J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Observing Washington’s Birthday

When George Washington was born, the calendar read 11 Feb 1731. At least, it did so within the British Empire (and the Russian, but that didn’t matter so much).

Most of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar in place of the Julian. That new system did a better job of managing leap years to match the calendar to the astronomical year and keep the solstices and equinoxes from shifting. Another difference of the Gregorian calendar was when people reckoned the start of a new year—at the beginning of January, rather than in March.

The British disliked the new system’s popish origin, but even they had to acknowledge it was more accurate. Already many referred to their dates at “Old Style” or “O.S.,” and gravestones sometimes showed both ways of counting the year for dates in the early months: e.g., “1720/1.”

Great Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The next year, Washington turned twenty-one, so his exact birthday was legally significant. The Gregorian date for his birth was 22 Feb 1732, so his date of majority was reckoned as 22 Feb 1753. That therefore became Washington’s legal birthday.

There might have been a private celebration for the general at Valley Forge in 1778. At least, some regimental musicians got extra pay for some event that 22 February. But the public ceremonies didn’t take off until 1782, after the siege of Yorktown confirmed that Washington was worth celebrating. Rochambeau, the French commander, hosted a big dinner for the general that year.

Some Americans thought that celebrating Washington’s birthday was too reminiscent of the king’s birthday holiday under the monarchy. But the date grew in popularity, even as people weren’t sure when to celebrate. On 14 Feb 1790, Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear told Clement Biddle:

In reply to your wish to know the Presidents birthday it will be sufficient to observe that it is on the 11th of February Old Style; but the almanack makers have generally set it down opposite to the 11th day of February of the present Style; how far that may go towards establishing it on that day I dont know; but I could never consider it any otherways than as stealing so many days from his valuable life as is the difference between the old and the new Style.
Apparently Lear’s hints about the proper date got through, and in 1796 Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser reported that the 22nd was:
ushered in here by the firing of cannon, ringing of bells, and other demonstrations of joy. In the course of the day, the members of both houses of Congress, the Senate and representatives of this state, the heads of departments, foreign ministers, the clergy of every denomination, the Cincinnati, civil and military officers of the United States, several other public bodies, and many respectable citizens and foreigners, waited upon the President according to annual custom to congratulate him on the occasion. Detachments of artillery and infantry paraded in honor of the day, and in the evening there was perhaps one of the most splendid balls at Rickett’s amphitheatre ever given in America.
Isaac Weld wrote in his Travels through the States of North America:
every person of consequence in it [Philadelphia], Quakers alone excepted, made it a point to visit the General on this day. As early as eleven o’clock in the morning he was prepared to receive them, and the audience lasted till three in the afternoon. The society of the Cincinnati, the clergy, the officers of the militia, and several others, who formed a distinct body of citizens, came by themselves separately. The foreign ministers attended in their richest dresses and most splendid equipages. Two large parlours were open for the reception of gentlemen, the windows of one of which towards the street were crowded with spectators on the outside. The sideboard was furnished with cake and wines, whereof the visitors partook. I never observed so much cheerfulness before in the countenance of General Washington; but it was impossible for him to remain insensible to the attention and compliments paid to him on this occasion.

The ladies of the city, equally attentive paid their respects to Mrs. Washington, who received them in the drawing-room up stairs. After having visited the General, most of the gentlemen also waited upon her.
However, in 1798 the Washingtons’ neighbors in Alexandria invited them to a birthday celebration on 11 February, the original date. Perhaps they thought the former President might be occupied with public events on the 22nd.

(Washington’s Birthday postcard above courtesy of Dave, via Flickr.)

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