The True George Washington: Social Life: Other Pastimes
Other social qualities of the man cannot be passed over. A marked trait was his extreme fondness of afternoon tea. "Dined at Mr. Langdon's, and drank Tea there, with a large circle of Ladies;" "in the afternoon drank Tea ... with about 20 ladies, who had been assembled for the occasion;" "exercised between 5 & 7 o'clock in the morning & drank Tea with Mrs. Clinton (the Governor's Lady) in the afternoon;" "Drank tea at the Chief Justice's of the U. States;" "Dined with the Citizens in public; and in the afternoon, was introduced to upwards of 50 ladies who had assembled (at a Tea party) on the occasion;" "Dined and drank tea at Mr. Bingham's in great splendor." Such are the entries in his diary whenever the was "kettle-a-boiling-be" was within reach. Pickering's journal shows that tea served regularly at head-quarters, and at Mount Vernon it was drunk in summer on the veranda. In writing to Knox of his visit to Boston, Washington mentioned his recollection of the chats over tea-drinking, and of how "social and gay" they were.
A fondness for picnics was another social liking. "Rid with Fanny Bassett, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Shaw to meet a Party from Alexandria at Johnsons Spring ... where we dined on a cold dinner brought from Town by water and spent the Afternoon agreeably—Returning home by Sun down or a little after it," is noted in his diary on one occasion, and on another he wrote, "Having formed a Party, consisting of the Vice-President, his lady, Son & Miss Smith; the Secretaries of State, Treasury & War, and the ladies of the two latter; with all the Gentlemen of my family, Mrs. Lear & the two Children, we visited the old position of Fort Washington and afterwards dined on a dinner provided by Mr. Mariner." Launchings, barbecues, clambakes, and turtle dinners were other forms of social dissipations.
A distinct weakness was dancing. When on the frontier he sighed, "the hours at present are melancholy dull. Neither the rugged toils of war, nor the gentler conflict of A[ssembly] B[alls,] is in my choice." His diary shows him at balls and "Routs" frequently; when he was President he was a constant attendant at the regular "Dancing Assemblies" in New York and Philadelphia, and when at Mount Vernon he frequently went ten miles to Alexandria to attend dances. Of one of these Alexandria balls he has left an amusing description: "Went to a ball at Alexandria, where Musick and dancing was the chief Entertainment, however in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuits, with tea and coffee, which the drinkers of could not distinguish from hot water sweet'ned—Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs servd the purposes of Table cloths & Napkins and that no apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title of the Bread & Butter Ball."
During the Revolution, too, he killed many a weary hour of winter quarters by dancing. When the camp spent a day rejoicing over the French alliance, "the celebration," according to Thacher, "was concluded by a splendid ball opened by his Excellency General Washington, having for his partner the lady of General Knox." Greene describes how "we had a little dance at my quarters a few evenings past. His Excellency and Mrs. Greene danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down." Knox, too, tells of "a most genteel entertainment given by self and officers" at which Washington danced. "Everybody allows it to be the first of the kind ever exhibited in this State at least. We had above seventy ladies, all of the first ton in the State, and between three and four hundred gentlemen. We danced all night—an elegant room, the illuminating, fireworks, &c., were more than pretty." And at Newport, when Rochambeau gave a ball, by request it was opened by Washington. The dance selected by his partner was "A Successful Campaign," then in high favor, and the French officers took the instruments from the musicians and played while he danced the first figure.
While in winter quarters he subscribed four hundred dollars (paper money, equal to eleven dollars in gold) to get up a series of balls, of which Greene wrote, "We have opened an assembly in Camp. From this apparent ease, I suppose it is thought we must be in happy circumstances. I wish it was so, but, alas, it is not. Our provisions are in a manner, gone. We have not a ton of hay at command, nor magazine to draw from. Money is extremely scarce and worth little when we get it. We have been so poor in camp for a fortnight, that we could not forward the public dispatches, for want of cash to support the expresses." At the farewell ball given at Annapolis, when the commander-in-chief resigned his command, Tilton relates that "the General danced in every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him; or as it has since been handsomely expressed, 'get a touch of him.'" He still danced in 1796, when sixty-four years of age, but when invited to the Alexandria Assembly in 1799, he wrote to the managers, "Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies of Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our dancing days are no more. We wish, however all those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them; and I am, gentlemen,
"Your most obedient and obliged humble servant,