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How Presidents, First Ladies Have Celebrated July 4th Through the Years


Aside from the crowds that will turn out Thursday night to watch the fireworks that will festoon over the National Mall in Washington, D.C., millions more will have their eyes peeled on President Joe Biden and the first lady throughout the White House’s Fourth of July festivities.

As the first couple soldiers on in what aims to be a full-steam ahead re-election effort following the president’s shaky debate performance last week in Atlanta, the Bidens are sure to be scrutinized more than ever by the media, voters, followers and critics alike. As far as the 11 federal holidays go, Independence Day is one that the majority of voters can agree on. (The current state of the nation and its future are another matter as they are in other countries.)

However, this holiday’s tried-and-true red, white and blue unofficial dress code is another point of unification. Aside from replicating the stars and stripes in the American flag, these national colors hint at values. In 1782, Charles Thomson, who designed the Great Seal of the U.S., the emblem that is our national coat of arms, said, “White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour, and Blue…signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.” 

This color photograph by Pete Souza shows President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in silhouette, watching the fireworks over the National Mall from White House on July 4, 2009.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in silhouette, watching the fireworks over the National Mall from the White House on July 4, 2009. Photograph by Pete Souza

White House Historical Association

Independence Day celebrations at the White House also have a long lineage, dating back to 1801, when Thomas Jefferson welcomed diplomats, civil and military officers, citizens, and Cherokee chiefs into the oval saloon, which is known today as “the Blue Room.” The U.S. Marine Band played in the Entrance Hall and horse races and parades were held on the North grounds, along with food and drink. The band, aka “the president’s own,” performs at most White House events today including the Fourth. In a strange twist of fate in 1826, Jefferson died on Independence Day, as did his fellow Founding Father President John Adams, on what was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of the Independence. James Monroe, the fifth man to serve as the country’s president, died on the Fourth of July in 1831.

This black-and-white photograph by Abbie Rowe is of President Harry Truman meeting with Michael Gene Condatore of Washington in the Oval Office, where Michael presented the president with an oversized "firecracker" that had the president's initials on it.

President Harry Truman meeting with Michael Gene Condatore of Washington in the Oval Office, where Michael presented the president with an oversized “firecracker” that had the president’s initials on it. Photograph by Abbie Rowe

White House Historical Association

Just as every administration has its own style, that extends to Fourth of July traditions. Most get the grills going, line up live music and do a meet-and-greet before any pyrotechnics are set off. Although President John Tyler served turtle soup made from what was said to be a 300-pound turtle at his July Fourth celebration in 1841, barbecues and picnic baskets have been more the norm with recent administrations. Nor have there been a fireworks-induced fatality or multiple injuries lately, as was the case with President James K. Polk’s 1845 Independence Day bash at the White House.

This photograph shows President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush standing with guests on the Truman Balcony during the 2005 4th of July celebration.

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush standing with guests on the Truman Balcony during the 2005 Fourth of July celebration.

White House Historical Association

First ladies have been known to take a few liberties regarding what they choose to wear. Last year Jill Biden turned up for the fireworks wearing a blue printed shirtdress and in 2021 she opted for a shimmery short-sleeved dress.

Sarah Fling, a historian at the White House Historical Association, said the Fourth of July has only become a big celebration at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the last 30 years. More often than not, further back some leaders like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and George H. W. Bush preferred to retreat to their respective summer homes. In the early part of the 20th century, presidents and first ladies were more inclined to flock to cooler climates or Camp David for the Fourth. “Typically, most of the midcentury presidents and first ladies left D.C. during the Fourth of July — the Eisenhowers, the Trumans, the Johnsons and the Kennedys. It became more popular with the Carters and the Reagans. It’s pretty much the same celebration every year — the public comes, they’re able to watch the fireworks on the National Mall and there is some kind of music and celebration,” said Fling.

This color photograph by Karl Schumacher shows President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford at railing of the Truman Balcony, watching the fireworks for the Bicentennial in 1976. Ford attended celebrations at Valley Forge, Philadelphia and New York Harbor before returning to Washington D.C.

President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford at the railing of the Truman Balcony, watching the fireworks for the Bicentennial in 1976. Photograph by Karl Schumacher

White House Historical Association

Fling’s favorite revelers were Gerald and Betty Ford, who marked the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 with a slew of pre-Fourth events, and spent part of the actual holiday in New York City, catching a parade of tall ships in New York Harbor before flying back to the White House for the fireworks. Three days later they kept the celebration going with a state visit for Queen Elizabeth II.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 4 : President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump Arrive to participate in an Independence Day Fourth of July Celebration 'Salute to America' event in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall on Thursday, July 4th, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Donald J. Trump and Melania Trump at the “Salute to America” Fourth of July celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in 2019.

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Other July Fourth regalia has proved to be costly. Extra security expenses and anti-terrorism measures for former president Donald Trump‘s military-style Independence Day parade in 2019 reportedly cost the District of Columbia $1.7 million and tapped out its Emergency Planning and Security fund. On that occasion, some were more focused on Melania Trump’s white Carolina Herrera dress with rainbow-colored trim and whether that was meant in support of gay pride. For the 2018 Fourth of July celebration, Trump opted for a blue and white gingham “Rivera” dress from Ralph Lauren with a wide red belt.

This black-and-white photograph shows a large crowd gathered on the White House lawn during a Fourth of July celebration in 1903. Three thousand people attended patriotic speeches held under the shade of trees on the South Lawn.

A large crowd gathered on the White House lawn during a Fourth of July celebration in 1903. Three thousand people attended patriotic speeches held under the shade of trees on the South Lawn.

White House Historical Association

When inclement weather rained out Barack and Michelle Obama’s Fourth of July plans in 2016, they threw a party in the East Room with Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe. The former FLOTUS showed her patriotism in white jeans and a red printed halter top. Given the casualness of the annual holiday, first lady fashion does not often bubble up to the surface in WHHA’s research beyond the prominence of red, white and blue attire in photographs, Fling said. “It’s not as influential as what you might see at a state visit or a formal reception. It’s just so hot, frankly, in Washington, D.C. Most of these events take place outside so we definitely see first ladies take on a much more casual approach to their fashion.”

This color photograph shows President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at a picnic on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4. Also in the picture are Earle Jorgensen, Caroline Deaver, and Mike Deaver.

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at a Fourth of July picnic on the South Lawn of the White House in 1981. Also in the picture are Earle Jorgensen, Caroline Deaver and Mike Deaver.

White House Historical Association

Multiple White House events are routinely held on the Fourth including staff barbecues earlier in the day sometimes, Fling said. A president may use the occasion to speak, have a written proclamation read or give a ceremonial wave to the masses with the first lady. In 1981, Nancy and Ronald Reagan literally joined the party on the South Lawn, stretching out with guests. “That is so quintessentially Fourth of July in the way they are dressed, looking extremely patriotic. But they still seem like they are part of the celebration, not too formal. They look like they are just having fun,” Fling said. “With the red, white and blue [boater] hats and picnic baskets, that photo perfectly encapsulates Fourth of July at the White House. It is the ‘People’s House’ and the president and the first lady celebrating with the people.”

In 1994, Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary kept things casual catching the fireworks from the White House roof, while seated in foldable card chairs, as their then-teenage daughter Chelsea sat on the ground nearby. The former first lady and future secretary of state maintained her signature look, wearing a medium-blue pantsuit with low-heeled dress shoes. Her successor as first lady Laura Bush also stayed true to party lines on Independence Day in 2001, wearing an all-red ensemble.

To escape the political pressure of downtown D.C. and the summer heat, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd only ventured a few miles to Riggs Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, where their sons could roam and the first lady could quell her anxieties. Media coverage of first ladies’ activities was scant at that time, according to Fling, who noted that President Lincoln attended a picnic for African American schools and churches on Independence Day in 1864. He allowed the groups to hold events on the White House’s South Grounds, where a recitation of the Declaration of Independence was read.

Acknowledging the renewed interest in Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, as evidenced by the comedic stage play “Oh, Mary!” Fling said, “Part of that can be attributed to a better understanding of mental health in the U.S. in that she dealt with a lot of grief as first lady both before and after her husband’s assassination. She lived a very difficult life and was said to have suffered from depression. Later in life she was put into a mental facility by her family, and people wrote her off as being frivolous, over-emotional or difficult. Those are things that we would moreso attribute to depression and the traumas she experienced from losing her husband and several of her children in a short period of time.”

This photograph by Tina Hager shows White House staff and guests enjoying a Fourth of July celebration on the South Lawn, July 4, 2002.

White House staff and guests enjoying a Fourth of July celebration on the South Lawn, July 4, 2002. Photograph by Tina Hager

White House Historical Association

First ladies have been known of course to celebrate the Fourth wherever they might be. During an early July trip to South Dakota in 1927, Calvin Coolidge, the only president to have been born on July 4, had an impromptu hoopla thanks to his wife Grace. “Newspapers reported that she bought sparklers and firecrackers. She surprised him with a huge delegation from the public, and had bands come celebrate to surprise him on his birthday,“ Fling said.



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