Tonight or tomorrow, millions of Americans will look up to see fireworks illuminating the night skies with showers of light. Fireworks are so wrapped up in the history and tradition of the Fourth of July that to celebrate without them—as some critics want us to do—would almost be to mark a different holiday and different country. 

Fireworks demand the viewer’s full attention. Their imminence and ephemerality allow us, for a moment, to cast aside our cares. Photos and film can’t capture the full sensory experience, which at its best brings fire and noise to a skillful perfection. No camera or recording device can recreate the bursts of multichromatic light piercing the darkness, the thunderclaps that prove sound is a pressure wave, the smell of burnt powder as it wafts overhead, and, most important, the sensation of being in a crowd.

Since their earliest uses in the West by European royalty, fireworks have involved a shared experience. Alongside one’s family, friends, neighbors, and compatriots, divisions cease for a moment. We meld into a common identity, witnessing the same spectacle. Invariably, the last thing we hear is not an explosion but applause. It’s at once a communitarian and egalitarian ritual, a reminder of the founding document of a new political community that declared “all men are created equal.”

Fireworks have commemorated the birth of America since the nation’s earliest days. Philadelphia’s 1777 Independence Day celebration, carried out amid the Revolutionary War, involved “a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons.” Those who marvel at this year’s chandeliers of fire join a civic communion that links Americans across the continent and down the ages.

As a necessarily communitarian endeavor, fireworks are at their best when controlled by public authority for the enjoyment of all. No amateur pyrotechnic can match the rhythm, orchestration, and skill of a professional, organized display. The indulgence of thousands, or even millions, of dollars burning up before our eyes heightens our appreciation of large-scale shows. The Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks show, which has come to define the holiday in New York City since 1976, costs upward of $6 million. It’s little wonder almost all the best displays happen in cities, as urban density makes the extravagance more affordable on a per-viewer basis.

At their worst, uncontrolled fireworks can injure or kill their users, cause property damage, and become a public nuisance. Last year, nationwide, eight people died and nearly 10,000 were injured in fireworks-related accidents, many occurring in the weeks leading up to July 4. Throughout the summers of 2020 and 2021, New York City resounded with incessant booms, fueled not by patriotism but by lockdown-inspired boredom, an overarching sense that rules no longer applied, and the petulant desire to stick it to the police. The city received nearly 80 times more fireworks-related complaints in the first half of June 2020 than it did in the same period in 2019.

In contrast with a unifying annual July 4 display, illegal fireworks added to the anxieties of that tense and uncertain period, especially for those not predisposed to enjoy them. It’s well known that most pets, for example, fear the explosions. And fireworks can remind some veterans of past trauma and cause effects of PTSD. Fireworks, after all, symbolize the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Our ability to enjoy them without such cares should remind us of the gratitude we owe the men and women of the armed forces.

These drawbacks are more reasons for good public management, not abolition. With proper warning, pets can be placed in controlled environments. Those sensitive to noise or heightened particulate-matter pollution can stay indoors. A competent government achieves a small civilizational victory when it prevents a good’s illegal use and allows for orderly and safe public enjoyment of it.

Shortly before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on how the day (he thought it would be July 2) should be remembered. “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations [fireworks] from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” And so it has.

On the 248th commemoration of that signing, we again follow Adams’s instruction. It is right and fitting that we continue the tradition of celebrating our imperfect but magnificent nation with rays of dazzling light.

Photo by EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Image


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