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With the thunder of a one hundred gun naval salute at precisely ten o’clock on the morning of Thursday, September 15, 1887, the nation’s centennial celebra­tion of the adoption of the United States Con­stitution opened with great fanfare in Philadelphia. The booming cannon blast from a naval squadron on the Delaware River launched three jubilant days of parades, military marches, patriotic speeches, testimonial dinners, pageants and related festivities. Pres. Grover Cleveland joined a million and a half Americans, members of Congress and foreign dignitaries in the grand celebration. It was a remark­able demonstration for a na­tion that only five years earlier had thought so little of its principal founding document that the original Constitution was kept folded in a small tin box and ignominiously relegated to a closet of the State Department’s library in Washington, D.C.

Until the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, most Americans thought of the Declaration of Independence as the central symbol of their freedoms. The Constitution was little understood by most citizens and still less read or studied. Indeed, there were many predictions of failure during the frantic ten months of preparation by the Constitutional Centennial Commission, headed by former Congressman John A. Kasson of Iowa. Because planning had begun so belatedly, some states, not receiving their formal invitations to participate until June 15, 1887, refused to participate. Ohio’s Governor Foraker, for instance, advised Kasson, “Before we were invited to take any part in the celebration, our General Assembly had adjourned. We are, con­sequently without any legislation, or appropriation to enable us to do anything …” Alaska’s territorial governor cited a different reason: “Alaska being denied all the rights guaranteed to the other states … by the Constitution … feels she would be entirely out of place.”

Fortunately, Kasson was but a figurehead. The real work of organizing the centennial fell to a young Philadelphia attor­ney, Hampton L. Carson, the commission’s hard-working secretary (who later became president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where the official records of the Constitution’s centennial celebration are preserved). How Carson managed to smooth the ruffled feathers of Ohioans and Alaskans – not to mention many, many others – is beyond appreciation – but he did.

When September 15 ar­rived, residents and visitors in Philadelphia were treated to an extravaganza of parades and celebrations calculated to dem­onstrate, in Kasson’s words, the “practical and living forces” of the Constitution. The planners did their work well. The centennial sparked an outpouring of noise and a landslide of speeches that might be considered reverence for the Constitution, perhaps unmatched until the present­-day bicentennial celebration. A “Civic and Industrial Procession” – with forests of flying banners, one hundred and fifty marching bands and fire wagons – paraded down Broad Street, around City Hall (then under construction), and returned on the other side of the street. The marching units passed each other in opposite directions past throngs of cheering citizens seated in wooden bleachers, perched in windows and balanced on rooftops and carriages. Every three or four blocks, medical stations, connected by tele­graph, tended to the exuberant and exhausted. Fortunately, horses provided most of the transportation and many units were accompanied by scaven­gers, armed with shovels and brooms, to see that the route of this grand march remained pristine.

At nine o’clock that morn­ing, the marshal of the Civic and Industrial Procession stepped off from Broad and Dauphin Streets, followed by twenty-three divisions, each of which showcased some indus­try that had flourished under the U.S. Constitution. The banner leading the procession depicted a chastely draped Columbia, pointing with her right hand to the rugged life of 1787 and with her left to prosperity engendered by the landmark document in 1887.

Historical floats­ – portraying the battle of Lex­ington, the Declaration of Independence, George Wash­ington’s Revolutionary War headquarters at Valley Forge and the surrender of the British – abounded. Present, too, were foreign visitors in native costumes representing the nations from which Ameri­ca’s first settlers originated. But the real business of the parade was business; the pro­cession was a reprise of the 1876 Centennial on wheels. Floats and marching units celebrated progress: railroads, Baldwin locomotives, Disston saws, metal and wood­workers, roofers, plumbers, and masons were led by Phila­delphia’s Carpenters Com­pany, the city’s oldest trade organization. Most featured a “then and now” theme, such as that of the first float of the Iron Workers, described as an old-fashioned blacksmith shop, with the old leather bellows, blown now and then by the “smithy” upon the fire in the forge: the “smithy” and his helper illustrating the old method of making ornamental iron work …. On the other side was a modern shop, with improved bellows tools.

The marshal’s general or­ders for the parade gives no idea of how long the spectators would have to stand, but they did provide that every twenty minutes between 10:20 A.M. and 4:20 P.M. the parade would halt for five minutes to permit traffic to cross the pa­rade route. An exhilarating but enervating day on Broad Street!

The following day, Friday, September 16, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the dashing Union cavalry hero of the Civil War and then commander of the U.S. Army, led nearly twenty­-four thousand Army troops, militias from the states that could find the funds to send representatives, and units of the National Guard that marched and countermarched for six and a half hours along the Broad Street parade route, The massive military display was described as “the largest body of American soldiers ever assembled” -a fitting display of the nation’s military prowess.

Newspapers of the day found, however, the behavior of the president’s wife curious and, perhaps, not at all appro­priate. Mrs. Cleveland, believ­ing that her husband was at odds with a group of Civil War veterans marching under the banner of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), ostenta­tiously turned her chair so that she presented her back to the GAR when it marched past. It seems the president had for­gotten to tell his wife that he settled his feud with the organization.

On Saturday, September 17, the actual one hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution by the Con­vention and the final day of the commemorative celebrations, the parade moved east along Chestnut Street to Inde­pendence Hall where Pres­ident Cleveland shared a huge reviewing stand with assorted dignitaries, foreign ambassa­dors and a two thousand voice boys choir which sang The March of the New Columbia to the music of John Philip Sousa’s famed Marine Band.

The platform was decorated with a photographic replica of the Constitution and the actual chair from which George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention one century before. Cleveland echoed a remark, attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the sign­ing of the Constitution, com­paring the nation’s fortunes with the rising-sun motif on the crest of Washington’s chair. “We stand today,” the presi­dent said, “on the spot where this rising sun emerged from political night and darkness.” Fortunately for the president, whose frame was substantial, his remarks were short – not the case with the other orators of the day – and he was able to resume his seat while the proceedings ground on. The choir sang Hail Columbia, origi­nally written by Philadelphian Joseph Hopkinson with new words in twelve verses by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and The Star Spangled Banner.

Finally, Protestant and Catholic divines offered pray­ers and a benediction: the ceremony and America’s first century of constitutional government ended.


This article is the fourth in a special five-part series commemo­rating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution.


For Further Reading

Carson, Hampton, ed. One Hun­dredth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Constitution of the United States. Phila­delphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1889.

Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nine­teenth Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Kammen, Michael. A Machine That Would Go Itself. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Company, 1986.


Peter J. Parker, a resident of Ger­mantown, has served three years as director of the Historical Soci­ety of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, a repository of nearly fifteen mil­lion manuscripts, rare books, artworks and artifacts document­ing more than three centuries of American and Pennsylvania history. Prior to his appointment as director, he served for thirteen years as the society’s chief of manuscripts. He also taught history at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. The author received his bachelor of arts degree in history from Harvard University in 1956 and was awarded his master of arts degree in American history by the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania. His articles have appeared in Ameri­can Archivist, Business His­tory Review, American Historical Review, William and Mary Quarterly, Journal of American History, Winter­thur Portfolio and Pennsylva­nia History. He is a member of numerous organizations, includ­ing the American Association of Museums, Society of American Archivists, Organization of American Historians and the Association of Canadian Archi­vists.