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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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monarchism in Mid-1780s Massachusetts?

As I noted a couple of days ago, in 1779 a group of gentlemen began meeting annually in Milton to celebrate the birthday of George Washington.

On 10 Feb 1784, the day before the “birth of the illustrious General WASHINGTON, is to be celebrated as usual, at Milton,” the Independent Ledger printed many verses of a song written to the tune of “God Bless America.” Here’s the opening.

AMERICANS rejoice,
While songs employ each voice,
Let trumpets sound.
The thirteen stripes display,
In flags and streamers gay
’Tis WASHINGTON’S birth day,
Let joy abound.

From scenes of rural peace,
From affluence and ease,
At freedom’s call;
A hero from his birth,
Great Washington stands forth,
The scourge of George and North,
And tyrants all.
Those words don’t fit the tune we all know as “God Bless America,” but even Irving Berlin hadn’t been born yet. I bet in 1784 people were supposed to sing those lyrics to the melody of “God Save the King.” Though the tune was now about “America,” these verses were all about Washington.

A couple more years, and Boston’s schoolboys had their own celebration, whether conceived by their teachers or by themselves. The 15 Feb 1786 Massachusetts Centinel reported:
Last Saturday, being the anniversary of the birth-day of GEORGE WASHINGTON, Esq; the day was noticed here by a discharge of cannon, &c. A circumstance which then occurred, being singular, may deserve notice—About 10 o’clock, the scholars of the several publick schools in town, to the number of two or three hundred, proceeded into State-Street, where they testified their respect for the day, on which was born the Deliverer of their Country, by repeated huzzas; after which they returned to their several schools.
That became an annual event.

Colonial Americans really shared only two holidays in the years leading up to the Revolution. The Puritans of New England made a point of not celebrating Christmas. Thanksgivings varied from one colony to another. Saints’ days, such as the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Andrew, had ethnic implications. But everyone up and down the Atlantic seaboard celebrated the birthdays of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Militia units paraded, cannon fired, flags flew, and gentlemen gathered to drink toasts.

For obvious reasons, those royal holidays went away after independence. But less than three years later, Americans started to bring back the same rituals to celebrate Gen. Washington’s birthday. They even sang new lyrics to “God Save the King” about him.

Furthermore, those celebrations grew after Washington stepped down from his official position. In the mid-1780s he was no longer the commander-in-chief of the army, and he wasn’t yet part of the national government. These tributes were entirely for the man, not the office. No wonder his critics would complain about creeping monarchism.

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


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Can't help that his name was George, either given that that been the name of the monarch since 1714!

J. L. Bell said...

I’m reminded of how Rip Van Winkle saw a white-haired gentleman on a tavern sign and assumed it was the previous George.