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, August 02, 2011

A Ball for Lady Washington?

Today I’m speaking at another teacher workshop, this one sponsored by Boston National Historic Park at a number of historic sites in central Boston, Charlestown, and Cambridge. I’ll lead a short version of my “Ladies of Tory Row” walking tour, and then discuss “The Women of Washington’s Headquarters.”

The most prominent of those women is, of course, Martha Washington. She’s always listed first, and has the most stories told about her time there—some of which are even documented!

In that spirit, I’m quoting from the Philadelphia merchant Christopher Marshall’s diary about an episode in Washington’s journey northward in the fall of 1775, when she became the unwitting focus of a political dispute in Philadelphia:
21 [November 1775]. In company with Sampson Levy, Thomas Combs, and my son Benjamin, we viewed the inside of the new prison; thence into Chestnut Street, to view the arrival of Lady Washington, who was on her journey to Cambridge, to her husband. She was escorted into the City from Schuylkill Ferry, by the Colonel and other officers, and light infantry of the Second Battalion, and the company of Light Horse, &c.
Some Continental Congress delegates, probably Virginians and other southern planters, started to plan a ball in honor of the generalissimo’s wife. Like the term “Lady Washington,” which eventually stuck, not everyone thought highly of that idea. It smacked of luxury in wartime, as well as threatening to turn a military leader into an icon.

The month before, the Congress had even passed this resolve:
VIII. That we will in our several stations encourage frugality, economy, and industry; and promote agriculture, arts, and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.
Some people clearly saw a ball as a type of “extravagance and dissipation,” or at least an expensive entertainment. On the other hand, folks who were friends with Martha Washington back home in Virginia knew that she liked balls, and she was supposed to be an honored guest.

Marshall’s next journal entry reported the depth of the controversy, and his own efforts to resolve it:
24. After dinner, as I had heard some threats thrown out, that if the ball assembled this night, as it was proposed, they presumed that the New Tavern would cut but a poor figure to morrow morning, these fears of some commotion’s being made that would be very disagreeable at this melancholy time, in disturbing the peace of the City, I concluded, if possible, to prevent, in order to which, I went to Col. [John] Hancock’s lodgings, and finding he was not come from Congress, and the time grew short, being three o’clock, I walked up to the State House, in expectation of meeting him.

That failing, I requested the door-keeper to call Samuel Adams, which he accordingly did, and he came. I then informed him of the account received of a ball, that was to be held this evening, and where, and that Mrs. Washington and Col. Hancock’s wife were to be present, and as such meetings appeared to be contrary to the Eighth Resolve of Congress, I therefore requested he would give my respects to Col. Hancock, desire him to wait on Lady Washington to request her not to attend or go this evening. This he promised.

Thence I went and met the Committee at the Philosophical Hall, which was large and respectable, being called together for this purpose only to consider the propriety of this meeting or ball’s being held this evening in this city, at the New Tavern, where, after due and mature consideration, it was then concluded, there being but one dissenting voice (Sharp Delany), that there should be no such meeting held, not only this evening, but in future, while these troublesome times continued…
TOMORROW: Telling Lady Washington.


timqueeney said...

Cool insight into the social intrigues of Revolutionary War society

John L. Smith said...

Everybody hates a snitch...even back then! Hhuuummmpphh!