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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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Did the Washingtons Celebrate Their Anniversary?

George and Martha Washington married on 6 Jan 1759. At left are the slippers Martha reportedly wore on that occasion, or a careful modern reproduction, courtesy of Mount Vernon.

The Washingtons’ wedding anniversary always fell on Twelfth Night. On that day in 1776, they were in Cambridge, at the home still nominally owned by departed Loyalist John Vassall.

In his 1855 biography of the first President, Washington Irving wrote of Martha in Cambridge:
She presided at head-quarters with mingled dignity and affability. We have an anecdote or two of the internal affairs of headquarters, furnished by the descendant of one who was an occasional inmate there. . . .

Not long after her arrival in camp, Mrs. Washington claimed to keep twelfth-night in due style as the anniversary of her wedding. “The general,” says the same informant, “was somewhat thoughtful, and said he was afraid he must refuse it.” His objections were overcome, and twelfth-night and the wedding anniversary were duly celebrated.
I’ve found no contemporaneous evidence of this celebration—no mention of it by the Washingtons or others, no indication of a special dinner or ball in the household accounts.

Furthermore, scholars who have examined George Washington’s diaries found no sign that the couple celebrated their wedding anniversary in other years, either. In one year that date coincided with a large number of guests at Mount Vernon, but that was only one year, and it could easily have been happenstance.

Gen. Washington noted the anniversary of Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat in a letter to a fellow veteran in 1776, but he never mentioned the anniversary of his wedding in his surviving papers. Of course, Martha Washington burned almost all the correspondence between her and her husband.

John and Abigail Adams, who saved almost everything, noted their wedding anniversary in letters in 1777 and 1782—well, Abigail did. But her point was that she regretted how they were apart. The family made a big deal of John and Abigail’s fiftieth anniversary in 1814, a “day of jubilee.” But I’m not seeing mentions of receptions or parties on earlier marriage dates when they were together. Such celebrations don’t appear to have been a common custom.

TOMORROW: Filling in the gaps.


Daud said...

I wonder if it was really a norm to celebrate wedding anniversaries at the time- and if so, what sort of celebration was usual- Like for example if all that was expected was to spend time together.

Barbara said...

Read all diaries & cannot remember such. It's probably something I would have noted. Interesting, nonetheless...

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that confirming info.

Alison said...

I wish you'd clarify that while only Abigail mentions the anniversary in 1782, they *both* did in 1777. John mentions it in a letter to her on the 28th:
"I celebrated the 25th. of this Month, in my own Mind and Heart, much more than I shall the 30th. -- because I think the first a more fortunate day than the last."
D'aww... and, Aww John!
(The 30th being his birthday of course)

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, I’d missed John’s comment. It gives him extra points in my estimation. Thanks for pointing it out!

J. L. Bell said...

One of the challenges of assessing how eighteenth-century American couples observed their anniversary is that if the custom was to have a quiet family dinner or the like, then that would be far less likely to show up in letters than a blowout celebration. But it could still have been very meaningful to the couple.