Alexandria, VA – Alexandria and Independence Day have, at times, had an uneven relationship. The City first celebrated the signing of the Declaration four years after the Constitution was adopted. Alexandria later skipped some July 4th holidays in the aftermath of the Civil War. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the City made a pageant of July 4th, owing to the exuberance of a private resident.
Alexandria’s first Independence Day celebration was in 1793. That year was the first time a sitting president visited Christ Church, when George Washington attended service after taking office. Later presidents continued a tradition of attending services at the church.
One of the first of Alexandria’s grand July 4th celebrations occurred in 1798 at Spring Garden, located on Wilkes Street. The Alexandria Advertiser ran a notice from the Committee of Arrangements: Exclusive of the price of the dinner, the additional sum of 15 shillings each will be required of those who partake of the liquors.
The 1798 celebration had the added excitement of George Washington receiving a commission from President John Adams to retake command of all Armies of the United States in response to French privateer ships attacking American ships. Washington assumed command of American forces during the July 4th celebration.
In 1799, in his last year of life, Washington reviewed another military procession down King Street during the celebration. The City continued to hold its Independence Day celebration at Spring Garden. The Times and District of Columbia Advertiser reported:
At 1 o’clock the military paraded and marched to the ground west of the powder house…They proceeded to Spring Garden and were joined by a number of citizens.
The Civil War did not stop July 4th celebrations in Alexandria. The occupying Union Army treated residents to lively celebrations of the founding of the United States, including shows of “fire rockets.” The fireworks shows did not eliminate hard feelings from the war. An 1869 Alexandria Gazette article notes that while the national holiday was to be celebrated on July 5th, there would be no public celebration in the city.
However, by the end of the 19th century, Alexandria residents had a change of heart. Prominent among July 4th celebrants was Frank Hume, who hosted an annual party at his Warwick estate (now Warwick Village). Hume treated guests to fireworks displays and a cannon firing on the front lawn.
In the 1920s and 30s, City ordinances made exceptions to prohibitions on firecrackers on July 4th. The 1924 celebration included a parade down King Street, with four young women dressed as Columbia, Liberty, Justice, and History singing patriotic songs.
America’s 1976 Bicentennial was a watershed year in the City’s relationship with Independence Day. President Gerald Ford was an Alexandria resident. To prepare for the celebration, the City acquired two museums: Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority acquired the Carlyle House Park to restore it for the Bicentennial.
Alexandria held its parade on July 2 that year, hosting colonial reenactors, military regiments, musical performances, and antique vehicles. Residents and visitors still see and enjoy the products of that celebration today.
The City of Alexandria will celebrate its 273rd and the USA’s 246th birthday on Saturday, July 9, with a performance by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra and a grand finale fireworks display at 9:30 p.m. Enjoy the return of the big birthday experience of years past with cupcakes, local vendors, live music and an extended runtime.