Celebrating Independence Day with Past Presidents

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on June 11, 2009
Hank Randall Re-enactors welcome park visitors before presenting "Independence Forever" last Fourth of July.

Dressed in a frock coat and Colonial-era wig, re-enactor Mike Lepage launches into an impassioned speech that concludes with the proclamation: "We must live up to the document we are signing today."

The document is the Declaration of Independence, and Lepage is portraying the outspoken John Adams on July 4, 1776.

Adams is celebrated every Fourth of July in his hometown of Quincy, Mass., at the Adams National Historic Park with a performance of Independence Forever. The park's interactive, educational presentation recreates the debates over and, ultimately, the passage of the historic document that affirmed the sovereignty of the 13 original American colonies, including Massachusetts, from British rule.

"Adams is the centerpiece," says Lepage, 43, of the man who would become the second president of the United States. "He was pushing the most for independence."

Park rangers and professional re-enactors portray key congressional delegates during the patriotic presentation, first performed in 1996. Most of the 56 delegates, however, are portrayed by average Americansoften childrenvisiting the park. Each receives a handout with a delegate's biographical information and notes on what he said in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago.

The experience left an impression on Aron Person, 14, who portrayed Pennsylvania delegate James Smith last summer. "The program allows you to be there, in a way," he says. "It makes it more real."

The climax occurs when participants sign a copy of the enduring document.

"Nobody walks away from the program without feeling like they just participated in something very important," says Caroline Keinath, the park's deputy superintendent.

That is precisely why Aron's father, Peter Person, of Stafford, Conn. (pop. 11,307), made the trip to Quincy, which is known as the City of Presidents because Adams and his son, John Quincy Adamsthe nation's sixth presidentwere born, raised and buried in the town. Last year marked the second time Person and his family traveled to Quincy to celebrate Independence Day.

"This exposes them to the underlying issues that America faced," says Person, 50. "It reminds them that history is more than words on paper."

Although Independence Forever is an annual event, the park is open from April to November and comprises both presidents' humble birthplaces, as well as Peacefield, a modest estate with grounds that feature lilac bushes planted by Abigail Adams more than 200 years ago. The highlight of Peacefield is the "Old House," which was home to four generations of the Adams family from 1788 to 1927.

On ranger-led tours of the home, visitors can view some of its 78,000 Adams family artifacts, including the christening gown sewn by Abigail for John Quincy. The grounds boast a striking stone library filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of booksmany owned by the former presidents.

Person says touring the homes reinforced the overall experience.  "To be able to see the desk and chair where John Adams sat and wrote so many of his letters, it's almost like you can hold history here," he says.

Visitors can pay their respects to both presidents at their burial site in the basement of the United First Parish Church in downtown Quincy. Arthur Ducharme, 75, who directs the church's historic interpretive program, says many people become emotional while visiting the burial chamber.

"Some are moved to tears when they realize what these two men did for their country," Ducharme says.

For Person, remembering the contributions of John and John Quincy Adams makes a trip to the City of Presidents a special way to celebrate July Fourth. "It gives people an appreciation for the day beyond fireworks and hamburgers," he says.