Throughout the United States there are traditional Fourth of July parades and backyard barbecues, but in New York City the history of July 4th celebrations have been somewhat different. Although July 4th would appear to be a apolitical patriotic holiday, early July 4th celebrations in the city of New York were anything but nonpartisan.
After New York narrowly ratified the U.S. Constitution, the City was politically split between Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions. The Federalists, led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, were increasingly in control of the city’s economy.
They tended to be largely comprised of elite New York landowners and merchants. Many landless Revolutionary War veterans (particularly the enlisted, non-officer class) who had hoped for greater participation and an improvement in their economic status as a result of the Revolution were increasingly frustrated. Many joined the Tammany Society whose purpose was to promote the democratic ideals of the Declaration of Independence, which many of its members viewed as under attack.
For the Tammany Society, July 4th was a very important holiday and the Society’s constitution required that it hold a celebration. It’s members would gather on that day in today’s City Hall Park for a day of celebration, toasts to the democratic ideals of the Declaration of Independence, food and drink and speeches by Society
leaders and others about current politics.
In attending these events frustrated Revolutionary War veterans had a chance to gather with the politically like-minded and to plan for future action against the Federalists. In part, it was out of these ceremonies that the modern Democratic Party was formed, which would ultimately elect Thomas Jefferson over John Adams in the election of 1800 and control the City’s politics for most of the next 150 years.
After their victory in 1800, the Tammany Society’s July 4th continued on a somewhat less partisan basis. There grew a tradition of setting up food stands on lower Broadway at which everything from common oysters to elaborate foods were served, with drinks and a large fireworks display.
In 1843, James Harper (founder of what is now HarperCollins publishing house) was elected Mayor on the American Republican ticket. The American Republicans were an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativist political party. Harper argued that the July 4th celebrations organized by his political opponents and attended by many new immigrants were raucous and disruptive and tried to have an ordinance passed outlawing the celebration’s popular food booths.
The July 4th celebrations continued however, even during the Civil War. After the war and the end of Reconstruction, economic expansion helped create the what we call the Gilded Age (roughly 1877 to 1896). Some 10,000 New Yorkers were living rich with mansions and country houses while millions of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and later Eastern Europe and Italy were living in extreme poverty.
After the scandals of “Boss” William Tweed the early 1870s the Tammany Society (usually called Tammany Hall after the building in which it was headquartered) was reorganized by John Kelly into a much more organized and effective political organization that sought as its base support the City’s millions of immigrants.
As almost 100 years earlier, celebrations of the July 4 holiday would become critical annual events in its program to rally Tammany, and by extension Democratic Party supporters. In his speeches published as Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (1904), the Tammany leader, politician, and acute political observer George Washington Plunkitt reported that”
“Nobody pays any attention to the fourth of July any longer except Tammany and the small boy. When the fourth comes, the reformers, with revolutionary names parted in the middle, run off to Newport or the Adirondacks to get out of the way of the noise and everything that reminds them of the glorious day. How different it is with Tammany! The very constitution of the Tammany society requires that we must assemble at the wigwam on the fourth, regardless of the weather, and listen to the reading’ of the Declaration of Independence and patriotic speeches.
“You ought to attend one of these meeting’s. They’re a liberal education in patriotism. The great hall upstairs is filled with five thousand people, suffocating’ from heat and smoke. Every man jack of these five thousand knows that down in the basement there are a hundred cases of champagne and two hundred kegs of beer ready to flow when the signal is given. Yet that crowd stick to their seats without turnin’ a hair while, for four solid hours, the declaration of independence is read, long-winded orators speak, and the glee dub sings itself hoarse.
“Talk about heroism in the battlefield! That comes and passes away in a moment. You ain’t got time to be anything but heroic. But just think of five thousand men sittin’ in the hottest place on earth for four long hours, with parched lips and gnawin’ stomachs, and knowin’ all the time that the delights of the oasis in the desert were only two flights downstairs!
“Ah, that is the highest kind of patriotism, the patriotism of long sufferin’ and endurance. What man wouldn’t rather face a cannon for a minute or two than thirst for four hours, with champagne and beer almost under his nose?”
As Plunkitt observes, these July 4th celebrations at Tammany Hall consisted of a reading of the Declaration of Independence and long lectures about democratic government. They were designed to educate immigrants and their families about American and the City’s history. For people who might be uncertain of their position in this new and foreign land, they were intended by the Tammany leadership to provide assurance that Tammany Hall, the predominant political party in the city, welcomed them and their families and sought their full integration and participation in New York’s politics.
Tammany’s July 4th celebrations continued into the early twentieth century. On July 4, 1926, the Independence Flagpole was erected in Union Square in honor of Tammany leader Charles Francis Murphy, who led the organization from 1904 until his death in 1924.
Murphy was generally considered responsible for the rise of Robert F. Wagner (1877-1953), an immigrant from Prussia who arrived in the city in 1885 and rose through the political ranks of the NYS Assembly to become the Democratic leader of the NYS Senate. He was later elected a long-serving U.S. Senator (his son Robert F. Wagner Jr. served as Mayor of New York City, 1954-1965).
Wagner was also credited with the rise of Governor Al Smith (1873-1944), a two-term Governor of New York. Smith, the son of an Irish immigrant from the Lower East Side, owed his career to the Tammany organization. He lost his unprecedented bid for the presidency in a bitter ant-catholic (and anti-New York City) campaign against Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928.
Just seven months later, on July 4, 1929, the Tammany Society dedicated its new headquarters on 17th street near Union Square Park. (Curiously the bar from the old Tammany Hall was relocated to Smith’s Restaurant in Cohoes, Albany County, NY.) The keynote speaker at the new building’s dedication, which included Al Smith, was the newly and narrowly elected Democratic New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). The celebrations of the new Tammany Hall masked a decline in the Society’s political power, however.
Ultimately the organization lost its headquarters in 1944 and with the 1961 defeat of Carmine DeSapio, the Tammany leader who attempted to revive the organization’s political fortunes throughout the 1950s it went out of existence. With the decline and fall of Tammany Hall, the importance of its July 4th celebrations also waned. In the 1960s, in part due to greater prosperity for the children of the immigrants who might have attended the July 4th celebrations helped shift the focus of the day to today’s more typical backyard barbecues.
Beginning in 1972, the most important July 4th event in New York City became the previously established Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island – a contest to see who could eat the most hot dogs in a half-hour. The highly publicized event proved to be a huge success, ultimately drawing more than 50,000 people, attracting regular media coverage and political support. Since 2003 the contest has been televised on ESPN. That it has no historical context or political meaning, did not seem to bother most New Yorkers.
During the Bicentennial year of 1976 one of the last large July 4th events occurred when the newly opened South Street Seaport Museum arranged for more than a dozen tall sailing ships to come to New York Harbor as part of their annual Operations Sails program. Other than that event there was no large July 4th celebrations in Manhattan from the early 1960s until the year 2000.
There was however, an annual 50-round cannon salute on the mornings of July 4th by the New York Veteran Corps of Artillery (VCA), the oldest military unit in New York State. For more than a hundred years the VCA cannon salute occurred near Castle Clinton in Battery Park. Prior to each of the rounds of the cannon, a member of the Corps in military uniform read the date of admission of each state to the union.
Another limited, though later important event on July 4th in the 1980s, was an all-night walking historical tour of Lower Manhattan organized by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (known as the 92nd Street Y). That tour would lead to the organization of modern July 4th celebrations in the City, the subject of my next essay here on the New York Almanack.
Illustrations, from above: “The Manner in which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent of the King of England, throughout the Different Provinces, on July 4, 1776,” by Noble (engraver), after Hamilton (painter), for Edward Barnard’s The New, Comprehensive, Impartial and Complete History of England… (London, 1783); “Tammany Society Celebrating the 4th of July, 1812” by William P. Chappel (1869); Men wearing period costumes march in New York’s 4th of July parade in 1911; Aerial photo showing the Independence Flagpole in Union Square in 1944 (Museum of the City of New York); and Crowds outside Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand on Coney Island circa 1955.