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As residents of the Historic Triangle prepare to celebrate Independence Day, they are taking part in a tradition that has seen both great change and continuity.
The first Independence Day celebrations in Williamsburg were a belated affair. Word of the signing of the Declaration of Independence did not reach the city until more than two weeks later. When the news arrived, residents marked the occasion with “hurrahs” and gunfire.
The next year, the Virginia Gazette reported of Independence Day celebrations in Philadelphia featuring fireworks – the first such display in the country’s history.
After American independence was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Fourth of July remained a popular holiday in Williamsburg and throughout the U.S.
By the 19th century, Williamsburg’s celebration of July 4 began to change. For much of the century, the College of William & Mary celebrated its commencement exercises on Independence Day. From at least 1796 through 1891, William & Mary seniors celebrated their graduations the same day as American Independence.
The 20th century brought its own share of change to Williamsburg’s Fourth of July festivities. In 1921, William & Mary staged a “Colonial Pageant,” retelling the story of the Revolutionary generation.
Starring William & Mary faculty, students and city residents, the pageant traced the path of independence beginning with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1764 and culminating with Patrick Henry’s rousing speech opposing the tax.
The restoration of the city’s historic area and the rise of Colonial Williamsburg placed a greater emphasis on the Revolutionary aspects of the Fourth of July, complete with fireworks at the reconstructed Governor’s Palace and readings of the Declaration of Independence from the Colonial Capitol.
In 1975, exiled Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn visited Colonial Williamsburg and commented on the importance of the July 4 tradition.
“You cannot ever assume that something that is new is better than the old tradition,” Solzhenitsyn told the Chicago Tribune. “The preserving of national tradition is a very important item for national identity.”
A full list of activities and events for Independence Day 2015 is available online here.