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From the Vault: Celebrating the 4th with a Bang

Periodically, we will dig back into our archive of blog posts to bring back moments, documents, and perspectives from the Papers of the War Department team over the years. Today, to commemorate Independence Day, we bring you this blog post originally published by Megan Brett in 2012. 

The Society of the Cincinnati in Providence, Rhode Island, made sure to celebrate the 12th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in an explosive manner. That year, 1787, they cajoled Jeremiah Olney, inspector of public and military stores, to give them twenty-four pounds of gunpowder from the public magazine. The powder was damaged and might not have been good for use in guns, but it certainly worked for shooting off cannon to celebrate Independence.

Olney explain the use of powder in a letter to Henry Knox, where he says he was “prevailed upon” despite some concern about the propriety of using public stores for such a purpose. He was eventually convinced by “the unanimous vote of the Society & combining with it the consideration & importance of the day” and hoped that Knox would approve.

Knox did not approve, although he did understand Olney’s motivations. “Nobody can doubt your affection or mine both to the Cincinnati, and to the glorious day on which Independence was declared,” wrote Knox, but public stores should not be disposed of without specific orders. Olney’s uncertainty about the incident reassured Knox that he was unlikely to make the same mistake again, and it was, after all, for a good cause: celebrating America’s Independence!

2019 update: Exploring the rest of the War Department papers, it seems that Rhode Island’s enthusiasm for gun powder spread throughout the new nation! Searching more documents regarding the 4th of July, we see gun powder’s continued (and authorized!) use in celebrations throughout the 18th century.