George Washington’s Birthday: He Spent it Dancing

George Washington having a Ball to celebrate the end of the American Revolution, in an 1889 painting illustration by Jean Leon Germome Ferris.

President Washington cuts it up at his Inaugural Ball in 1789.

It wasn’t the Twist like Jackie Kennedy loved doing, or the Dougie as Michelle Obama has illustrated. It wasn’t the foxtrot that the very large William Howard Taft moved to like a graceful battleship, nor even the frug as President Lyndon B. Johnson shook up one night with his daughter. around the dance floor.

But good ole’ Georgie, he sure loved to dance.

We have stories of George Washington cutting up the parquet during those cold American Revolutionary War nights and even at a ball a month after his 1789 Inauguration, but the Father of Our Country always loved to end his annual birthday party by dancing it up.  At the annual “Birth Night” Ball held in his honor, he was never once late to get that party started. Of course, this was no swim, no bump, no hully-gully, no Charleston. This was George Washington and what else could he have danced to preserve his vaunted dignity but that stiff, formal and affected dance but the Minuet?

Here he goes again; this time it is George Washington dancing as a young man with the lady love he longed for, Sally Fairfax.

As some may know as this Presidents’ Day Weekend begins, at some point after it was made a three-day weekend in 1970, the national holiday’s apostrophe got moved one place to the right and since then, many fear it’s all gone wrong. That is, what began as President’s Day became Presidents Day. What was known and celebrated since his own lifetime as George Washington’s Birthday morphed into a day some now think is meant to honor everyone who served, thus raising the profile of Millard Fillmore & Company.

Alas, alas, you can hear those white-wigged Federalists cluck and tsk, what’s become of our country?

It wouldn’t have stopped George Washington from doing that 1780′s boogie, for sure. In fact, the first records of him dancing go back to his youth. He was always first out on the floor and last to leave it.

We have an eyewitness account of all this from the first President’s First Son – who wasn’t really his own child, but the birth grandson of his wife. George and Martha Washington had no children but she and the President raised the son and daughter of her late son, Nelly Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, as if they were their own children. These children were the first “Presidential Children” and lived in the Presidential Mansion in New York and Philadelphia and have been immortalized in the famous painting by Edward Savage of the first First Family.

There’s George Washington Parke Custis at the far left, Little Wash to friends, Tub to his adoptive Grand Pappa.

George Washington Parke Custis in the only photograph of him, taken as an older man.

Polite friends and family of the President called the boy “Little Wash,” to flatter him and the President, but George Washington used a bit of sarcasm by calling the kid “Tub,” because he was not on;y a spoiled and entitled brat but a bit lazy with schoolwork and exercise and fat. George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter ended up marrying Robert E. Lee, never got over being the “President’s Son,” and never let anyone forget. Not much for work, he lived off his inheritance and painted really awful paintings – many of his dear old “dad.” He did leave us something else, however – the first memoirs by a Presidential “Child.” Published posthumously in October 1857, his book Recollections and Private Memoirs of General Washington provides a first-hand account of how President’s Day Weekend used to be celebrated, back in the day, by the man himself – and the best part of the celebration, the big dance party at night. Here is the direct excerpt:

THE BIRTH NIGHT BALL

George Washington dances with Nelly Custis at his 1777 Birthday Party held at his home Mount Vernon , painting by Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935).

The Birth Night ball was instituted at the close of the Revolutionary War, and its first celebration, we believe, was held in Alexandria. Celebrations of the birth night soon became general in all the towns and cities, the 22d of February, like the 4th of July, being considered a National Festival, while the peculiarity attending the former was, that its parade and ceremonies always closed with the birth night ball. In the larger cities, where public balls were customary, the birth night, in the olden time, as now, was the Gala Assembly of the season, attended by all the beauty and fashion, by the foreign ambassadors, and strangers of distinction at the seat of Government. The first President always attended on the birth night. The etiquette was, not to open the ball until the arrival of him in whose honor it was given; but, so remarkable was the punctuality of Washington in all his engagements, whether for business or pleasure, that he was never waited for a moment in appointments for either. Among the brilliant illustrations of a birth night of five and thirty years ago, the most unique and imposing was the groups of young and beautiful ladies, wearing in their hair bandeaus or scrolls, having embroidered thereon, in language both ancient and modern, the motto of “Live the President.”

The Minuet, (now obsolete) for the graceful and elegant dancing of which Washington was conspicuous, in the vice-regal days of Lord Botetourt in Virginia, declined down after the Revolution. The Commander-in-Chief danced, for his last time, a minuet, in 1781, at the ball given in Fredericksburg*in honor of the French and American officers on their return from the triumphs of York-Town. The last birth night attended by the venerable Chief was in Alexandria, 22d February, 1798. Indeed he always appeared greatly to enjoy the gay and festive scene exhibited at the birth night balls, and usually to remain to a late hour; for, remarkable as he was for reserve, and the dignified gravity inseparable from his nature, Washington ever looked with most kind and favoring eye upon the rational and elegant pleasures of life.”

In case you’re wondering what this might have looked like – looked no further.  Here is none other than George Washington teaching a few young 21st Century missies how to minuet at Mount Vernon:


Categories: Dance, First Families, History, Presidents, The Washingtons

Tags: , , , , , , ,

3 replies »

  1. Thanks, good research! Most 20th century ideas about the minuet come from Victorian reconstructions and romanticization, though. The minuet, although an old dance by the 1790s, was anything but “stiff, formal and affected,” which made Washington’s accomplishments on the dance floor even more remarkable. We do know a lot about the dance from 18th century dance manuals, and unfortunately, the video “colonial dance lesson” here bears no resemblance at all to any actual minuet. Washington did love to dance and the celebration of his birth night was probably the most popular holiday in early America. Here in Philadelphia, where Washington lived for most of his presidency, there were sometimes two or three birthday balls in his honor in the last week of February. Washington, diplomat that he was, attended them all. Cheers!

    • You have no idea how much I appreciate your writing and providing that bit of information – it’s always especially fascinating to me and so revealing of human nature to see how something “very old” was re-interpreted to serve the purposes of a later “old” generation – meaning how the 19th century altered the 18th century minuet. George Washington is so much more of a fascinating person, but the effort to make him relevant and speak to the changing demographic of the US hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful – but I thought that thinking about how much he loved to dance was just one minor detail that could help. I think that with statistics showing an increasing number of American single-parent households that a Washington historian or Mount Vernon might put some considerable effort into defining how the loss of his father when he was 11 years old changed and affected him – and how important a role his older half-brother played as a mentor to him. One great thing about this website is hearing from people with far more specialized knowledge in topics I might touch on – so thanks, I very much appreciate that.

  2. I think I like that ancient photograph of ‘Tub’ most of all. As for making Washington relevant to later generations, I don’t know why the efforts have been so unsuccessful. Was it because he was such an ethical, physical and military giant, and these are things the rest of us can never imagine measuring up to ourselves? Or does he appear stiff because–as I was told in childhood–he had wooden dentures and couldn’t really smile? Or because, as I suspect, the newborn country simply needed a towering figure, a bastion of seriousness and irreproachability, as a kind of cultic personage, in order to survive? Perhaps we’ve made some of his contemporaries, like Benjamin Franklin for example, rather into figures of fun at times so that good old George could remain aloof and stern. But I like your portrayal of him dancing up a storm. A different kind of glimpse of the man, to be sure.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: