Music on July 4, 1776

The Declaration of Independence painted by John Trumbull in 1817(Photo:
The Declaration of Independence painted by John Trumbull in 1817(Photo:

We know it was hot in Philadelphia.  It was a Thursday. Martha Washington complained of the “smells and ceaseless noyse”. Independence Hall was jammed with men dressed in waistcoats and mascots with breeches and buckles. Nobody and nothing smelled fresh, least of all the streets, thanks to the horses and a lack of sewage.

The gentlemen assembled to draft and sign the Declaration of Independence were property owners, slave holders, farmers, inventors and entrepeneurs.

John Adams had traveled from Paris to Russia and back. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both Continentals. It was fine to sip a drink, smoke and look at pretty girls. But books and music were the true marks of erudition. By books I don’t mean Fanny Hill. At least I think I don’t.

Jefferson was famous for his violin. We have few accounts of how he played. I suppose no one dared tell him he was lousy. His library at Monticello contained the complete concert grossi of Arcangelo Corelli. He named Corelli as his favorite composer but he was not above fiddling as dance tune in between Corelli and the Bach partitas he was known to favor.

Adams prided himself on being well educated, informed and up to date. The correspondence between Adams and his wife Abigail is both voluminous and lovely. It is clear this couple adored each other. His sign off to his wife was “I am, as I ever was, and ever will be, Yours Yours Yours.” John and Abigail were the first presidential couple to live in the White House. There the president enjoyed the services of the U.S. Navy band.

Not all their nights on the town were successful

“In the evening we went to the comedy or rather the Italian opera; where we saw many officers and very few ladies. The musick and dancing were tolerable; but the actors and actresses very indifferent. At least it was a dull entertainment to me. Perhaps it would have been more pleasing had I understood the Italian language…” John Adams wrote in his diary on Dec. 9, 1779.

Franklin was nursing a gouty foot in the heat of Philadelphia. He didn’t seem fazed. Dr. Franklin would soon be appointed American Minister to France. There, the old gentleman enjoyed being petted by the French ladies. His taste in music had evolved decades earlier, especially in London. In 1769 he complains in a letter to his brother

“The reigning taste seems to be quite out of nature, or rather the reverse of nature,” he wrote.

But that’s not all. Franklin admired the composers active over his own long life including, Grety, Rameau and Handel (Judas Maccabeus was a favorite). However, Franklin the inventor and Franklin the connoisseur of music met only once, with his invention of the glass armonica in 1761. He got the idea from rubbing with a napkin several filled and half filled wine glasses. The instrument was taken up in London and later at Versailles. Franklin was elderly and was considered deaf and clumsy, but he enjoyed putting on a good show until his death at age 84.

President Adams was defeated in re-election by Jefferson. The men were known to dislike one another until very late in their lives. Their correspondence, two lonely elderly widowers made several mentions of “musick.” They died within hours of one another on the same day, July 4, 1826.