Throughout history, American Independence Day has been an occasion for presidents to declare their independence to the public. They have gone to the beach, to the mountains, to the golf course, to the farm, to the ranch. At the height of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt was heading to Hawaii for a fishing and working vacation.
It has also been a day in which some presidents participate fully.
Teddy Rossevelt drew hundreds of thousands of people for his 4th of July speech. In 2019, Donald Trump assembled tanks, bombers and other war machines for a celebration that often eschews military force.
Richard Nixon angered the anti-war masses because he didn't even show up. As the 1970 anti-Nixon rallies demonstrated, Independence Day in the capital isn't always all fun and games. It also has a tradition of red, white, and boo.
In modern times, however, presidents have tended to stand aside and let the people party.
George W. Bush held a ceremony welcoming immigrants as new citizens. Barack Obama hosted a barbecue on the South Lawn of the White House for the troops. Bill Clinton went to the shore of the Chesapeake Bay to watch the release of a young bald eagle named Freedom.
In 2021, Joe Biden gathered more than 1,000 people on the South Lawn of the White House to eat burgers and watch fireworks. That event was noteworthy because such gatherings were unthinkable in the first year of the pandemic. Many wished it hadn't occurred to Biden to do so even then: the rampage of the omicron COVID-19 variant was yet to come.
Still, the hamburgers were an improvement over July 4, 1850, when Zachary Taylor devoured cherries and apparently spoiled milk and died five days later.
Here's a look at what some presidents have done on the 4th of July:
-1777: On the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, with the Revolutionary War underway, a future president, John Adams, describes in a letter to his wife, Abigail, a day and night of spontaneous celebration in Philadelphia. After hours of parades of troops, fireworks, bonfires and music, he tells her that he was walking alone in the dark.
“I was walking the streets for some fresh air and exercise,” he wrote, “and was surprised to find the whole city lighting their candles in the windows. I walked most of the afternoon, and I think it was the most splendid illumination I have ever seen; some sullen houses were dark, but the lights were very universal. Considering the lateness of the design and the suddenness of the execution, I was amazed at the universal joy and diligence that was discovered, and the brilliance and splendor of every part of this joyous display.”
-1791: Two years after becoming the first president, George Washington celebrates in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, "with a speech, fine cuisine and a walk through the city," says the National Park Service. Philadelphia was the provisional capital while the city of Washington was prepared. Lancaster had hosted the Continental Congress in quick session during the revolution.
-1798: Now as president, Adams reviewed a military parade in Philadelphia as the young nation displayed its might.
-1801: Thomas Jefferson presides over the first public reception for the 4th of July at the White House.
-1822: James Monroe celebrates on his Virginia farm.
-1826: Adams, the second president, and Jefferson, the third, die on this 4th of July.
-1831: James Monroe, who was the fifth president of the nation, dies on this 4th of July.
-1848: James Polk witnesses the laying of the first stone of the Washington Monument, attended by Abraham Lincoln, then a congressman from Illinois. Next, a military parade takes place.
-1850: Taylor attends the festivities on the grounds of the Washington Monument and falls ill with stomach cramps after eating cherries and drinking ice-cold milk and water. He dies on July 9. The theory that someone poisoned him with arsenic was disproved in 1991, when his body was exhumed and analyzed.
-1861: Lincoln sends a message to Congress defending his invocation of the powers of war, requesting more soldiers to fight the South, and lambasting Virginia for allowing "this gigantic insurrection to nest within her borders." He vows to "go ahead without fear."
-1868: After the war, Andrew Johnson executes a proclamation granting amnesty to those who fought for the Confederacy.
-1902: Teddy Roosevelt delivers a speech before 200,000 people in Pittsburgh.
-1914: "Our country, right or wrong," declares Woodrow Wilson at the Independence Hall monument in Philadelphia.
-1928: Calvin Coolidge, born July 4, 1872, goes fishing in Wisconsin.
-1930: Herbert Hoover vacations on the Rapidan River in Virginia.
-1934: Franklin Roosevelt is in or near the Bahamas after leaving Annapolis, Maryland, on a month-long trip and visiting Hawaii after passing through the Panama Canal. On July 4, the log for the navy ship USS Houston refers to the “fishing party” leaving the ship for part of the day.
-1946: One year after the end of World War II, Harry Truman relaxes in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, at Roosevelt's Shangri-La refuge, later renamed Camp David.
-1951: With the United States at war in Korea, Truman addresses a large crowd on the grounds of the Washington Monument, on the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
-1953 and 1957: Dwight Eisenhower could only celebrate the 4th of July by playing golf.
-1968: Lyndon Johnson, who favored the holiday on his Texas ranch, speaks in San Antonio about the lack of independence of the poor, minorities, the sick, people "who must breathe polluted air" and those who live in fear to crime, “despite our 4th of July rhetoric.”
-1970: Nixon, in California, records a message played to the crowd on the National Mall at a "Honor America Day" celebration organized by supporters and hotly protested by anti-war masses and civil rights activists . Tear gas hits protesters and celebrants alike, Viet Cong flags mingle with the Stars and Stripes, and protesters—some naked—plunge into Washington's reflective pool.
-1976: As the United States celebrates 200 years as a country, Gerald Ford gives a speech in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and then at Independence Hall, and reviews the great ships of the Navy in New York Harbor.
-1987: Ronald Reagan, at Camp David, makes a blunt political statement in his Christmas radio address, proposing an economic "bill of rights" and Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. On Saturday, it served as his weekly radio address, which he and other modern presidents used for his programs.
-2008: Bush, like several presidents before him, performs a naturalization ceremony. More than 70 people from 30 countries become US citizens.
-2010: Obama takes 1,200 members of the armed forces to the South Lawn of the White House for a barbecue. Father of a little girl born on July 4, Malia, joked that she always thought that the fireworks in the capital were for her birthday.
-2012: Obama combines two 4th of July traditions: Celebrating troops and new citizens, honoring the naturalization of members of the United States military who came to the country as immigrants.
-2017: Trump goes to his golf club, and later holds a picnic at the White House for military families.
-2021: Biden tells a crowd on the South Lawn of the White House that "we are closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus." It was the biggest event of his presidency since he took office. COVID-19 cases and deaths had fallen to or near record lows at the time, but would rebound as the omicron variant spread.
-2023: Biden plans to hold a BBQ and celebration at the White House for members of the armed forces, veterans and their families.