TOPICS: Eighteenth-Century Life, Founding Era Politics, George Washington, GW’s Views, Revolutionary War, Washington’s Presidency
by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
May 14, 2018
Parades, feasts, and festivals were, in the words of historian Simon Newman, “essential components of early national popular political culture.” In the late eighteenth century, these activities allowed regular Americans to participate in politics to a greater extent than ever before. 1 In the nineteenth century, the public pageantry of parades became a more official and hierarchical (and more white and male) component of political party organization. However, in the 1780s and 1790s, participation in public political celebrations usually included a broad and diverse collection of citizens.
As a military leader, the hero of the American Revolution, and the first president of the United States, George Washington participated in and was honored by many parades during the later years of his life. Over the course of his long and intimate experience with these celebratory events, Washington developed a somewhat conflicted view of their value and meaning.
As a military officer, Washington appreciated the morale-boosting effects parades could have among his troops. In 1783, with peace negotiations to end the Revolution underway, Washington was confronted with the challenge of keeping his army orderly and prepared to fight, despite the unlikelihood of actual battle. He thought a parade was a good way to accomplish this since it would “turn their duty into an Amusement, by awakening again the spirit of emulation and love of Military Parade and glory, which was so conspicuous” in the aftermath of the Yorktown campaign.2
Washington’s feelings about parades were at least partly altered by his ascension to the presidency and his apprehensions about his ability to meet the demands of the office and the expectations of his countrymen. Washington found the exuberant celebration of his arrival in New York City, en route to his inauguration, particularly disconcerting. He described the scene and his reaction in his diary:
The display of boats which attended and joined us on this occasion, some with vocal and some with instrumental music on board; the decorations of the ship, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people which rent the skies, as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of the scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.3
It turned out that Washington’s apprehensions were well founded. Parades and other public demonstrations became a significant form of political protest for the Democratic-Republicans who opposed many of his administration’s policies. Washington often worked to avoid even the celebrations held in his honor as he traveled the U.S., frequently departing the towns he visited well before dawn in order to avoid the crowds that would frequently gather to see him off.
Nevertheless, Washington remained convinced that public pageantry was an important form of civic expression, and he never publicly protested parades or other ceremonies. Some of Washington’s descriptions of the military pageantry in his honor are the best examples we have of his wry and restrained wit. Visiting Stratford, Conn., on his northern tour in 1789, Washington reported that he was “received with an effort of a Military parade.”4 At Tarborough (Tarboro), N.C., on his southern tour in 1791, Washington got what he considered “as good a salute as could be given with one piece of artillery.”5 For Washington, the value of these displays was “not to be received with parade and an ostentatious display of opulence,” but for “a nobler purpose—To see with my own eyes the situation of the Country, and to learn on the spot the condition and disposition of our Citizens.”6
1. Simon Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, 1997), 4.
2. “From George Washington to William Heath, Feb. 5, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10571.
3. “Diary entry: April 23, 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0001-0002. Also available in print: Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 1 July 1786 – 31 December 1789 (Charlottesville, Va., 1979), 5:447–48.
4. “Diary entry: Oct. 17, 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0017. Also available in print: Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 1 July 1786 – 31 December 1789 (Charlottesville, Va., 1979), 5:463–66.
5. “Diary entry: April 18, 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0002-0003-0012. Also available in print: Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, 1 July 1786 – 31 December 1789 (Charlottesville, Va., 1979), 6:114–15.
6. “From George Washington to Alexander Martin, Nov. 14, 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0108. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 9:191–92.