Today in History

Today in History: February 22


Portrait of George Washington
George Washington, First President of the United States,
lithograph after a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1828.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

George Washington, the first president of the United States, was born on February 22, 1732. His birthday is celebrated as a federal holiday in the United States along with Abraham Lincoln's birthday on "Washington's Birthday" — the Monday before Washington's birthday and after Lincoln's February 12 birthday.

How do we really know when George Washington was born? Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary and close friend, gave the world a clue. Lear lived with George and Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon, and he helped the Revolutionary War general organize his papers. On February 14, 1790, ] Lear wrote that the president's "birth day" was on the 11th of February Old Style, referring to the Julian Calendar. Washington was born twenty years prior to the 1752 introduction of the Gregorian Calendar (intended to more accurately reflect a solar year). When the Julian Calendar was "corrected" to the Gregorian Calendar, February 11 became February 22.

Tobias Lear's letter
Tobias Lear to Clement Biddle, February 14, 1790.
George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When his father died in 1743, young George was sent to live with relatives first at Ferry Farm and later at Mt. Vernon, the estate of his elder half-brother Lawrence. The first president of the United States was self-educated, privately tutored, and homeschooled by his father and his brother Lawrence for eight years. This constituted his "formal" schooling.

A county surveyor and colonial activist, he later became a delegate to the Continental Congress and was commissioned as commander-in-chief of revolutionary America's armed forces, a position that John Hancock had hoped to assume. George Washington was elected president of the United States in 1789 and reelected in 1792. His expanded remarks, after taking the oath of office in 1793 set a precedent for future presidential inaugural addresses.

Image of text
George Washington's First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years

A copy of Washington's first inaugural address is available in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 where it is accompanied by a transcript of the speech.

Letters were an important form of communication in eighteenth-century America. So important were they that individuals like George Washington kept letterbooks, large bound volumes used to retain copies of incoming and outgoing correspondence. In this letter to the Continental Congress, General Washington reports on the Battle of Brandywine. It is one example of Washington's voluminous correspondence. The introduction to the Index to the George Washington Papers, describes their provenance and publication history.

Tomorrow is Your Excellency's birthday anniversary, I propose to celebrate it, in a great ball which I give on that account.

Letter, comte de Rochambeau to George Washington, February 10, 1782
Quoted in Letter of February 23, 1782, Comte de Rochambeau to George Washington

On February 10, 1782, the comte de Rochambeau wrote Washington of his intention to give a ball the following day to celebrate Washington's birthday. On February 23, 1782, Washington wrote Rochambeau a letter in which he thanked the comte for honoring him in this way.

What kind of dances did the guests enjoy at Washington's birthday ball? To form an idea of the type of dance that was performed during the American colonial period, see the essays on baroque and late eighteenth-century social dance in the special presentation on the history of dance accompanying An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920.

View video clips of dancers performing dance figures typical of this period by browsing the collection's Video Directory.

Guests at Rochambeau's ball would have been familiar with French, Italian, and English masters of social dance. Included in the collection are eighteenth-century dance manuals in these languages, such as Alexis Bacquoy-Guédon's Méthode pour Exercer l'Oreille (1785), Gennaro Magri's Trattato Teorico-prattico di Ballo (1779), and an anonymous English manual, The Gentleman & Lady's Companion (1798). By the 1790s, Americans such as M. J. C. Fraisier and Asa Willcox were publishing their own collections of dances.