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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Thursday, October 20, 2016

“The Birth Day has been celebrated very sufficiently”

Boston 1775 has already explored the early American celebrations of George Washington’s birthday: when the first public ceremonies were reported, what date people chose to celebrate given the shift from Julian to Gregorian calendar since Washington’s birth, and what such celebrations meant for masculinity in Virginia.

When Washington became President, that birthday celebration turned into something very close to a national holiday. On 23 Feb 1796, John Adams reported to Abigail about the previous day’s observation in Philadelphia:
Yesterday was Birth Day and a Parade there was. At Night a magnificent Ball which you will read in the News Papers. A thousand People in a vast Room a Circle of 80 feet Diameter.
On 3 March he added an observation about the celebrations in Massachusetts; he had read about the preparations for them in a newspaper.
I see that at Boston and Cambridge &c. the Birth Day was celebrated with great Splendor as it was here. The old song is verified as I always said it would be. “The more he is envied the higher he[’]ll rise.” Increase of abuse will produce an increase of Salutation.
The editors of the Adams Papers identified the source of that quotation as a song published in London in 1788, the last year John and Abigail lived in Britain. It was “an old song” as John wrote, however. It appeared in The Weekly Amusement for 15 Feb 1735 (N.S.), and thus was older than he was. That version concluded: “Let’s merrily pass life’s remainder away; / Upheld by our friends, we our foes may despise; / For the more we are envy’d, the higher we rise.”

On 28 February, meanwhile, Abigail reported from Massachusetts:
you will see by the Centinel that the Presidents Birth Day Was celebrated, with more than usual Festivity in Boston, and many other places. in the Toasts drank, they have for once done justice to the V P. it is a Toast that looks, I conceive to a future contemplated event.
On 5 March she sent John her report from Quincy:
The Honours done to the President on his Birth Day have been very magnificent. At Boston and Cambridge very striking. Here it was all Dance and Glare. I suppose the Remembrance of the V. P. on those occasions considering that for the most part they forget him is with a View to the Reelection approaching.
Abigail expected Washington to be reelected later that year, and John to remain the party’s choice as Vice President, his talents neglected.

But on 9 March, John had some more observations to share:
The Birth Day has been celebrated very sufficiently. I have much doubt of the Propriety of these Celebrations. 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. Probably the Practice will not be continued after another Year.
As John hinted, monarchies celebrated the birthdays of their heads of state. The President’s birthday was an echo of the king’s and queen’s birthdays during British rule, and he wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. The last sentence quoted hints at a bigger change: what John called on 1 March ”the Inclination of the Chief to retire,” though he added that Washington might yet be talked out of that plan.

In late February, Washington had spoken with Alexander Hamilton about drafting what became his Farewell Address. To be sure, they were starting with the draft of a similar statement the President had asked James Madison to draft four years before; Washington had then talked about retiring after one term and changed his mind. But this time, he really meant it. President Washington’s next birthday, in February 1797, would be his last in public office.

TOMORROW: The first transition, and what that meant for birthdays.

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