Today most Americans are celebrating Independence Day with picnics and barbecues, trips to the beach or the lake, parades, baseball, and fireworks, and just general lazing around. The painting, above, may look more like a genteel Jane Austen-esque gathering than a Fourth of July celebration, but that's exactly what it is: Philadelphians gathering to celebrate the day in July, 1812.
Painted by German-born artist John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821), the picture - click on the image to enlarge - is actually quite true to the spirit of the holiday. Like many Europeans, Krimmel was impressed by the democratic, orderly feel of the young republic, still less than forty years removed from revolution. Philadelphians from all different social groups have gathered together to observe the day. There's a group of fashion-conscious gentry, a family of Quakers in plain clothes, stylish free people of color, a few rakish bachelors, children acting up, and a pair of sailors gawking at the classically underdressed statue in the fountain. Everyone appears to be enjoying themselves in a mannerly way. Even the dogs are getting along.
The temple-like building in the background isn't some classical folly, but a testament to civic welfare. In the late 18th c, Philadelphia had suffered from a horrific outbreak of yellow fever that had killed more than a tenth of the city's population. Believing that one of the causes of the outbreak was Philadelphia's notoriously bad drinking water and nonexistent sanitation, the city fathers commissioned architect Benjamin Latrobe to devise the country's first waterworks. Shown here is the central pump-house, built in 1800, which contained a steam-driven pump (the reason for the smoke drifting from the roof) that brought fresh water to houses and businesses throughout the city, and provided sufficient water pressure to wash streets and docks. This was a huge achievement that benefited the entire city, rich and poor alike. Celebrating the Fourth of July here, before such an obvious example of civic pride and unity, must have made perfect sense.
Another reason why this celebration doesn't seem quite as raucous as later ones would become: the United States had just declared war on Great Britain to begin what would later be called the War of 1812. The war was not popular – the congressional vote was the narrowest of any formal declaration of war in American history – and even the most bellicose of Philadelphians must have been wondering uncertainly what the future would bring.
Of course modern Americans know exactly how the War of 1812 turned out (at least the ones who even know there was such a war, but that's a separate issue altogether), and this year many Independence Day celebrations will be including bicentennial tributes. However you choose to observe the day, we wish you all the best!
Above: Fourth of July in Centre Square, Philadelphia, 1812, by John Lewis Krimmel.
My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.