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 19, 2013

Washington’s Birthday Shifts

When George Washington was born, the British Empire was still using the Julian Calendar and refusing to abide by the more accurate, but papist, Gregorian Calendar. His birth was recorded as coming on 11 Feb 1731/2. The format of that “Old Style” date acknowledged how for most of continental Europe and their colonies the new year had started on 1 January instead of at the spring equinox. The Gregorian date was eleven days later in the month.

Britain and its colonies finally adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. But it’s not clear when Washington himself started to consider his birthday as now pegged to 22 February. His diaries don’t mention anniversary celebrations or ruminations on either date.

In publishing an edition of Gen. Washington’s wartime expense accounts, John C. Fitzpatrick speculated that the first public celebration of the commander’s birthday occurred at Valley Forge on 22 Feb 1778. However, his only evidence was how on that date the general’s office paid the musicians from Col. Thomas Procter’s artillery regiment 15s. And that payment could mean a lot of things.

As I quoted yesterday, gentlemen in Milton, Massachusetts, celebrated Washington’s birthday on 11 Feb 1779. I’ve seen reports but not sources for a celebration in Winchester, Virginia, the same day. On 12 Feb 1781 (the eleventh being a Sunday), the French general Rochambeau declared a holiday for his troops in honor of the American commander-in-chief. Throughout the 1780s, in fact, the public celebrations of Washington’s birthday were pegged to the 11th.

On 14 Feb 1790 Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear wrote to Clement Biddle, U.S. Marshal for Pennsylvania:
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.
In 1790 the new Society of St. Tammany in New York voted to celebrate Washington’s birthday on 22 February, and in the decade that followed other celebrations shifted to that date. As late as 1799, however, Alexandria, Virginia, still observed Washington’s birthday on 11 February even though earlier that month he wrote to Jonathan Trumbull about “my birthday (the 22d. instant [i.e., of this month]).”

TOMORROW: The meaning of Washington’s birthday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

(with tongue firmly in cheek)

John, I grant you that the Gregorian Calendar is today more accepted and more preferred by most every governed people in the world. But to casually describe it as "more accurate" smacks of a cultural bias that all these centuries has been hounding the Julian and other calendars. The questions to be asked of course are on which basis accuracy is to be determined, and which degree of preciseness is sufficient to tip the scale to 'Accurate?' You and your fellow elites would claim to have the prerogative to answer those questions in ways that involve a particular type of arcane solar year repeatedly evidenced with much repetition and measured varying fractions of a second over an ever-increasing thousands of years. Who needs such rigmarole? I declare it of no practical purpose.

And watch out you and your fellow elitists for the fate of your precious, 'accurate' Gregorian calendar. Others are already scheming for its replacement.

Me, I know days have been very short for the last 100 days but have been getting longer: Spring is coming and that's good enough for me. :-)

-Chris the Woburnite
Tuesday, 06 February, 2013

--Julian above, Gregorian below; both tyranical.--