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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Friday, October 21, 2016

Abigail Adams at a Birthday Ball in Boston

In February 1797, the U.S. of A. made plans to celebrate George Washington’s last birthday as President. Some parts of the country were also eager to celebrate the new President who would take office in March, John Adams.

On 17 February, Abigail Adams received an invitation to a banquet and ball in Boston, along with one for her niece Louisa Catherine Smith. The next day, Abigail asked her daughter Nabby to pick out a new dress cap, “a good one proper for me, not a Girlish one.”

“I presume yu will have a Splnded Birth Day,” Abigail wrote to John in Philadelphia; “there are preparations making in Boston to celebrate it. . . . the Note from the Managers requested me to honour them with my attendance, which they should esteem a particular favour, as it is the last publick honour they can Shew the President. thus circumstanced I have determined to attend.”

The ball took place at the Federal Street Theatre, converted into “a magnificent saloon; sumptuously decorated with tapestry hangings; elegantly illuminated with variegated lamps; and fancifully embellished with festoons of artificial flowers.”

Gov. Samuel Adams didn’t attend, and I doubt anyone expected him to; he’d already expressed his disapproval of Boston’s flowering post-independence social scene. Lt. Gov. Moses Gill was deputed to escort in Mrs. Adams at noon. She reported, “His Honours politeness led him to stay untill he had conducted & Seated me at the Supper table. he however escaped as soon after as he could.”

All in all, however, Abigail was pleased with the event:
I do the Managers but Justice when I say, I never saw an assembly conducted with so much order regularity & propriety, I had every reason to be pleased with the marked respect and attention Shewn me. col [Samuel] Bradford, who is really the Beau Nash of ceremonies even marshalld his company [of Cadets], and like the Garter King at Arms calld them over as they proceeded into the Grand Saloon, hung with the prostrate Pride, of the Nobility of France.

[James] Swan had furnishd them with a compleat set of Gobelin Tapresty, as the Ladies only could be Seated at Table with about 20 or 30 of the principle Gentlemen the rest were requested to retire to the Boxes untill the Ladies had Supped, when they left the Table & took their Seats in the Boxes whilst the Gentlemen Sup’d all was order and Decency about half after one, the company returnd to the Ball Room, and I retired with those who accompanied me to the Ball. most of the rest of company remaind untill 4 oclock. . . .

the Seat assignd to the Lady of the President Elect was Hung with Gobeline Tapestry, and in the center of the Room, conspicuous only for the hanging, on my Right the manager placed the Lady of Judge [John] Lowel. and on my Left the Lady of Judge [Increase] Sumner. Judge [Francis] Dana, but not his Lady was present, when I was conducted into the Ball Room the Band were orderd to play the President March.

the Toast were only 6 in Number. . . . every toast save one made the Saloon resound with an universal Clap and a united huza. that was the vice President Elect, I was sorry it was so cold and faint,
Despite the Adamses’ political differences with Thomas Jefferson, Abigail still considered him a personal friend. She didn’t make her break with him until 1804 when she read James Thomson Callender’s revelations of how Jefferson had orchestrated press attacks on her husband while assuring the couple he did no such thing.

One lady, Abigail said, didn’t have a good time at the ball, feeling “mortified & placed in the back ground. . . . how could she expect any thing else?” That was “Mrs [Dorothy] Scott,” the remarried widow of the late governor John Hancock, no longer wife of the state’s most acclaimed politician.

TOMORROW: What President Adams thought of the Philadelphia ceremonies.

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