“Guns were fired & Bells rung”

Louise North, a colleague and the author of The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston, has provided observations by Mrs. Liston about George Washington for this post and the one following,

Shortly after arriving in New York City from England on May 1, 1796, Henrietta Marchant Liston and her husband Robert, the new British ambassador, hurried off to Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. Mr. Liston was anxious to present his credentials to the Congress before it adjourned. Mrs. Liston was just eager to meet the nation’s President.

Washington has made to himself a name remarkable in Europe, but of peculiar [special] Magic in America. . . . Washingtons appearance & manners struck me extremely. Tall, Majestic & well proportioned, his face at the age of sixty three rather pleasing, particularly when he smiles. In his air & movements, there was a dignity which the general coldness of his address did not lessen; to me he was affable & kind & when we rose to take leave, requested to see us often without ceremony & reserve.

The Listons were in Philadelphia in 1797 for the celebration of President George Washington’s birthday and Mrs. Liston recorded her impressions.

[O]n Wednesday last, the 22nd of Feby. the Presidents Birth day was celebrated with all the splendour the Country could afford, 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 Cincinnatus at his breast in diamonds . . . . I went in about seven oClock to the Presidents Box, from which we had a very compleat view of the Company; the Country dances and cotillions were danced verging from the Centre, which admitted of ten, fifteen couples in each, so that three hundred Persons moved at the same time. The American Ladies dance better than any set of People I ever saw . . . .

This was not the first time that Washington’s birthday had been celebrated by Americans. Charlotte Chambers had attended a similar festivity on February 22, 1795 (see post here). Although held in the nation’s capital, neither occasion was an official federal holiday; that designation did not occur until 1885. However, the government did call for a “solemn Fast with Sermons Orations &c” to be held on February 22, 1800, two months after George Washington’s death.

Quotations are from The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2014) pages 7-8; and from a letter in late February 1797 in the Liston Papers, National Library of Scotland (also on microfilm at the Library of Congress). The unfinished portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (known as the Athenaeum) is jointly owned by The National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington. DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Done in 1796, it is one of the earliest portraits of Washington by Stuart.

posted February 19th, 2015 by Louise, CATEGORIES: Liston, Henrietta Marchant, Philadelphia, Washington, George


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