Signs of the Times - George Washington and His Birthday
February 2001
Letters to the Editor: George Washington and His Birthday
Search for:


Dear George,

We do have a full explanation of change of Washington's birthday on our website under "Frequently Asked Questions" (see the fifth question).

My quotations are from Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume biography of Washington. In volume 1, the frontispiece shows the family bible page that records:

"George Washington; Son to Augustine & Mary his Wife was born the 11th Day of February 1731/2 about 10 in the Morning & was Baptis'd the 5th of April following."

 George Washington's Birthday at Valley Forge

Mr. Loper:

We don't know much about Washington's birthday, which he celebrated in the new calendar as February 22.

Martha Washington had arrived at Valley Forge on February 5, so she was present.

In the collected "Writings of George Washington," only one outgoing letter is dated February 22, which is a low number for this period. There are ten dated February 21, and three dated February 23.

Washington's expense account can be found on microfilm roll 117, Washington Papers, Library of Congress. This shows an entry on February 27, for one pound and five shillings paid by "GL." on February 22, to Proctor's Band.

 George Washington's Headquarters, Valley Forge, February 11, 2001

Colonel Proctor commanded an artillery regiment, and this was one of the few, perhaps the only, unit to have musicians besides fifers and drummers. In 1779 ten "musicians" are listed in the band, but not what instruments they played.

On February 21, the expense account shows a lot of food purchased including:

14 pounds of butter 18 fowls
4 dozen eggs 2 1/2 bushels of potatoes
1 bushel of turnips 30 cabbages
3 pecks of onions parsnips
3 partridges.

The argument can be made that this was for a birthday feast, but the expense account shows a lot of food purchases on other dates, as Washington had many people at his table.

Lee Boyle (electronic mail, February 14, 2001).

For the change of the date see volume 6, p. 295, note 99. Freeman says that by 1792 Washington had adopted February 22 New Style as his birthday. Certainly it was celebrated on that date in Philadelphia, but for Alexandia's retention of the February 11th date, see volume 7, pages, 492 and 564.

My "nativity" quotation is off a bit. A Republican newspaper the New York Argus mockingly referred in its 6 March 1796 issue to the birthday celebration as a "Political Christmas" (Freeman, 7:343-44).

The Jefferson quotation, which is in Freeman, 7:493, is from Jefferson's letter to Madison of 15 Feb. 1798: "the birthdays which have been kept, have been not those of the President, but of the General."

Dear George,

I found the first quote. [Jefferson] talks about a ball in Philadelphia and other towns [named] for George Washington and states,

"I see in it, however, this useful deduction, that the birth days which have been kept, have been, not those of the President, but of the General."

This quote was from a letter to James Madison dated February 15, 1798. It is in Volume 8 of The Works of Thomas Jefferson edited by Paul Leicester Ford (Federal Edition). New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, p. 370.

Bryan Craig (Research Librarian, Jefferson Library, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., electronic mail, February 9, 2001).

For Abigail Adams's views, see Freeman, 7:493, note 41.

Republican journalist Benjamin Bache, who was one of Washington's bitterest critics, in the Philadlephia Aurora on 20 Feb. 1796, remined his readers that previous birthday celebrations had been so extravagant that it was little wonder that President Washington behave "with all the insolence of an Emperor of Rome." (Freeman, 7:342)

Another point of view was expressed by English traveler Isaac Weld, who said:

"No one town of any importance was there in the whole Union where some meeting did not take place in honor of this day. Yet, singular as it may appear, there are people in the Country . . . who are either so insenisble to his merit, or so totally devoid of every generous sentiment, that they can refuse to join in commendations of those talents to which thye are so much indebted. Indeed, to such a length has this perverse spirit been carried, that I have myself seen numbers of men . . . that have peremptorily refused even to pay him the small compliment of drinking to his health after dinner . . . If their public affairs were regulated by a person sent from heaven, I firmly believe his acts . . . would by many be considered deceitful and flagitious." (From Weld, Travels through the States of North America, pp. 61-62, quoted in Freeman, 7:344).

For a description of a birthday celebration by Washington in 1794, see Freeman, 7: 154-55, n.56.

Best regards,

Phil Chase (electronic mail, February 9, 2001).

Philander D. Chase
Editor in Chief, Papers of George Washington
University of Virginia, Box 400117
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4117
Phone 804-924-3569; FAX 804-982-4529

Comments? Questions? Write me at