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, June 11, 2022

When George Washington “went to the Fire works”

One of the arguments for the importance of the Gaspee incident in the American Revolution is that George Washington attended fireworks in Williamsburg, Virginia, commemorating the second anniversary of the destruction of that Royal Navy schooner.

Or so wrote Shelby Little in her 1929 book George Washington: “he spent 3s.9d. to see the fireworks in celebration of the anniversary of the burning of the Gaspee.” That book was criticized for not having citations for all quotations or statements, just a long list of sources at the back.

Luckily, the Washington Papers and Founders Online make it possible for us to see what Washington recorded about on 10 June 1774 in his terse diary of activities, his weather diary, and his expense notebook:
10. Dined at the Raleigh, & went to the Fire works.

10. Again warm with the Wind in the same place and some appearances of Rain.

10— …By Cash paid for seeing the Fireworks 0. 3. 9
Nothing about the Gaspee. The 10th of June was indeed the anniversary of the destruction of that schooner. It was also, by coincidence, the anniversary of the seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty. But if people in Williamsburg were trying to make a point about the Gaspee with fireworks, I’d expect some public discussion of that issue.

There were three Virginia Gazette newspapers published at that time. The printers reported on the Gaspee controversy in 1772 and 1773, but they didn’t mention it in 1774, much less spotlight the June anniversary. As I wrote last month, American Whigs complained about the Crown’s measures to investigate that event, but they avoided defending or celebrating the attack itself.

In the late spring of 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses wasn’t shying away from controversy. Thomas Jefferson and others proposed a fast day to protest the Boston Port Bill. Gov. Dunmore responded by dissolving the legislature, and the legislators responded by gathering in the Raleigh Tavern on 27 May, pledging to boycott the East India Company, and proposing a Continental Congress. Washington was part of that move (though that same evening he attended a ball for the governor’s wife).

At the end of May, Speaker Peyton Randolph proposed that the Burgesses gather on 1 August, regardless of the governor. That defiant meeting would become the first Virginia Convention. Yet those politicians didn’t list the Gaspee among their grievances.

So what was the purpose of the fireworks Washington paid to see? My first thought was George III’s birthday on 4 June. The Williamsburg newspapers reported on a fireworks display in his honor in New York. But I doubt Virginians would have been a week late for that. (If there were fireworks in Williamsburg around that date, Washington wasn’t in town to see them.)

Finally I looked up Washington’s other references to fireworks in these years:
Novr. 1st [1771]. Dined at Mrs. Dawson’s. Went to the Fireworks in the Afternoon and to the Play at Night.

17 [Jan 1774]— By Club at Mrs Hawkinss—& Fireworks 0.15. 0
Those dates don’t correspond to the king or queen’s birthdays or the anniversary of the king’s coronation. Maybe there were local occasions for them, but Washington didn’t note such purposes. Rather, it looks like every so often taverns hosted fireworks to entertain their guests.

In sum, George Washington paid to see fireworks just because he liked seeing fireworks.

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