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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

James K. Polk's July 4th White House Celebrations

Beginning with Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and for much of the nineteenth century, the White House hosted an annual reception on July 4. During the administration of President James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849, Fourth of July celebrations held at the White House and near its grounds celebrated the rise of American patriotism intensified by the Mexican-American War and westward expansion.

On July 4, 1845, the Polks opened the White House for the annual Independence Day reception. Washington temperance associations also met and hosted a dinner on the grounds just west of the White House. This celebration included an oration, the traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence, and the singing of temperance songs, in addition to other speeches by “all the friends who usually advocate the cause in the District.”1

James K. Polk portrait by G. P. A. Healy

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

That evening, thousands flocked to the land between the White House and the canal (present day Ellipse and Constitution Avenue) for a fireworks display. One newspaper reported “Indeed, we understand that nothing of the kind half so brilliant was ever before seen in this city.” The celebration was marred however, by an unfortunate accident as several rogue fireworks discharged in the direction of those assembled along the south wall of the White House Grounds. A man sitting on the wall named James K. Knowles, a local carpenter, was killed outright and about a dozen others were injured in this incident.2

The firing of celebratory cannons announced the beginning of the day’s festivities in Washington on July 4, 1846. Rain that day led to many outdoor events being canceled, such as a morning parade by the Washington Light Infantry and the National Blues militias.3 The annual White House reception, however, went on as planned with noticeably fewer visitors due to the weather. President Polk retired around 2:30 that afternoon. During dinner it was announced to the president that a group of 200 “Sabbath school children” were standing at the door. Polk invited them into the Blue Room, where he addressed them and was serenaded with song in return.

About an hour later, Polk was greeted by another group of about 250 school children. After showing them into the Blue Room, the lack of space convinced the president to move the group into the larger East Room. The entire room was surrounded by the school children with the president and first lady in the center. The president spoke to the children, asking many questions and seeming to take much interest in their studies.4

The White House as it appeared during the Polk administration.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

In July 1847, Polk was in Portland, Maine, on part of a two-week tour of the Northeast to garner public support for his policies, specifically the Mexican War.5 Nevertheless, the usual celebrations in Washington continued with a fireworks display on the grounds south of the White House. One newspaper reported, “They were superior even to those which graced the night of the illumination. The colors of the fire were singularly delicate and rich, and nothing which we have seen has equaled their brilliancy and diversity. The delicate pink, the beautiful azure, the orange, and the red, were most happily and agreeably diversified.”6

In 1848, Independence Day celebrations in Washington were enhanced by the dedication of the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Before leaving for the ceremony, the Polks hosted a children’s church choir in the East Room.

With his Cabinet assembled, Polk and company made their way to City Hall and then the site of the monument dedication south of the White House, escorted by the U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, and a squad of cavalrymen. An estimated 15,000-20,000 attended the dedication. One observer remarked upon the vista, “We stood in full view of the Capitol, the President’s House, and the executive offices, the Observatory, and most of the conspicuous points of Washington.”7

A circa 1865 view of the area south of the White House where crowds would gather to watch fireworks.

Library of Congress

After the dedication ceremony, Polk returned to the White House where he “received the military on horseback” along Pennsylvania Avenue. The annual White House reception was well attended with many in town for the dedication of the Washington Monument cornerstone. Polk noted the East Room and other State Rooms were “lighted up” and the U.S. Marine Band played on the South Lawn. Polk wrote in his diary, “I retired at a late house exceedingly fatigued.”8

Facing rising sectionalism and regionalism, brought in part by westward expansion, the country nevertheless continued to participate in national holidays such as the Fourth of July. Taken together, these Independence Day celebrations during the Polk administration are representative of the cultural spirit of the mid-late 1840s. In Washington, the centrality of the White House in these celebrations illuminates its growing symbolism as a national icon.