But in 1798 John Adams was President, and he didn’t think such birthday celebrations were appropriate for a republic. So that February passed quietly, right?
Nope. Americans went on celebrating Washington’s birthday in many ways, as if he were the most important and respected person in the country or something.
Among those celebrants was Susanna Rowson, born in Portsmouth, England, and raised in Hull. After publishing the blockbuster novel Charlotte Temple, she had gone on the stage as an actress and playwright. She made the Federal Street Theatre in Boston her base in 1796, but that business failed the next year. After a brief tour to Rhode Island, Rowson decided to change professions again and start a school for girls.
Thus, it was as a respectable Boston schoolmistress that Susanna Rowson published her “Song. Written for the Celebration of the Birth Day of George Washington, Esq., and Sung on That Occasion, in Boston, February 11th, 1798.” That was the date on the calendar when Washington was born. He’d taken to celebrating the equivalent on the Gregorian calendar, 22 February, but not everyone followed suit.
The song went:
WHEN rising from ocean Columbia appear’d,Rowson had written those words to the well-known air “Anacreon in Heaven”—which we’re more familiar with as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
MINERVA to JOVE, humbly kneeling, requested
That she, as its patroness, might be rever’d,
And the pow’r to protect it, in her be invested.
Jove nodded assent, pleasure glow’d in her breast,
As rising, the goddess: her will thus exprest
“The sons of Columbia forever shall be
From oppression secure, and from anarchy free.”
Rapture flash’d through the spheres as the mandate went forth,
When MARS and APOLLO, together uniting,
Cried, Sister, thy sons shall be fam’d for their worth,
Their wisdom in peace, and their valour in fighting;
Besides, from among them a chief shall arise,
As a soldier, or statesman, undaunted and wise;
Who would shed his best blood, that Columbia might be,
From oppression secure, and from anarchy free.
Jove, pleas’d with the prospect, majestic arose,
And said, “By ourself, they shall not be neglected;
But ever secure, tho’ surrounded by foes,
By WASHINGTON bravely upheld and protected.
And while Peace and Plenty preside o’er their plains,
While mem’ry exists, or while gratitude reigns,
His name ever lov’d, and remember’d shall be,
While Columbians remain INDEPENDENT and FREE.”
COMING UP: Meanwhile, in Philadelphia…