Richard Nisley


George Washington Spends Christmas in New York
History - American Released - Dec 24, 2012

Saturday, December 12, 1789 -- A coach departs the Executive Mansion at 1 Cherry Street in New York City and heads into the farm country north of town, to begin “The 14 Miles Round” of upper Manhattan.

Gone are the oranges, reds and golds of a few weeks ago. Winter is on the land now, and everything is gray and lifeless. Even New York is surprisingly still as it prepares for Christmas.

When Congress adjourned at the end of September, everyone departed for home, except President George Washington. He decided to stay in town. This afternoon he is taking a ride with Martha and the two grandchildren, bundled up inside the coach.

The new federal government that was sworn into office the previous spring, accomplished a great deal over the summer. Indeed, no Congress would ever again be as productive as the First Congress of the United States.

In the first six months, the First Congress finished the work left undone in 1787 by the Constitutional Convention, in creating a third branch of government--the Supreme Court--and in creating the Executive Departments of State, Treasury, and War.

As important, the First Congress passed the nation’s first tax, an impost on goods entering the country, thereby creating a federal revenue stream to pay the nation’s bills. The failure to pass such a tax under the Articles of Confederation led to the prior government’s downfall.

The First Congress also wrote the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These are the Bill of Rights, which Washington signed and sent to the states for ratification. Before adjourning, Congress even found time to begin debate on relocating the nation’s capital to another city. Philadelphia was the leading choice. The issue will be taken up again when the First Congress reconvenes in January.

Washington spent part of the Fall touring New England. He wanted to see firsthand the growing textile industry there, with its water-powered looms and mass production techniques he had been reading about. Washington was a farmer at heart, but he was very much interested in the latest in technology being developed in England: steam-powered pumps, the digging of canals, advances in industry.

Like his friend Alexander Hamilton, Washington believed that if America was to become a leading economic power, with a strong army and navy, it would have to become industrialized. Agriculture, and agriculture alone, would not be nearly enough.

On October 15, Washington kissed Martha goodbye, and began his journey. Traveling with him were two secretaries, two coachmen, two outriders, a footman, and a valet. A man of Washington’s stature needed a large entourage. The coachmen drove and tended to the horses (eight in all); the outriders traveled ahead to scout out Inns for meals and lodging and to send messages on ahead; the footman attended the door and handled the luggage; and the valet cleaned and pressed Washington’s clothing, polished his boots, and each morning helped him dress. Despite long days on dusty roads, the President was well-groomed wherever he went.

Washington hit all the high spots: New Haven, Cambridge (including Harvard College), Boston, Salem, Newbury, traveling as far north as Portsmouth. The President toured a number of mills, flirted with the women who tended the looms, ordered four suits of clothes, walked through various shipyards, and was received as royalty wherever he went.

Washington returned to New York on November 13, satisfied he had seen the nation’s future.

On November 26, Thanksgiving Day was celebrated. Washington wrote in his journal: "Being the day appointed for Thanksgiving I went to St. Paul’s Chapel though it was most inclement and stormy--but few people at the church." In honor of the day, he contributed seven pounds, ten shillings out of his own pocket to purchase "provision & beer" for inmates in debtors’ prison.

Despite Congress being in recess, social events continued at the Executive Mansion throughout the Fall. There were dinners on Thursdays beginning at 4 p.m., for Congressmen who remained in town, political figures, foreign dignitaries, and their families, by invitation only, hosted by the President and Mrs. Washington. The general public was invited twice weekly: a levee for men on Tuesday afternoon, between 3 and 4, hosted by the President, and a tea for men and women on Friday evenings, hosted by Mrs. Washington. Anyone “dressed respectably” could attend without invitation.

On Tuesday, December 1, Washington wrote in his journal: “A pretty full levee today--among the visitors was the Vice President (John Adams) and all the Senators (who were) in town. Exercised on horseback between 10 and 12.”

Washington was 57-years-old and in excellent health. He exercised daily, either by riding on horseback or by taking a walk. Once or twice a week he was seen with Martha in the family chaise riding around town.

New York was second in size only to Philadelphia, with a population of 33,000, 22 churches, one synagogue, five newspapers, one bank, one post office, one theater, 4000 houses (many serving as boardinghouses), 300 taverns and grog houses, no hotels, and no hospitals (doctors treated patients in their parlor). Then, as now, New York was decidedly commercial and the most racially diverse city in America.

Each day, Washington rose before dawn, spent two hours on correspondence, and stopped for breakfast around 8. He conducted the affairs of state between 9 to 2, had dinner, then took a walk or rode his horse. In late afternoon and early evening he met socially with political leaders, usually over drinks, and later in the evening relaxed with friends and sometimes attended the theater. At 9, he excused himself and went to bed.

On Sunday, December 6, Washington attended service at St. Paul’s Chapel, on Broadway (the chapel is still there today).

Monday, December 7. Washington’s journal entry reads: “Walked around the Battery in the afternoon.” The Battery was an army fortification on the tip of southern Manhattan. The walk from the Executive Mansion (where a granite abutment of the Brooklyn Bridge now stands) to the Battery and back takes about 40 minutes.

THE 14-MILES ROUND

Saturday, December 12th. “Exercised in the coach with Mrs. Washington and the two (grand)children (Master & Miss Custis) between breakfast & dinner--went the 14 Miles Round.”

A favorite excursion for New Yorkers, “The 14 Miles Round” was a trip around Manhattan, which was mostly farmland. The path frequently taken led up the Bloomingdale Road along the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan to the vicinity of present-day 94th Street and then east by a crossroad as far as Kingsbridge. The return back to the city was south along the East River via the Old Boston Post Road. For Washington, the trip was reminiscent of his daily horseback ride around the Mount Vernon plantation, a journey of 22 miles, which took most of the day.

Friday, December 18. Washington’s journal: “Read over, and digested my thoughts upon the subject of a National Militia, from the Plans of the Militia of Europe--those of the Secretary of War & Baron von Steuben.” Note: the Secretary of War was Henry Knox, one of Washington’s most trusted generals of the Revolution; von Steuben had been Washington’s drillmaster. At the time, the national militia was comprised of 600 soldiers, 100 of which were stationed at the Battery.

Monday, December 21. Washington’s journal: “Framed the above thoughts on the subject of a National Militia into the form of a letter and sent it to the Secretary for the Department of War. Sat from ten to one O’clock for a Mr. Savage to draw my Portrait for the University of Cambridge (Harvard) in the State of Massachusetts at the request of the President and Governors of the University.”

Tuesday, December 22. Washington’s journal: “A pretty full & respectable Levee today--at which several Members of Congress, newly arrived (in New York), attended.”

Wednesday, December 23. Washington’s journal: “Exercised in the chaise with Mrs. Washington today.”

Friday, December 25. Christmas day. Washington’s journal: “Went to St. Paul’s Chapel in the forenoon. The Visitors to Mrs. Washington this afternoon (the Friday tea) were not numerous but respectable.”

Christmas in 18th-century America was not nearly the celebration it is today. Though it called for an over-sized dinner, it was still a religious holiday. Only children received gifts. In New York, the Dutch custom of hanging stockings for St. Nicholas to fill was still preserved. Another custom was to place a lighted candle in each of the windows. Coupled with oil-burning street lamps, New York glowed with flickering light during the Christmas season.

Christmas dinner at the Executive Mansion was the usual sumptuous fare: ham, fowl, oysters from New York Bay, beef steak, dried fruits and nuts, pickled or canned fruit and vegetables, followed by lavish deserts (cakes, puddings, pies), and drink (punch, wine, cider, beer, champagne, tea and coffee). Washington usually dined on a single entree, drank tea taken with milk, and afterward enjoyed several glasses of champagne or Madeira wine while conversing with guests and friends.

Some 14 servants worked at the Executive Mansion. Meals were prepared in a detached building behind the house, and served in a dining hall on the first floors of the mansion.

Friday, January 1, 1790. New Year’s day. Washington’s journal: “The Vice President, the Governor (New York State Governor George Clinton), Senators, members of the House of Representatives (who had arrived) in town, foreign public characters and the respectable citizens came between the hours of 12 & 3 O’clock to pay the compliments of the season to me, and in the afternoon a great number of gentlemen & ladies visited Mrs. Washington (for tea) on the same occasion.”

On Saturday, January 2, Hamilton presented Washington with his “Report on Public Credit,” a blueprint for making provision for the Revolutionary War debt. Hamilton determined the total debt (foreign, domestic, and state) to be $76 million (the nation’s total money supply was about $6 million). He recommended monetizing the debt with a new issue of U.S. securities, and to create a national bank to use the monetized debt as capital for business loans to grow the economy. “A national debt, if not excessive,” wrote Hamilton, “is a national blessing.”

In the coming days, Congress will reconvene, Washington will deliver his first State of the Union address, and Hamilton will present his “Report on Public Credit.”

In the coming months, Congress will pass Hamilton’s financial blueprint that will transform the nation’s economy from one of agriculture and land-based wealth to one of industry and liquid capital, and begin to fulfill Washington’s dream of making the United States an industrial and military giant.

December 1789 ended a remarkable year in the history of the United States and was Washington’s only Christmas spent in New York City.
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