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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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Celebrating the President’s Birthday One Last Time

On 22 Feb 1797, Philadelphia celebrated George Washington’s last birthday as President. He had declined to serve another term in the office. After the U.S. of A.’s first partisan election, Vice President John Adams had been elected in his place.

Washington furnished the Dancing Assembly of Philadelphia with this toast:
May the members thereof and the Fair who honor it with their presence long continue in the enjoyment of an amusement so innocent and agreeable.
(Well, the Fitzpatrick edition of Washington’s writings assigned that toast to that year. It may have been earlier.)

On 24 February, John wrote home to his wife Abigail, “The Birthday was affecting and the Night Splendid but tedious to those who were too old to dance.” Which no doubt included himself—though Washington, who enjoyed dancing, was older.

On 4 March, Adams became President. Almost immediately he began to tell people he didn’t want people to make such a big fuss about him. For example, six days later he wrote to Thomas Welsh:
The noisy Clamorous praises are not my object. If they come they will come unsolicited and unwished for, nay deprecated, Birth Night Balls and City dinners would be to me the most humiliating thing in the world, the Votes of Lancaster and York in Pennsylvania have to me a divine Charm than all the treats and Shows that Ever Existed, If any of them are bestowed on me it will be much against the inclination of your friend


You must keep these things in perfect Confidence.
And the day after that he wrote to Abigail about the inaugural ceremony and similar celebrations:
The Feast that Succeeded was one of those Things which are not to my Taste. I am glad you went—I went too. —But those Things give offence to the plain People of our Country, upon whose Friendship I have always depended. They are practised by the Elegant and the rich for their own Ends, which are not always the best. If I could have my Wish there should never be a Show or a feast made for the P. while I hold the office.—My Birth day happens when Congress will never Sit: so that I hope it will never be talked of. These are hints entre nous
Though Adams felt strongly about this issue, he wanted his disapproval to remain private. He might have feared that the people who had organized past ceremonies and Washington himself would feel slighted if they knew.

But the message must have gotten through because when 30 Oct 1797 came around there was no ball to celebrate President Adams’s birthday in Philadelphia.

TOMORROW: Traditions are hard to kill.

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