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Fourth Of July Celebrations At The White House In 19th Century

July 2, 2017

  • The People’s House: Thomas Jefferson began the tradition of a public reception to celebrate the Fourth of July in 1801. The mansion was opened to all people. Tables pushed against the walls of the State Dining Room were filled with bowls of punch and plates of sweets. Presidents held these receptions until just after the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant started a new trend for presidents in the late nineteenth century taking a summer vacation at the New Jersey seashore away from Washington’s heat.
  • Parades: John Quincy Adams joined a Fourth of July procession to the Capitol that included a squadron of cavalry and a float on which was a group of young women dressed to represent each of the then twenty four states of the Union. July is hot in Washington and to cool off Adams regularly took early morning skinny dips in the Potomac River.
  • Turtle Soup: William Henry Harrison died only a month after his inauguration and John Tyler, who succeeded him, held a Fourth of July dinner that year that included turtle soup. A giant 300 pound turtle from Key West had been given to the president as a gift and ended up on the dinner table. That evening Tyler and his guests walked out onto Lafayette Square to enjoy a fireworks display.
  • A Fatal Fourth: After participating in July 4 ceremonies at the Washington Monument in 1850, Zachary Taylor fell ill. He drank freely of ice water during the event and after reaching the White House gorged on cherries with iced milk. Within five days he was dead. It was believed he contracted cholera. Waterborne diseases, including cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery, were not uncommon in Washington, D.C. before the advent of modern plumbing and sewerage and water chlorination.
  • A School Festival: On July 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln attended a fundraiser for African American schools and religious groups in the District of Columbia. He allowed the group to hold a festival on the south grounds of the White House. A great crowd attended and Lincoln and members of his cabinet appeared at the event setting an example of tolerance for the country.
  • A Summer Concert: The Marine Band performed weekend summer concerts on the south grounds of the White House from June to September for many years. In 1886, Grover Cleveland and his new bride Frances Folsom made an appearance on the South Portico at a Fourth of July concert. The crowd rushed to get a view of the new first lady. As the president saw the huge crowd approaching, he waved to them with his straw hat and hurried Mrs. Cleveland indoors. The crowd then flocked back to the concert.
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