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, October 29, 2016

“The birthday of our beloved President John Adams”

After the controversy over celebrating George Washington’s birthday in February 1798, President John Adams reconciled himself to such ceremonies. Indeed, we’re still celebrating the first President’s birthday today, in a way.

But Adams’s Federalist supporters also appear to have stepped up their efforts to celebrate his own birthday, so long as he was in office. (This whole series of postings started with me wondering whether the U.S. of A. celebrated President Adams’s birthday the way it celebrated President Washington’s, and before him King George’s. And the answer is yes, in a way.)

Balls and banquets weren’t to Adams’s taste, of course. The preferred method of honoring him, particularly during the Quasi-War of the late 1790s, became a militia parade. The Columbian Mirror and Alexandria Gazette reported on a ceremony in Alexandria, Virginia, on 30 Oct 1798:
Tuesday last, being the anniversary of the birthday of our beloved President John Adams, was observed in this town with military honors. The uniform companies of Militia, and the company of Silver Grays, went through a variety of maneuvers and evolutions, under the command of George Deneale. After firing several rounds in evidence of their attachment to this good man, as well as to shew that they approbated his conduct towards the insidious French Directory, they retired in the evening with the utmost decorum and harmony.
Even then, however, Adams’s predecessor hovered over the ceremony. Martha Washington presented a banner (regrettably incomplete) to the company. On it, “The Golden Eagle of America has a portrait of General Washington suspended from its beak.”

And of course Washington’s birthday balls continued. On 20 February 1799, Abigail Adams wrote from Quincy:
I have received an invitation to the Ball in honour of Gen’ll. Washington but my health is so precarious, and sufferd such a Shock last Summer, that I am obliged to be very circumspect and cautious in all my movements. Thomas will go, and that will be sufficient.
Thomas was the couple’s son Thomas Boylston Adams. He liked balls. In fact, one day after he had arrived in Philadelphia following years in Europe, the President reported to his wife, “This Evening he goes with me to the Ball. I had rather spend it with him at home.”

But now President Adams knew what he had to do to maintain party unity. On 22 Feb 1799, Washington’s birthday, he wrote home to Abigail:
To night I must go to the Ball: where I Suppose I shall get a cold, and have to eat Gruel for Breakfast for a Week afterwards. This will be no Punishment.
Adams enjoyed gruel more than balls, it seems.

The picture above shows Boston’s celebration of the President’s birthday in October 1799: “The Boston troops, as reviewed on President Adams’s birth day on the Common by his Honr. Lieut. Governor [Moses] Gill & Major Genl. [Simon] Elliot, under the command of Brigadier Genl. [John] Winslow. Also a view of the new State House.” In fact, this is said to be the earliest printed picture of the new Massachusetts State House designed by Charles Bulfinch.

TOMORROW: Mrs. Rowson’s reprise.


Charles Bahne said...

"The earliest printed picture of the new Massachusetts State House"? Look carefully, this engraving dates from 1903. In that era Goodspeed's print shop was creating and selling a lot of re-engravings of historic Boston scenes. From the info provided, one can't tell whether the earlier original was another engraving, or if it was in another medium. Quite possibly there was an original engraving made in 1799 or soon afterwards, but this isn't it -- it's a copy at best. Or maybe this is a copy of a watercolor or pencil drawing.

Charles Bahne said...

Additional info in the BPL Flickr metadata: "Originally published January 1800 in the 'Columbian Phenix [sic] and Boston Review.'" So this is a 1903 copy of that 1800 engraving.