Saturday, July 2, 2011

How Did George Washington Celebrate the Fourth? (Hint: He Didn't Bore His Friends.)

A silhouette, made of George Washington near the end of his life, available in the George Washington papers in the Library of Congress.

On a weekend we spend cruising air conditioned malls, eating greasy food, and driving our gas guzzlers to grandma's house, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the diaries of George Washington, to see how this wise farmer, general, and first President of the United States celebrated America's Independence. I had discovered them once before for a book I was writing on American holidays.

Washington kept diaries all his life. With the blessings of the Internet, these diaries are now available to all of us through the Library of Congress.

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787--eleven years after the Declaration of Independence--George Washington notes that the Convention takes a break to mark America's Independence Day:

"Wednesday 4th. [1787]  Visited Doctr. Shovats Anatomical figures and (the Convention having adjourned for the purpose) went to hear an Oration on the anniversary of independence delivered by a Mr. Mitchell, a student of Law--After which I dined with the State Society of the Cincinnati at Epplees Tavern and drank Tea at Mr. Powells."

Dr. Abraham Chovats (spelling in George Washington's day was often varied as was capitalization and punctuation) was an eccentric scientist of the period who had a traveling exhibit of wax anatomical figures that were of sort of "cabinet of curiosities" of their day. Chovats later became a well-known Philadelphia physician.

The Society of the Cincinnati is an organization, which still exists today, founded by those who had fought in the American Revolution, designed to foster the ideals for which they had all sacrificed so much.  Not surprising that Washington would want to celebrate America's independence with his fellow revolutionaries.  He served as the organization's president until his death in 1799.

Epple's tavern was The Sign of the Rainbow, a popular Philadelphia watering hole on Sassafras Street, run by Henry Epple, a former American army officer.

Vintage postcard featuring the years of George Washington's birth and death.

The next year, 1788, George Washington went back to farming, and his diary on the 4th is full of details of his crops and the weather:

"Being interrupted by the dripping Rains, the binders fell a good way behind the cradlers, but when the State of the grain would permit they returnd to this Work. The Cradlers (4, Jack having cut himself) would nearly finish the Rye this Evening." Washington made his living from his plantation, so the binding and cradling of the grain and the rye was part of a farmer's business. 

The only political/social event noted on that Fourth of July is later in the day.  James Madison visits Mount Vernon returning from the Virginia Ratifying Convention on his way back to New York. Washington asks him to stay, have dinner, and rest a few days. "Moderate exercise, and books occasionally, with the mind unbent, will be your best restoratives," he tells Madison.

In 1797, Washington himself is in New York for the Fourth. He's been elected the first President of the United States, and New York is its first capitol.

"Sunday [1797] 4th. Went to Trinity Church in the forenoon.  This day being the Anniversary of the declaration of Independency the celebration was put of until to morrow.

Monday 5th. The Members of Senate, House of Representatives, Public Officers, Foreign Characters [etc.] The Members of the Cincinnati, Officers of the Militia, [etc] came with the compliments of the day to me. About One Oclk. a sensible Oration was delivered in St. Pauls Chapel by Mr. Brockholst Levingston on the occasion of the day--the tendency of which was, to shew the different situation we are now in, under an excellent government of our own choice, to what it would have been if we had not succeeded in our opposition to the attempts of Great Britain to enslave us; and how much we ought to cherish the blessings which are within our reach & cultivate the seeds of harmony & unanimity in all our public Councils. There were several other points touched upon in a sensible manner. In the afternoon many Gentlemen [and] ladies visited Mrs. Washington."

Martha Washington silhouette from the 1790s.

Phrases from this last entry jump from the page: " ... under an excellent government of our own choice." How rare this was in 1787. How rare it remains. Ask them in Libya. Ask them in Syria.

"... how much we ought to cherish the blessings which are now within our reach ... " Indeed we ought. Always and forever.

" ... to cultivate the seeds of harmony and unanimity in all our public Councils." We can but try.

On this Fourth, I pray we'll pause to remind ourselves of the greatness and courage that led us here.  And celebrate.  We are so very lucky.

P.S.  I forgot to mention the best part of the diary revelations from GW's Fourth of July celebrations.  He never once gives a speech.  At all the mentioned events, he listens to the speeches of others.  No wonder he was so popular.

For more on the diaries of George Washington visit the site at the Library of Congress:
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