When in the Course of celebrating Independence, it becomes necessary for one host to dissolve the idea of a backyard BBQ as the only option, and to assume among the types of entertaining, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Dinner Party and Dinner Party’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of BBQ revelers requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
It is at a table of the City Tavern in Philadelphia between June 11 and June 28, 1776 that Thomas Jefferson fortified himself to pledge his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to the cause of overthrowing despotism and securing the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all mankind (or at least all white, land owning men in the thirteen colonies…) It is this pledge that Americans celebrate every year on July 4th. While we rarely ascend to the ideals put forth in this landmark document, we count ourselves fortunate on this day to have such an ideal towards which to strive. We have a definition of who we want to be as a nation, who we are trying to be, and who we do not want to be.
I love the Declaration of Independence because it takes seriously the responsibility of explaining the colonies reasons for separating from Great Britain in a manner that is both reasonable and passionate. (Which is exactly how I like to think of myself, reasonable and passionate.) It puts its self forth with a confidence that almost assumes that King George III upon reading it would shrug his shoulders and say, “Fair enough, go your way then.” It is that elegance and bravado that we are celebrating. We do not celebrate the day the Revolutionary War ended or the ratification of the Constitution as the birth of our nation. We celebrate the day we announced ourselves free, as though it were a forgone conclusion. It may have taken seven years for the British to recognize it, but the United States of America became a country on that day and celebrated it’s first anniversary “with Pomp and Parade” as John Adams proscribed.
The city of Philadelphia, despite being in the midst of the Revolution, put on an elaborate celebration on that first anniversary, July 4, 1777. There were fireworks, cannon fires, a Hessian band, war ships decked out in the colors of the flag and toasts to freedom and fallen heroes. Huzzahs abounded. An elegant dinner was served at the City Tavern, where the members of the Constitutional Congress conspired and conferred to put the wheels of liberty in motion. It is also where the Congress dined together, as a group on September 17, 1787 after 12 of the 13 states approved the Constitution.
While I remain a fan of firing up the grill and any excuse for a Bratwurst and grilled corn on the cob will win my support, if you are planning a rather intimate Fourth of July celebration, it could be fun to solemnize the occasion in a slightly more formal manner. Consider a small-scale recreation of that first City Tavern extravaganza, with a few bits thrown in from other early traditions. While the events of the day have been well documented, unfortunately the actual bill of fare has been lost to history. But the City Tavern itself has been painstakingly recreated, and now operates as an historic landmark and authentic/gourmet restaurant. They have published an extensive cookbook of 18th Century recipes (updated for modern equipment and tastes) and they have personally assured me that a great many things in this cookbook could have been served on that day. I selected a menu that is in no way as extensive as the 1777 feast would have been, but felt authentic to the seasonality and enjoyable for a summer dinner party on the deck.
A reading of the Declaration of Independence has been a long standing ritual of Independence Day observances. I know it seems kinda nerdy, and also sort of terrifying to stand up in front of your guests and demand they listen to you recite a 235 year old political document. But, just read it out loud to yourself first, I think you will be surprised at how riveting and stirring it is to actually hear the words. The long list of complaints in the middle might be a little long and too specific. I suggest you skip that section for any audience besides the serious historians, but the rest will keep the rapt attention and ignite the latent patriot in all but the most cynical.
Another early custom (I’m not sure if it took place among the tributes that first year) was to toast each of the thirteen states. The number of toasts grew over the years as did the number of states. This practice may have fallen by the wayside as the number of states became too unwieldy. Sitting through 50 toasts would be trying for even the most devoted Revolution Era listener, but a modern audience couldn’t bear it at all. That’s not even taking into account how drunk everyone would be by the time the Alaska and Hawaii toasts were given, (and what of Puerto Rico and Guam?). So unless you need to fill three hours, and are hoping everyone passes out so you can rifle through their pockets, I don’t suggest trying to tackle all 50 states. Here are a few different ways I think this can be handled.
- Each guest toasts their own home state (or other state they have lived in or have an affinity for if there are doubles)
- Stick to the original 13 colonies and assign a state to each guest to prepare in advance. They should include historical as well as modern contributions of the state to avoid too much of a “re-enactment” feel to the festivities. (If you have a few more than 13 guests you can ask for volunteers when you send out invitations and let the first 13 responders give the toasts.)
- If you have a yearly party you can choose a specific number of states, depending on your toasting tolerance and the oratory skill level of your friends, and alternate which states you honor each year.
- You could do a single toast yourself where you mention something about each of the 50 states quickly and in a clever way.
In ideal circumstances, you will be able to enjoy these recitations and toasts on your deck, or patio to a backdrop of brilliant fireworks put on by your city government, your neighborhood delinquents or your own family, but even if you can only hear the distant rumbling and popping of other people’s fireworks with none of the visuals, you can imagine yourself transported to a young country, full of idealism and exuberance embarking on a new government. You can close your eyes and hear the canons of warships firing in celebration and the Huzzah’s erupting from the crowd who believe they are building a new world where all citizens will truly be equal and free.