Fireworks have been part and parcel of U.S. Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, since its first celebration in July 1777. That celebration took place in the midst of the Revolutionary War, however, and explosions, artillery fire, and “bombs bursting in air” were not exactly a cause for joy and celebration at the time. So why did Americans begin celebrating Independence Day with fireworks?
To answer this question, a lot of people point to John Adams’s letter to his wife, Abigail, informing her that the Continental Congress had declared independence: “[This day] ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
But pyrotechnics were already a common manner of celebration and thanksgiving, particularly to mark national triumphs and the restoration of peace, and John Adams had little to do with that. How fireworks came to be a central component of Independence Day celebrations in the United States was ultimately the result of hundreds of years of royal pageantry.
The celebratory display of fireworks we know today evolved out of the use of fireworks in romantic performances of combat and in elaborate pageants and plays, typically associated with national events. England’s King Henry VII, whose royal standard bore the Red Dragon, included fireworks at his wedding in 1486, the first known use of fireworks at a national celebration, and his wife’s coronation in 1487 featured a fire-breathing dragon, which became popular in royal fireworks displays during the reign of the Tudors. Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) was so fond of fireworks in performances that she even appointed a royal “Fire Master of England” to coordinate shows. After Robert Catesby’s Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament was foiled, fireworks were used locally in the annual commemoration of the event, sometimes called Fireworks Night. By the 18th century the displays had grown particularly extravagant in Europe in proportion to the opulence of rulers such as King Louis XIV and Peter the Great. Thus, by the time of the American Revolution, spectacular displays of fireworks had already become a popular way to celebrate national prosperity and patriotism.
So when the United States declared its independence in 1776, John Adams was not prescribing a novel way to celebrate America’s freedom. “Illuminations” were already a common mode of celebration. Instead, when he wrote to Abigail, he was heralding the birth of the world’s newest nation by invoking one of the most recognizable celebrations of nationhood of his time: fireworks.