“HOLD THE DATE! We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”
— President Trump via Twitter, Feb. 24
Hogwash. No need to hold the date or reframe and rename. Absolutely no need for an address. We, the people, have been celebrating our nation’s birthday on the Mall for decades. That’s how it should be.
When the District’s Fourth of July fireworks started is unclear. Our friend Jerry remembers as a boy going to the Mall with his parents in the late 1930s. To get seats, they went early. The kids set off firecrackers waiting for the dark and pyrotechnics. He describes a Niagara Falls of detonations sparkling along the ground near the Washington Monument
In the wartime early 1940s, another friend, Peg, watched the fireworks from her roof at 14th and U Streets NW. According to The Post, the first televised Fourth of July, in 1947, featured military bands and fireworks. Thousands gathered on the Mall. More watched around the country, as they watch “A Capitol Fourth” now, linking us across the nation.
A 1957 snapshot of our family’s first of many Independence Day picnics near or on the Mall is fading somewhere in a drawer but is fresh in memory. Eleven-month-old son Jerry, now almost 63, grins broadly, bolt upright in his stroller, waving his arms. His grandmothers sit on a blanket spread on a slope of grass. We had finished our picnic — fried chicken, deviled eggs, possibly cucumber sandwiches, brownies, iced tea. Other families picnic nearby, all of us with a ringside view beside the Jefferson Memorial, celebrating together, waiting for the fireworks. Like thousands of area residents, we had gathered in the city’s and the nation’s front yard to be there.
In the 1980s, after the National Symphony Orchestra began concerts on the West Lawn of the Capitol, we started driving there, most of us disgorging from the car with a picnic basket to stake out a place near the stage. My husband would then park the car near the State Department and return by Metro to find us in the gathering throng. Our picnic eaten, when the orchestra struck up the “1812 Overture” and the first rocket burst near the Washington Monument, we were packed and ready to walk the length of the Mall under sprays of reds and whites and blues, zigzagging through the seated crowds. On those steamy summer nights, folks waded in the Reflecting Pool and filled the Lincoln Memorial steps. The Mall was crammed from one end to the other, everyone enjoying the oneness of time and place, being Americans together.
In the late 1990s, by the time our legs began to give out, we were living in a condominium on the Virginia side of the Potomac. The balcony had a view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, ideal for an annual potluck with the Capitol Fourth on the television and the sky bursting with fireworks. Not just the slam-bam Mall ones, but spraying across the skyline tens of community celebrations, all of us connected as we, the people, in the national birthday spirit.
One year stands out, epitomizing the essence of celebrating the Fourth and of its unique quality that should not be lost in reframing. As a Foreign Service family, we had been abroad for nine years and transferred home in late June 1976 in time to celebrate the Bicentennial. The previous years of antiwar protests and Watergate had been tense and divisive — polarizing and tribal. Not like now, but not unlike, either.
We packed a picnic — fried chicken, lemonade, a bottle of wine, the usual — and found a place on a grassy verge on the Virginia side of the Potomac, sharing food with the strangers sitting around us. Someone’s radio broadcast the National Symphony playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Everyone stood and sang. As fireworks burst above us, we “ooh-ed” and “ahh-ed.”
Overflowing the Mall onto the hillside, a million of us (the largest Capitol Fourth recorded) basked in the connection of being in a special place at a special time, of belonging to one nation, of being one people, for at least that day setting disagreements aside.
The Fourth of July birthday celebration had been, was then, is now Washington’s, America’s, We, the people’s. Everyone welcome, including the White House family if they choose to join simply as part of us. No renaming or reframing. The date was saved 243 years ago.