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Robert McNamara

Newspaper Sunday: Washington's Birthday

By February 17, 2013

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No American was more venerated in the 19th century than George Washington, who had died at Mount Vernon in December 1799. Washington's birthday, February 22, became a day of patriotic reflection and was typically marked by parades, speeches, dinners, and other commemorations.

Reports of Washington's birthday festivities located in newspaper archives provide some flavor of the times.

Note: The links below lead to excerpts of newspaper articles at the Chronicling America site of the Library of Congress. To view the entire page of the newspaper, click the "persistent link" on the excerpt page.

  • New York Tribune, February 24, 1842: Massachusetts congressman Leverett Saltonstall addressed the House of Representatives on Washington's birthday: "There were but two great anniversaries in our country, the birthday of the Nation, and the other of him to whom we are indebted more than to any other individual for the liberty and security of the country..."
  • New York Tribune, February 24, 1843: Bad weather could not stop the patriotic pageantry in New York City. "In the face of wind and sleet," the military "paraded in strong force."
  • New York Tribune, February 24, 1844: Politicians typically sought to associate themselves with Washington. In 1844 one of the great American political figures, Henry Clay, who would run for president later that year, issued his thoughts on Washington to coincide with birthday celebrations.
  • New York Tribune, February 21, 1863: Washington's birthday could also be problematic for politicians. In 1861 a "disjointed parade" in Washington was blamed on the "muddling" of President James Buchanan.
  • New York Tribune, February 23, 1863: At the height of the Civil War, 150 years ago this month, Washington's birthday fell on a Sunday. In New York City the patriotic celebrations were thus spread over several days.
  • Washington National Republican, February 24, 1863: A pro-Lincoln paper in Washington published a dispatch from Nashville, Tennessee. Enthusiastic celebrations for Washington's birthday were said to demonstrate the city's loyalty to the Union.
  • Washington National Republican, February 22, 1876: "National Ingratitude," was a harsh front-page headline in the country's centennial year. A Washington newspaper skewered the government for letting the Washington Monument remain an unfinished 156-foot stub for decades.
  • Washington National Republican, February 23, 1885: Work on the Washington Monument eventually resumed and the finished obelisk was finally dedicated the day before Washington's birthday in 1885. The temperature was reported as "seven degrees above zero," but a crowd still gathered.
  • Washington National Republican, February 23, 1885: Commercializing Washington is nothing new. Hucksters at the dedication of the Washington Monument were reported to be hawking "canes made from the cherry tree so immortal in history..."

Illustration: George Washington depicted on a patriotic envelope sold during the Civil War/Library of Congress

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