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 27, 2016

“It would mortify Mr. Adams and please Mr. Washington”

The Philadelphia Dancing Assembly planned to honor George Washington’s birthday with a ball on 22 Feb 1798, but then elections were scheduled on that Thursday. So the group postponed their event for a day.

Meanwhile, President John Adams had declined his invitation. On 23 February, the Aurora General Advertiser published that response with some editorial commentary about Adams’s “impolite & arrogant terms.” Its printer, Benjamin Franklin Bache, wrote sarcastically that he did not expect “that the president of the U. States would so far forget the dignity of his station as to mingle with shop keepers.”

Adams had privately written that one problem with such birthday balls was “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.” So each side was accusing the other of being elitist.

The dispute also had a personal dimension. Eliza Custis Law, Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, was in Philadelphia that month, urging all gentlemen to attend the birthday ball. The Federalists would normally have been happy to do so, but now that seemed disloyal to President Adams. Meanwhile, their Jeffersonian rivals were for once all about having a big party for Washington.

On the evening after the ball, the Swiss-born businessman Albert Gallatin (shown here) wrote to his wife about the situation:
Do you want to know the fashionable news of the day? The President of the United States has written, in answer to the managers of the ball in honor of G. Washington’s birthday, that he took the earliest opportunity of informing them that he declined going.

The court is in a prodigious uproar about that important event. The ministers and their wives do not know how to act upon the occasion; the friends of the old court say it is dreadful, a monstrous insult to the late President; the officers and office-seekers try to apologize for Mr. Adams by insisting that he feels conscientious scruples against going to places of that description, but it is proven against him that he used to go when Vice-President.

How they will finally settle it I do not know; but to come to my own share of the business. A most powerful battery was opened against me to induce me to go to the said ball; it would be remarked; it would look well; it would show that we democrats, and I specially, felt no reluctance in showing my respect to the person of Mr. Washington, but that our objections to levees and to birthday balls applied only to its being a Presidential, anti-republican establishment, and that we were only afraid of its being made a precedent; and then it would mortify Mr. Adams and please Mr. Washington.

All those arguments will appear very weak to you when on paper, but they were urged by a fine lady, by Mrs. Law, and when supported by her handsome black eyes they appeared very formidable. Yet I resisted and came off conqueror, although I was, as a reward, to lead her in the room, to dance with her, &c.; all which, by the by, were additional reasons for my staying at home. Our club have given me great credit for my firmness, and we have agreed that two or three of us who are accustomed to go to these places, [John] Langdon, [Richard] Brent, &c., will go this time to please the Law family.
Gallatin was pleased to have won the respect of his Jeffersonian colleagues, but he seems to have been equally eager to gain credit from his wife for resisting Law’s “handsome black eyes.”

The young, first-term Massachusetts Congressman Harrison Gray Otis explained the Federalist side of the controversy to his wife:
The Birth night ball of last evening was I am told respectably attended, tho by no means equal in splendour & numbers to the last. . . . The President did not attend, & his refusal has given considerable offence, even to some of the federal party.

To be sure his apology was rather formal, but I think he acted rightly upon principle. As President, he ought to know of no distinction among private citizens, whatever may be their merit or virtue; & having never received from the Philadelphians, the slightest mark of attention, he was in my mind quite excusable for declining to be the pageant, to do honor to another.

Many families who usually increase the flutter of the beau monde were absent. The Morrisites of course. The Binghams who have lately lost a relation, & the Chews on account of a Mrs. Pemberton who died last Sunday; I am told too that the whole house was very damp and believe I have not lost much.
Abigail Adams declared that by leaking her husband’s note the Jeffersonians had “defeated their own plans. as soon as it was known, it went through the city like an Electrical shock—and the Ball was meager enough, so much so, that tho it was by subscription I have heard but 15 Ladies were present.”

TOMORROW: What Jefferson himself thought of this all.

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