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, February 22, 2014

Washington’s Birthday Observed in Virginia

Around about Washington’s Birthday in 2013, Boston 1775 ran a few postings that were, well, about Washington’s Birthday. They quoted descriptions of celebrations from the middle of the Revolutionary War, the earliest in 1779 in Milton.

All those celebrations took place on 11 February, which was the date on the British calendar when George Washington was born. However, by the end of the century, with some prodding from his secretary Tobias Lear, most Americans had switched to celebrating on 22 February, that same day’s date on the Gregorian calendar. The British Empire had made the shift when Washington was a young man.

An old newspaper clipping quoting Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman mentioned another celebration of Washington’s birthday in 1779, this one on 22 February, eleven days later. I wondered if that date was solid or had simply been attached to accord with later tradition. Colonial Williamsburg historian Taylor Stoermer found me the contemporaneous article in Dixon and Nicolson’s Virginia Gazette:
WILLIAMSBURG, February 26.

On Monday the 22d instant [i.e., of this month] a very elegant entertainment was given at the Raleigh tavern by the inhabitants of this city, to celebrate the anniversary of that date which gave birth to GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON, Commander in Chief of the United States, the saviour of his country, and the brave asserter of the rights and liberties of mankind.
Thus, in early 1779 Americans in Massachusetts and Virginia were both starting to celebrate Gen. Washington’s birthday publicly (as they had previously celebrated the king’s birthday). But they hadn’t settled on the proper date. Eventually the Virginia position won out.

TOMORROW: What happened in Williamsburg that night.

[The photo above shows Colonial Williamsburg’s rebuilt Raleigh Tavern.]

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