Red, White, and New Haven

Y ou don’t have to be a revolutionary to appreciate the 4th of July in New Haven. Certainly the city did its part to aid the fight for freedom, even withstanding an onslaught by British troops on July 4, 1779 (the Battle of New Haven) three years after the United States was born. But it has enlarged on the theme of revolution in subsequent centuries to the point where it now simply signifies a progressive, innovative spirit.

Connecticut—the first state to join Massachusetts in fomenting the revolt against England in the 1770s—has its fair share of liberty stories (for example, this). New Haven’s first mayor, Roger Sherman, may be best known to some for having a popular downtown movie house named after him some 200 years after his birth. But in the 18th century he was renowned for his ubiquity as the only person whose signature appears on the four most revolutionary documents of his era: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Continental Association and the Articles of Confederation. More of a writer than a fighter, perhaps, Sherman would have had a special appreciation for fireworks: one of his jobs in New Haven (besides being a lawyer, a mayor, a storekeeper and a benefactor of Yale College) was as a poet who concocted astronomical observations for almanacs.

M. William Phelps, in his 2009 biography Nathan Hale—the Life and Death of America’s First Spy, invokes a different sort

4th of July Celebration & Fireworks Show
East Rock Park, New Haven (map)
Fireworks begin at 9 p.m.
Rain date is Friday, July 6.
(203) 946-8200…

of liberty in describing how Hale’s tale has been enhanced and fictionalized over the centuries since the time he probably didn’t really utter the immortal phrase “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Phelps brings up the 1962 Western movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and its journalistic justification: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Nathan Hale has stuff all over the state named for him; New Haven has one of the first and largest such monuments, Fort Hale at Black Rock by New Haven Harbor. Phelps shows how the Nathan Hale legend took decades to develop, and took unexpected turns in honoring “a soldier who was, certainly, ill-prepared as a spy, but had a heart that led him to fulfill his duty.” Phelps adds,“When the British strung Nathan Hale up and hanged him, they did so to end his influence on the American effort. And yet, at the moment Nathan died on the end of that rope, the British gave birth to a national icon of liberty and patriotism.”

Richard L. Bushman’s incisive 1967 study of the Nutmeg temperament, From Puritan to Yankee—Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765, ends with a litany of traits—“a defensive independence, cupidity tempered by regard for the public good, and

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yearning for the divine underlying hardheaded rationalism” which were “securely embedded in the cultural genes of the generation alive in 1765. No sudden mutation had caused them to appear. Each in its way was the release of an impulse present, but checked in 1690.” Bushman writes of a culture unshackled from its British overlords, experiencing new freedom.

New Haven is remarkable for how it continues to grow, change and progress. The Puritans who founded the city had no tolerance for some of the very things which define it nowadays: arts, nightlife, a wide variety of religious expressions and ethnic traditions.

Look at the array of opportunities available to citizens on this July 4 Wednesday. The Lost Riots (the band performing when the upstarts at the Ideat Village festival were dispersed by New Haven police last Saturday night) headline an Independence Day Punk Rock BBQ at Café Nine (250 State St., New Haven; 203-789-8281), with food from 7-11 p.m. and music from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Other bands include Malcolm Tent, Casting Ships, Eric Hartlett, Karl Bunn and Sean Conlan & Friends.)

SLAPHAPS, which stands for Senior Lesbians at Play Happily, is holding a July 4 cookout at a member’s home. (To learn more about SLAPHAPS, contact the New Haven Pride Center at (203) 387-2252 or [email protected].)

The big show is, as usual, at East Rock, which is where the city’s annual fireworks display has been held since being moved from its longtime Long Wharf location several years ago. The festive commemoration has gone from one open-air corner of the city to another. In either location, as in greater New Haven, the sky’s the limit.

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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