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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Monday, February 24, 2014

“The Honors of the Preceding Night”

Yesterday I broke off the story of the first documented public celebration of Gen. George Washington’s birthday in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1779 just as things were getting interesting: the celebrants were ready to set off two cannon. Dudley Digges, a member of the state Council, was determined to stop them.

Digges had already told the young men planning that party that it would be improper during a war. When he saw them grabbing the cannon from a smithy, he sent a lieutenant to bring those guns back, and the partygoers refused.

Most of those celebrants appear to have been students at the College of William & Mary, and their master of ceremonies was former school usher James Innes. It’s striking that Innes was a generation younger than Digges but held a higher military rank.

The account from college student David Meade Randolph continues:
Captain Digges went immediately to the Arena, where, in the pride of his power, with sixty men, he drew up in form; and demanded the cannon at the point of his bayonets! Innis stept up to Captain Digges, and shaking his cane at him, swore that he would cane him, if he did not depart instantly with his men! This enraging Digges,—he said that if the pieces were not surrendered, he would fire upon the party. Innis repeating his threat,—ordered [William] Finnie to charge the cannon with brick bats: the mob in the street, and the gentlemen of the ball, re-echoing the order. The pieces were soon charged with brick bats: Innis all the while firmly standing by the Captain at the head of his men, daring him to fire! After some delay, the Captain retreated with his men; and the evening closed with great joy.

Next day, Innis was arraigned before the Hustings Court, for Riot! confronted by the valiant Captain Digges. During the proceedings, when Innis replied to the charge, Digges in the body of the Court, and Innis in the Bar—among other particulars characteristic of the Colonel's temper and genius, he swore “it made no odds whether Captain Digges wore a red coat, or a black coat, he would cane him!” The case was attended with no farther particulars. Innis facing the Court, and repeating his threats; till at length he was dismissed, and triumphantly walked out of Court, attended by most of his friends, who had shared the honors of the preceding night.
I can’t help but think the punch being served at that party had a significant alcohol content.

And let’s think about how the events of that night were first reported, in one of the Williamsburg newspapers:
On Monday the 22d instant a very elegant entertainment was given at the Raleigh tavern by the inhabitants of this city, to celebrate the anniversary of that date which gave birth to GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON, Commander in Chief of the United States, the saviour of his country, and the brave asserter of the rights and liberties of mankind.
Given the private recounting by a participant, that newspaper item looks like an attempt to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

Finally, let’s think of how Gen. Washington would have reacted if he’d heard the story of this behavior in his honor. Wouldn’t he have been proud?

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