For example, the Fourth of July toast offered in Paterson, N.J., in 1799 was:
In Concord, N.H., on the same day, participants in the town of Salisbury heard Federalist President John Adams toasted as the “key stone of the Grand Arch of the only real Republic on earth.” As politics became more heated, the invective, if anything, increased: an 1831 toast in Washington likened Martin Van Buren to the foot of Attila’s horse insofar as “where’er he moves the grass is doomed to wither.” Toasts could also refer to key political issues such as constitutional construction, slavery and the tariff.
They also praised the military
Fourth of July celebrations were often overtly military in nature. My analysis of 307 Fourth of July celebrations from 1816 to 1824, in which at least 10 toasts were recorded, identified toasts to the Army and the Navy in over two-thirds of celebrations, making them the most popular toasts after those to Washington and the sitting president.
There is other evidence that the military was a presence in such celebrations. John Lewis Krimmel’s painting of the Fourth of July celebration in Philadelphia in 1819 shows military personnel being celebrated under banners commemorating American military victories while in the background a military parade passes by. The parades that initiated the celebrations were often military in nature, and military companies often organized the celebrations. In 1824, newspapers printed reports of celebrations by the Washington Light Infantry (Boston), the Independent Cadets (Salem, Mass.), the First Baltimore Sharp Shooters (Baltimore), the Richmond Light Infantry Blues and Richmond Light Artillery (Richmond), the Rangers (Richmond), the First Regiment of Artillery (Baltimore) and the Morgan Volunteers (Baltimore).
Trump’s Fourth of July might still have worried early Americans
It is unlikely that inhabitants of Antebellum America would be surprised or worried about politicized or militarized celebrations of the Fourth of July. However, they might be perturbed by a president calling out a professional army to celebrate the national holiday with him personally. Concerns about the association of professional armies with the consolidation of executive power fueled the revolutionary ideology that drove the 13 colonies toward independence, and many 19th-century Americans followed Thomas Jefferson in worrying about how a standing army might affect distribution of power within a society.
These Americans saw how a fiscal-military complex had developed in Great Britain, and how Great Britain’s army had been deployed against mobilizations for greater democracy and a freer society. The Massacre of St. George’s Fields (London, 1768) following the imprisonment of the British radical John Wilkes and the Boston Massacre (Boston, 1770) offered two such illustrative moments for those who feared the oppressive tendencies of a standing army.
More generally, the standing army formed one element of a complex in which power became centered upon the British government and the prime minister. Maintaining the army led to the need to raise taxes. Civic republicans feared that money raised through taxes could be used by the prime minister (the executive) to control society, for example, by distributing favors among members of Parliament (the legislative) and thus eroding the separation of powers. This is why Thomas Jefferson committed to reducing the professional military force in his annual address of 1801 alongside other policies aiming to “establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and prosperity, and to reduce expenses to what is necessary for the useful purposes of government.” Similarly, George Washington warned in his farewell address of “overgrown military establishments which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.”
Of course, the modern United States has a military industrial complex that makes Jefferson’s hope for a minimal professional military force seem like a laughable prospect. The full risk of a standing army to society at large has been somewhat mitigated by institutional powers such as the 1973 War Powers Act that trammel the full power of the military.
What early Americans might have found worrying about Trump’s demand that the military provide tanks for his Fourth of July celebration is not that the military were involved in the celebration, or that the Fourth of July might be politicized. Instead, it is the idea that the president can command the military to the service of his personal aims. Such a prospect would have chilled the first generation of Americans.
Simon Gilhooley is assistant professor of political studies and American studies at Bard College.