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, October 26, 2016

“Celebrating Birth Nights, not of a President, but a Private citizen?”

When we left President John Adams in 1797, he had privately expressed disapproval of the balls that Philadelphians had regularly held on George Washington’s birthday.

“In Countries where Birth is respected and where Authority goes with it, there is congruity enough in such Feast: But in Elective Governments the Question is more doubtful,” Adams wrote; and “those Things give offence to the plain People of our Country.”

As a result, when President Adams’s first birthday in office came on 30 Oct 1797, there was no birthday ball in Philadelphia.

Then February 1798 rolled around. Even in Boston there was another public celebration of Washington—a public dinner with music.

On 12 February the leaders of the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly sent Adams an invitation to the Washington’s birthday ball they had scheduled for the 22nd.

The President quickly responded, in his wife’s words, “that he had received the card of invitation, and took the earliest opportunity to inform them, that he declined accepting it.” That was all he had to say about the subject.

Abigail Adams said more in a private letter to her sister Mary Cranch on 15 February. For the First Lady, whether such a celebration was appropriate in a republic was less important than how it made the second President seem secondary.
These Philadelphians are a strange set of people, making pretensions to give Laws of politeness and propriety to the union. they have the least feeling of real genuine politeness of any people with whom I am acquainted.

as an instance of it, they are about to celebrate, not the Birth day of the first Majestrate of the union as such, but of General Washingtons Birth day, and have had the politeness to send invitations to the President Lady and family to attend it. The President of the united states to attend the celebration of the birth day in his publick Character, of a private Citizen!

for in no other light can General Washington be now considerd, how ever Good how ever great his Character, which no person more respects than his successor, but how could the President appear at their Ball and assembly, but in a secondary Character, when invited there, to be held up in that light by all foreign Nations.

but these people look not beyond their own important selves. I do not know when my feelings of contempt have been more calld forth. . . . that the Virginians should celebrate the day is natural & proper if they please, and so may any others who chuse, but the propriety of doing it in the Capital in the Metropolis of America as these proud Phylidelphians have publickly named it, and inviting the Head of the Nation to come and do it too, in my view is ludicrous beyond compare.

I however bite my Lips, and say nothing, but I wanted to vent my indignation upon paper. you must not however expose it, nor me. it will be call’d pride it will be calld mortification. I despise them both, as it respects myself—but as it respects the Character I hold—I will not knowingly degrade it—
To her son-in-law William Smith, Abigail later added:
In what light would such a step be looked upon by foreign Nations? The President the chief Majestrate of an independant Nation, placing himself in a secondary Character, celebrating Birth Nights, not of a President, but a Private citizen?
However, the organizers of that ball and Washington’s relatives in town were determined to go through with the celebration. And the Adams administration’s rivals were determined to make his response into a political issue.

TOMORROW: Birthday bashing.

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