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 28, 2016

Mr. Jefferson’s Respects on the President’s Birthday

Amid the controversy over the birthday ball for George Washington in Philadelphia in 1798, Abigail Adams wrote home to a relative:
I have heard that there is a design to shift this matter off upon the Vice President, but in Justice to him, he had no hand in it further than to subscribe to it, being told that the President would certainly attend. when he found that he would not go, he refused also, this I am sure of so that let no more be laid upon him than he deserves.
Thomas Jefferson had indeed bought a ticket to support the ball on 2 February. That suggests the Vice President had early word of the event. The organizers didn’t send an invitation to President John Adams for another ten days.

Furthermore, on 15 February Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison from Philadelphia about the celebration and its political implications:
A great ball is to be given here on the 22d. and in other great towns of the Union. This is at least very indelicate, & probably excites uneasy sensations in some. I see in it however this useful deduction, that the birthdays which have been kept have been, not those of the President, but of the General.
As a republican, Jefferson viewed balls honoring officeholders on their birthdays as monarchical. But he was ready to make an exception for one that tweaked his rival.

By the day of the ball, it had blown up into a big controversy of both politics and politesse. Jefferson ducked out of attending with a note to one of the organizers:
Th: Jefferson presents his respects to mr Willing, and other gentlemen managers of the ball of this evening. he hopes his non-attendance will not be misconstrued. he has not been at a ball these twenty years, nor for a long time permitted himself to go to any entertainments of the evening, from motives of attention to health. on these grounds he excused to Genl. Washington when living in the city his not going to his birthnights, to mrs Washington not attending her evenings, to mrs Adams the same, and to all his friends who have been so good as to invite him to tea- & card parties, the declining to go to them. it is an indulgence which his age and habits will he hopes obtain and continue to him. he has always testified his homage to the occasion by his subscription to it.
From his safe distance, Jefferson seems to have rather enjoyed the turmoil. He wrote again to Madison on 2 March:
The late birthnight has certainly sown tares among the exclusive federals. It has winnowed the grain from the chaff. The sincerely Adamites did not go. The Washingtonians went religiously, & took the secession of the others in high dudgeon. The one sex threaten to desert the levees, the other the evening-parties. The whigs went in number, to encourage the idea that the birthnights hitherto kept had been for the General & not the President, and of course that time would bring an end to them. [Benjamin] Goodhue, [Nathaniel?] Tracy, [Theodore] Sedgwick &c did not attend: but the three Secretaries & Attorney General [Charles Lee] did.
Abigail Adams’s assessment of the event was based on the small number of ladies she heard had attended. Jefferson gave more attention to how President Adams’s Cabinet—which included Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of War James McHenry, and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr.—was acting more loyal to Washington than to him. Which was indeed a problem.

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