Revolutionary War Historical Article

History of the Celebration of George Washington's Birthday

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the February 2000 Edition of the Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter


The celebration of birthdays is an ancient practice for western civilization. The earliest records indicate that family members gathered to protect the person whose birthday it was.  They believed that a person was the most vulnerable from the evil spirits on their birthday.  By gathering, the evil spirits could be kept at bay.  Later, as Christianity spread, these superstitious beliefs were abandoned, but the practice of celebrating birthdays remained.

For the British Empire, one of the social events of each year was the King's or Queen's birthday.  This uniquely British tradition appears to have started with the famed "Trooping of the Colours" in 1661,(1) then promptly crossed the Atlantic with the early colonists.

On the 4th of July 1776, the Continental Congress declared our independence from England.  This historic action made the celebration of King George III’s birthday an act of treason for the colonists - hence a favorite holiday was eliminated.  It wasn't long before the enterprising Americans found a substitute!  The Commander-in-Chief of the American Army - George Washington!

The first record we have of a public ceremony celebrating Washington's birthday occurred at Valley Forge.  Captain Caleb Gibbs, Commandant of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, made an entry in the 'Daily Headquarters Expense Book' on Washington's birthday for the participation of Colonel Thomas Proctor's 4th Continental Artillery Band.  The band was paid 15 shillings for their services, hence, it had to be for extra duty, beyond what would have been expected of them.(2)

After the victory at Yorktown in October 1781, the public celebrations of his birth began in earnest.  In Richmond, Virginia, his birthday was observed with "utmost demonstrations of joy."  Observations were also held in New York State and Massachusetts.   In Maryland plans were made to make the celebration Permanent.(3)  In February of 1782, the Count de Rochambeau hosted a birthday dinner in honor of General Washington, attended by the senior officers of both the American and French armies.

This is not surprising.  America needed an icon, and it was easy to replace the King with our National Hero.  Physically Washington was ideal for the role.  Benjamin Rush described Washington thusly: "If you do not know General Washington's person, perhaps you will be pleased to hear, that he has so much martial dignity in his deportment, that you would distinguish him to be a General and a Soldier, from among ten thousand people, there is not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side."(4)

By the time Washington became our first President, his birthday celebration rivaled that of the Fourth of July.  For America Washington was our National hero and honoring him was perfectly natural.  The celebrations became increasingly elaborate.  An editorial in the New York Gazette asked  "After the Almighty Author of our existence and happiness, to whom, as a people, are we under the greatest obligation?  I know you will answer ‘to Washington.’"(5)

These celebrations were spectacular to say the least.  Philadelphia, then the Capitol, awoke on Washington's birthday, February 22nd, to the sound of ringing bells and the firing of artillery.  Schools were out, servants given the day off; militia, in their uniforms, strutted through the streets.  At noon, the Artillery paraded to the center of the city and fired yet another salute.  The ships moored along Philadelphia's waterfront displayed all of their flags from their masts, and flags were hung from many of the cities buildings.  During the course of the day, Washington received Congressmen, the Governor, and the entire Pennsylvania Legislature in one group.  The Society of the Cincinnati, holding their annual meeting in Philadelphia marched over to the President's residence, escorted by companies of grenadiers and light infantry and made a format address.  Literally hundreds of citizens trooped past the Presidential house and rendered their respects.  That evening some 1,200 gathered for a banquet and dancing at the Ricket's Amphitheater.  Similar celebrations were held in every city and town in the Country.

But there were some detractors.  The religious ones thought the practice of celebrating a mere mortal man's birthday, in such a fashion, was blasphemy.  One objector, ‘Mary Meanwell, (obviously a pseudonym), in a letter to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal, wrote: "Having read Mr. Bradford's paper on November 21, these words struck me, Washington, the Saviour of his Country.  I tremble and said: ‘Shall we attribute to the arm of flesh, what the Almighty has done for America.’  I respect our great general, but let us not make a God of him!  The first of the ten commandments which forbids idolatry, is now before me. . . ."

Americans were accustomed to drawing from the past to fortify themselves against crisis.  They did this by embracing their cultures most dramatic past experiences, using these traditional beliefs as points of comparison.  Being a religious people it is therefore not surprising that they compared political separation from England to the famed biblical Exodus.  Being ruled by a monarchy was a first hand experience, hence linking the trappings of kingship to their new leader, Washington, was equally understandable.  They knew no other way.  Elaborate celebrations of Washington's birthday were merely the transferal of what had belonged to the kings, to a man most deserving to be honored, our Country's greatest hero.

But to some, the very appearance of a monarchy would lead to the eventual transference of the power from the people to a dictator or another king.  In spite of Washington's very public stand opposing any kind of kingship, the concern was still there.  Among the most notorious of these detractors was Philip Freneau, editor of the National Gazette.  In late 1792, he published a series of critical articles, stating that President Washington's reserve manner betrayed his love of pomp and pageantry and desire for a monarchy.  Edition after edition repeated the same allegations.  Freneau was hopeful of preventing future celebrations of Washington birthday, implying such celebrations were suitable only for kings and America was through with kings.  Freneau wrote in another editorial: "Even Cincinnattus received no adulation of this kind . . . . surely the office [the Presidency] he enjoys is a sufficient testimony of the people's favor, without worshiping him likewise."

After failing to have any impact at all on Washington's birthday celebrations, which was more extravagant then ever, Freneau issued his most vicious attack to date: "The monarchical farce of the birthday was as usual kept, Hitherto the people have passed over the absurdities of levees, and every species of royal pomp and parade, because they were associated with the man of their affections. . . . . ."(6)

Surely, when Washington left office in 1792 he felt the very act of his retiring would put aside these thoughts of his being declared king or dictator.  It is not recorded, but he probably also felt that with the end of his public life, birthday celebrations and the problems they caused him would also end.  He was correct on the former -- the thoughts of America becoming a kingdom stopped, but as for the celebrations of his birthday, he was very wrong.

The birthday celebrations continued unabated.  The former President was invited to attend a ball in honor of his birth, to be held on his birthday, old style, February 11, 1798, at Alexandria.  The townspeople of Alexandria and his neighbors in the Mount Vernon vicinity had not accepted the calendar change.  He also received an invitation to attend a banquet to be held in honor of his birth (new style) on February 22nd.

In spite of snow and slush, the Philadelphia banquet was well attended, but with two notable exceptions, President and Mrs. Adams.  His absence was not unexpected, as the invitation sent to him was immediately returned advising his declination.  His wife, First Lady Abigail, wrote her sister the following letter describing her feelings, and probably those of her husband: "15 February 1798.  These Philadelphians have the least feeling of real genuine politeness of  any people with whom I am acquainted.  As an instance of it, they are about to celebrate, not the Birthday of the first Magistrate of the union as such, but of General Washington's Birthday, and have had the politeness to send invitations to the President, Lady and family to attend it . . . . I do not know when my feelings of contempt have been more called forth,  That the Virginians should celebrate that day is natural and proper if they please, and so may any others who choose.  But the propriety of doing it in the Capitol . . . and inviting the head of the Nation to come and do it too, in my view is ludicrous beyond compare.  I however, bite my lip and say nothing, but I wanted to vent my indignation upon paper."(7) Thomas Jefferson interceded and tried to explain that: "The birthdays which had been kept, have not been those of the President, but of the General."(8)  But it appears that had little affect on Abigail, as she wrote several more letters after Jefferson's attempt to soothe the ruffled feelings.

The conversion from the old calendar to the new was also a problem.  Washington's birthday was moved from February 11th to February 22nd.  This apparently caused a great deal of confusion throughout his lifetime.  Frequently one finds dates shown with (n.s.) or (o.s.) after it, denoting it as either new style or old style.

During his career as a public official and after his retirement to Mount Vernon, Washington appears to have celebrated his birthday on either date.

On February 14th 1790, Tobias Lear, Washington's faithful private secretary, responded to a letter of inquiry by writing: "In reply to your wish to know the President’s birthday it will be sufficient to observe that it is on the 11th of February, Old Style; but the Almanac makers have generally set down opposite to the 22nd day of February of the present style; how far that may go towards establishing it on that day I don't know; but I could never consider it any other way than as stealing so many days from his valuable life as is the difference between the old and new styles.  With sincere esteem, etc. Tobias Lear"

Washington appears to have accepted the new style date in the last years of his life.  On February 6, l799, he wrote John Trumbull and mentioned that his granddaughter, Nelly Custis was marrying Lewis, his nephew on his birthday, the 22nd, instant.

George Washington's birthday continued as a national holiday for 183 years after his death, until our generation saw fit to remove it in favor of "President's Day," thus disregarding almost two centuries of tradition.  Some patriotic Americans still celebrate his birth, as the Sons of Liberty Chapter here in Southern California do with the annual George Washington Commemorative Massing of the Colors and also with a George Washington Birthday Ball.

Others, such as Virginia’s Senator, and SAR Compatriot John W. Warner, continue the effort to force Congress to recognize the importance of Washington's birth, by sponsoring bills to correct this injustice.(9)

His bill, in part, states: " . . . President Washington deserves to be distinguished from other Presidents.  Federal law recognizes this deserved distinction in that President Washington's birthday is the only President's birthday recognized as a federal holiday.   However, because this holiday is all too often misconceived as 'President's Day,' this legislation is necessary to reestablish that the federal holiday is in fact 'Washington's Birthday.'   This legislation would achieve this objective by simply requiring all entities and officials of the United States Government, as well as federally funded publications, to refer to this day as 'Washington's Birthday.'  This bill in no way infringes on the right of any State or local government to recognize a 'President's Day' or any other holiday. . ."
 

REFERENCES:

1. "The Guards" by: John de St. Jorre (1981) page 246.

2. "The American Book of Days" by: Jane M. Hatch (1978) page 129.

3. "The Washington Papers" letter from the Count de Rochambeau to George Washington, February 11, 1782 - Library of Congress.

4. "Personal Recollections of the America Revolution" by: Lydia M. Post (1968) page 228.

5. "The New York Gazette" February 11, 1784 edition.

6. "The National Gazette"  February 2, 1793 and March 2, 1793 editions.

7. "Abigail Adams Papers" - Library of Congress.

8. "Letters of Thomas Jefferson"  Paul F. Ford, editor, (1892-1899) Letter of February 13, 1798 from Jefferson to James Madison.

9. Statement on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions - May 6, 1999 - Senator John W. Warner.

Back to Index of Articles on George Washington

Back to Historical Archives

link to aboutus

1