Like many businesses, the Poe Museum was closed on July 4th for Independence Day. As we observe the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we might not realize that Poe would have celebrated the holiday, too.
At the time of Poe’s birth in 1809, only thirty-three years had passed since America had declared its independence from England. Such Founding Fathers as the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s second president John Adams were still alive. In fact, Poe would enter Jefferson’s University of Virginia while its founder was still residing at nearby Monticello. (Jefferson’s death occurred while Poe was at the University–on July 4.)
The spirit of the American Revolution was ever present during Poe’s childhood. His grandfather, David Poe, Sr. had been honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the Revolution and a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. In Richmond, Poe would have attended Sunday services at Monumental Church with John Marshall, who had served in the Continental Army long before becoming Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Poe would have also seen the “Virginia Giant” Peter Francisco, who fought the British with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Stony Point, and other battles before witnessing Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Both Marshall and Francisco are buried at Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery along with Poe’s foster parents and a number of his friends. Another Revolutionary War hero living in Richmond during Poe’s time was the “Hero of Stony Point” Major James Gibbon.
When Poe was fifteen, he was honored to serve on the honor guard selected to escort the Marquis de Lafayette on the latter’s 1824 tour of Richmond. Poe must have known about the friendship between his grandfather (who had died in 1816) and the Frenchman. While in Baltimore during the same United States tour, Lafayette visited Poe’s grandfather’s grave. According to J. Thomas Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore (1874):
“The next day he [Lafayette] received visitors at the Exchange and dined with the corporation, &c., &c., and in the evening visited the Grand Lodge; after which he attended the splendid ball given in Holliday Street Theatre, which had been fitted up for the occasion. After the introduction of the surviving officers and soldiers of the Revolution who resided in and near Baltimore, to General Lafayette on Friday [October 8, 1824], he observed to one of the gentlemen near, ‘I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.’ The General was informed that Mr. Poe was dead but that his widow [Elizabeth Cairnes Poe] was still living. He expressed an anxious wish to see her.
“The good old lady heard the intelligence with tears of joy, and the next day [October 9, 1824] visited the General, by whom she was received most affectionately; he spoke in grateful terms of the friendly assistance he had received from her and her husband: ‘Your husband,’ said he, pressing his hand on his breast, ‘was my friend, and the aid I received from you both was greatly beneficial to me and my troops.’ The effect of such an interview as this may be imagined but cannot be described. On the 11th General LaFayette left the city with an escort for Washington.”
Being surrounded by reminders of the American Revolution during his childhood might have influenced his decision to enlist in the United States Army when he was eighteen, but he hired a substitute to serve the remainder of enlistment after just two years.
Poe would have observed the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence during his lifetime. Celebrations of one kind or another had been taking place since 1776 when, on July 8, Philadelphians hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence started shooting into the air, lighting bonfires, and exploding fireworks (although the name Independence Day was not used until 1791). Before long, similar celebrations were being held throughout the young nation, and they increased in popularity after the War of 1812. By Poe’s time, Independence Day celebrations could include parades, cannon fire, bonfires, the ringing of bells, drinking, and fireworks, but the day did not become a national holiday until 1870. Unlike the Poe Museum’s employees, Poe worked on Independence Day. We know this because there are business letters written by him dated July 4.
The Poe Museum will reopen at 10 A.M. on July 5 and will be open its regular hours the rest of the weekend.