The second President liked the first President well enough, but he wasn’t all gaga about having The Great One’s birthday celebrated with dance parties, fireworks and parades.
In fact, if any one President would surely take fiendish pleasure in knowing that this three-day holiday weekend has morphed since the 1970s into what is now known as “Presidents Day Weekend” instead of its original intent of a one-day holiday to officially honor George Washington on his birthday, February twenty-second, it would be John Adams.
February twenty-second was officially designated as “Washington’s Birthday” in 1879 by Congress as a day off from work for all federal employees in the capital city, then expanded to all federal workers like postmen, and eventually was a custom adopted by schools and businesses all through the nation.
For nearly a century before that, however, the date that the Father of His Country first appeared on earth was being celebrated, commemorated and solemnized in landlocked hamlets and seaport cities with orations in town squares, firework displays over village greens and parades of marching militia up and down Broadways, Main Streets and Washington Avenues all along the eastern seaboard.
General George Washington emerged as the unifying hero who led the thirteen colonies into fledgling nationhood after defeating British redcoats during the American Revolution for independence from England.
On his birthdays from 1791 to 1797, over the course of his two term presidency, the One and Only was grandly feted at an elegant if crowded annual “Birthnight Ball.”
In large assembly rooms in the capital city of Philadelphia, there were dinners, eloquent speeches, and music for dancing in which He Himself often joined, tho’ wife Martha abstained.
Hosted by the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly, the annual birthday dance parties for the President were a big deal where attendance by Vice President John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, members of the House and Senate was so highly expected as a due honor to the President that it seemed practically mandatory.
So many people wanted in the second year that two separate balls had to be held to accommodate everyone. An account from the Federal Gazette newspaper, excerpted in philadelphiadancehistoryjournal.wordpress.com, added that there was also “a very brilliant concourse of strangers and citizens; the whole exhibiting the rapid growth and advancement of the refined and social pleasures in America.”
As chronicled in inthewordsofwomen.com Henrietta Liston, wife of the British Ambassador the United States described the 1796 Washington Birthday celebration in Philadelphia:
Guns were fired & Bells rung—in the morning the Gentlemen waited on the President, & the Ladies on Mrs. Washington, & were entertained with cake & wine—Ricketts Amphitheater was fitted up & in the Evening a Ball given to about a thousand Persons; the President appeared in the American Uniform, (blue & buff), with the Cross of Cincinatus at his breast in diamonds.. I went in about seven o Clock to the Presidents Box, from which we had a very compleat view of the Company; the Country dances & Cottillions were danced. . . . The American Ladies dance better than any set of People I ever saw. . . . the appearance was very beautiful, many pretty Women & all showing in their dress, cheerful, happy, & gay . . . the President . . . moved a Monarch. . . . at eleven o Clock supper was announced, The President walked alone, his March playing, He was followed by Mrs. Washington handed by the Vice President…the supper tables were very splendid, the President & his Party sat at the centre one. . . . a trumpet sounded, & the Company huzzaed, the President rose drank their healths, & thanked them for the last honor done him. . . . Mr. Liston & I stole away soon after our return to the Ball-room, We extremely entertained, & I tolerably tired, tho’ pleased.
The real man died only two years after retiring from the presidency, but the Washington Birthday Ball caught on in popularity, a new tradition continued by the elite class in large cities from Richmond to Boston.
If the flesh-and-blood One Who Slept Here was no more, the next best thing was having his democratic heirs, the succeeding Presidents suggest the spirit of the man by attending Washington’s Washington Birthday Ball. President John Tyler even hosted an 1843 Washington Birthnight Ball” in the White House.
Eventually, the tradition devolved into President’s crossing the Potomac to place a wreath at the final resting place of The One Who Slept Here, at his estate Mount Vernon.
They did so as ceremonial duty and reverential custom but annual newspaper editorials about the Late Lamented First’s dignity, nobility, honor, dutifulness, industriousness, piety, humility, wisdom and stalwart rationality could wither even the greatest of egos who became chief executives.
Most of all, the one who was two.
Inaugurated in March of 1797, the new President John Adams saw his October birthday come and go without anyone suggesting so much as an ice cream cake. Four months later, when he received an invitation to another dance party honoring the Great One, he fired off a snippy reply: “I have received your polite Invitation to a Ball on Thursday the 22nd inst. & embrace the earliest opportunity to inform you that I decline accepting it.”
That President Adams refused to attend the birthday party for the absent but still-living former President Washington set off the political and social circles of the capital abuzz with disapproval.
Adams was elected President with Thomas Jefferson as his Vice President, and this old personal friend soon to become a political enemy fueled the flames of number two’s jealousy over number one.
Jefferson said that the departing President George Washington “is fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others to hold the bag. Yet, as his departure will mark the moment when the difficulties begin to work, you will see, that they will be ascribed to the new administration.”
Of course, many of those difficulties were due to Jefferson himself.
One principal did bind Adams and Jefferson, however. Both feared that aggrandizing Washington seemed politically dangerously. It was honoring the person as the embodiment of a nation rather than the person who represented the institution of the presidency which is why, Abigail Adams insisted in a letter to her sister, that President Adams was really insulted.
The tradition of celebrating the birthday of a King or Queen in Europe seemed to be transferring itself to the new democracy of the United States, Mrs. Adams insisted. It was a presidential custom that seemed too monarchical.
Of course, the monarchical custom of regal titles was favored by the Adamses.
There was something more personal, so it seems. In the duty to his country during the Revolution and after, Adams had placed his personal finances at great risk and spent years in Europe apart from his family.
In didactically arguing relevant matters on the creation of a new government, Adams couldn’t help being irritable and belligerent and sarcastic to the point of being unpleasant. And people didn’t like him because of that.
He was physically unimpressive, short, fat and bald. He was relatively poor. He was from cold Massachusetts. He talked a lot. He With all his military power, however, it was Washington who was unanimously made the first President, while Adams got what he described as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
Eight years after George Washington died and seven years after he lost his presidential re-election campaign to Jefferson, John Adams wrote a biting letter to friend, sarcastically listing the Great One’s top ten talents:
“Talents? you will say, what Talents? I answer. 1. An handsome Face. 2. A tall Stature… 3. An elegant Form. 4. graceful Attitudes and Movement. 5. a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate… 6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents…The Philadelphians and New Yorkers who are local and partial enough to themselves are meek and modest in comparison with Virginian Old Dominionisms Washington of course was extolled without bounds. 7. Washington was preceeded by favourable Anecdotes. 8. He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents. 9. He had great Self Command. It cost him a great Exertion Sometimes, and a constant Constraint, but to preserve So much Equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity. 10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World.”
So what would John Adams have thought about today?
In June of 1968, when Congress created the three-day weekend by designating the third Monday in February as a federal holiday in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, it also came close to officially changing the name of it from “Washington’s Birthday” to “Presidents’ Day,” to specifically honor Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is ten days before the First One. But it didn’t.
There was also an effort begun in 1951 to create a very different holiday called “Presidents Day” intended to honor the office of the chief executive and not any one President. That never passed either.
In fact, there is no Presidents’ Day. It is still Washington’s Birthday. At least according to the federal government. The states, as always, have their own ideas on this. And, of course, they have a state’s right to their own ideas. About twelve states have changed the name of “Washington’s Birthday” to “Presidents’ Day,” at least within their borders.
Nine years after Lincoln was assassinated, Congress began getting petitioned to make his birthday a federal holiday too. It never happened but Illinois, Connecticut, New York and Missouri commemorate him on “Presidents’ Day.”
As the home state of the first Confederate States of America capital city, Alabama decidedly does not intend to honor the Great Emancipator on its Presidents’ Day but rather designates Thomas Jefferson, that other tall Virginian President who owned slaves.
And while the complete misunderstanding of the holiday which isn’t really “Presidents Day” is mistakenly believed to be honoring all forty-three men who served in that office, at least John Adams can take some comfort in the fact that on May 29 in his beloved Commonwealth of Massachusetts there is an entirely special “Presidents’ Day” set aside to honor the Presidents who called the Bay State home.
Granted it is on the birthday of John F. Kennedy, yet another President other than himself, but at least John Adams only has to share it with three other Presidents, one of whom is his son (the other being Coolidge).
But then, there is an even greater irony in the actions of that august body of legislation, the almighty wise Congress who John Adams railed with rage against in his day.
In yet another shining example of their wisdom with mathematics, when the U.S. Congress officially declared that “Washington’s Birthday” would henceforth be held on the third weekend each year in February, they failed to realize that this would forever mean the holiday would take place as early as February fifteenth and as late as February twenty-first.
Which means that Washington’s Birthday will never again actually occur on Washington’s Birthday.