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Independence Day Presidential Traditions


While we're on the subject of national observances, this week, a U.S. Park Police spokesman confirmed that President Trump plans to deliver a public address at the Lincoln Memorial on the Fourth of July. In a letter to the president, House Democratic leaders asked the president to reconsider. They argued that his plans would create the appearance of a televised partisan campaign rally on the Mall at public expense.

Now, that is definitely a break with recent tradition when presidents have enjoyed the festivities but in a low-key way, leaving town or hosting guests to watch the fireworks with them. But we were wondering about earlier times.

Thankfully, Ronald Shafer has looked into that. He's a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, and he wrote about this for The Washington Post. Welcome back, Ron. Thanks so much for joining us.

RONALD SHAFER: Glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So you said that Thomas Jefferson was the first to hold July 4 celebrations at the White House in 1881 because he was the first to live in the White House during the Fourth of July. What did he do?

SHAFER: Well, Jefferson just had a little reception for some citizens and some officials. And they had some punch and some cakes, and they had some Italian musicians in to play some music. And this sort of set the trend for future presidents where they had receptions during July 4, something very low-key. And, in 1841, John Tyler had a dinner on that day, and he had turtle soup with - made from a 300-pound turtle they brought in from Key West, Fla. And then, that night, they walked across the street to Lafayette Square, and they watched the fireworks, which has been part of the July 4 celebration from the very beginning.

MARTIN: So it seems as though the previous presidents had pretty low-key celebrations. This turtle soup was kind of fancy. But the letter from House Democratic leaders state that the Fourth of July celebrations have always been, quote, "nonpartisan and apolitical." Is that true?

SHAFER: That's pretty much true. The only president who ever spoke during the celebration in Washington was Harry Truman. In 1951, he spoke at the Washington Monument, and he gave a speech on the Korean War. But, of course, back in those days, he probably had maybe two Secret Service agents with him. Today, the security is much, much more elaborate.

MARTIN: And so what does that say to you, that it just - it changes the character of the event, is what you're saying?

MARTIN: Well, I know when I've attended events where the president's - where he's going to be there, I usually had to go through metal detectors to get in. So it will be a lot more complicated to speak from the Lincoln Memorial on July 4 than any time in the past. The only thing close to this was probably in 1970, when some friends of President Nixon got up an Honor America Day with a televised show at the Lincoln Memorial. This was during the Vietnam War. But the celebration also brought out a lot of protesters. Some of them were skinny dipping in the Reflecting Pool. And there was some tear gas thrown around, so it turned out to be kind of a mixed event.

MARTIN: I see. So as you mentioned that, you know, President Truman gave a speech on the 4 in Washington about the progress of the Korean War, you know, you mentioned that President Nixon videotaped a message that played on the Mall at the Fourth of July ceremonies in 1970, which didn't go over well with sort of everybody, what do you make about President Trump's decision to, as a number of media outlets have put it, insert himself into this event?

SHAFER: Well, I think the fear is it will become a political event. Historically, it's been totally nonpartisan. It's strictly a celebration of the country and not of any political party. And I guess the worry now is that Trump is going to be the Grinch who stole Independence Day.

MARTIN: Do you think that people will - I don't know. Do you have any sense of how other people are reacting to this? We know how the Democrats are reacting to this. They are not pleased. I mean, this is a polarizing figure, anyway. So, you know, it has to be said, just like President Nixon was a polarizing figure. So do you have a sense of how you think it'll affect the celebration?

SHAFER: Well, I think there's - still have a pretty good turnout either way. The fact is that most people go there just to see the fireworks and - not really that concerned about the politics of the whole matter. But a lot of presidents did give speeches on July 4. But they would go out of town. In 1976, the bicentennial year, where they had a million people on the Mall - and I was one of them - Gerald Ford gave a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, flew back to Washington and watched the fireworks from the White House with his wife, Betty.

And, traditionally, this is how presidents have celebrated the July 4 - is by watching the fireworks from the White House, maybe hosting some Army families or military families or going out of town to give a speech but never, except for Truman, as I said, to actually get involved into the actual ceremony themselves.

MARTIN: That is Ron Shafer. He's a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, and he's author of "The Carnival Campaign" about the 1840 presidential race. Ron, thank you so much.

SHAFER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.