President George Washington Visits Boston

On October 15, 1789 President George Washington left New York for a tour of the eastern states. During this trip he visited a number of towns in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire including: New Haven, Hartford, Worcester, Boston, Salem, Newburyport and Portsmouth. President Washington’s visit to Boston began on Saturday, October 24, 1789. On that unusually cold, raw and windy day, at 10 o’clock in the morning, the inhabitants of the town assembled and formed a Procession in the Mall (near Boston Common). The artisans, tradesmen, and manufacturers were alphabetically arranged. Each group stood behind white silk flags of a yard square that flew from handsomely painted seven-foot long staffs. Each flag contained a device noting the group’s trade. My ancestor, 55-year-old cabinetmaker Alexander Edwards, likely marched behind the flag of the Cabinet and Chair-Makers while my fourth great grandfather, 24-year-old Benjamin Edwards, either marched with the coopers or was among the spectators that day. The procession made its way to the entrance of the town where the entire group halted and opened ranks. Facing inwards, they formed an avenue reaching from the neck to the State House for the President to pass through. At one o’clock, the President’s approach was announced by discharges of artillery from Roxbury, Dorchester Heights, and Castle William; a salute from the ships, and by the ringing of all the bells. President Washington was dressed for the occasion in his Continental uniform and mounted on an elegant white horse. He was attended by Major Jackson, and Mr. Lear, his Secretaries. Vice President John Adams followed on horseback. Governor John Hancock did not greet the President as he entered Boston, feeling that Washington should call on him first as Head of the Commonwealth. The Governor eventually saw the error of his ways and made an effort to smooth things over – more on that below. The Selectmen, and the Lieutenant Governor Samuel Adams, did welcome the President and he was escorted into town followed by the Procession.

The streets were crowded with finely dressed ladies and gentlemen and many of the townspeople peered out doors, through casement windows, and from the tops of buildings along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the legendary General Washington. The nation’s first president rode along Orange, Newbury, Marlborough, and Cornhill streets (all later named Washington Street in honor of his visit). On this path, President Washington went by the Old South Meeting House – a spot he had visited in 1776 to see the destruction done to the building by the British troops when they occupied Boston. Reaching the State House (today’s Old State House), the President passed through a richly decorated Triumphal Arch, designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, which spanned from the west end of the building to the stores on the opposite side of the street. This arch had a canopy above it over 20 feet high with an eagle perched on top. The President then entered the State House, went upstairs, strode through the Representatives’ Chamber, walked out the center window and took four steps down to the gallery of the Colonnade – a colonial reviewing stand of sorts erected for the occasion at the west end of the State House. This reviewing stand stood atop six large columns, fifteen feet high, and the floor of its gallery was furnished with armed chairs and spread with rich carpets. When President Washington entered the Colonnade, he was saluted by three huzzas from the citizens, and an Ode was sung. The Procession passed him, proceeded into Court Street and was dismissed. Military companies then escorted the President to his residence in Court Street, Ingersoll’s Inn, where he would stay during his five day visit. That evening, fireworks were exhibited in several parts of the town – in State Street, the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, Eastern Coffee House, the Castle and from the French Ships, which were beautifully illuminated.

On Sunday the 25th, the President attended services in the morning at Trinity Church and in the afternoon at Brattle Street Church. In between, he was called on at his residence by Governor Hancock. The Governor, who overnight had come to realize the incorrectness of his views and that it was in fact his responsibility to call on the President first, arrived by coach and was carried in by his coachmen and footman apologizing that gout had prevented him from seeing the President any earlier. Washington seemed to accept the excuse and apology in stride and the two had a cordial meeting.  Monday the 26th was rainy and stormy and the President, who had begun to show signs of a cold, (no doubt the effect of being out in the frigid temperatures and wind the day he entered the town) cancelled a planned trip to Lexington. In fact, a large number of the inhabitants of Boston had also taken ill with what everyone would come to call the Washington Influenza. Washington received many visitors this day and in the evening called on the Governor and had tea with him and Mrs. Hancock. On Tuesday the 27th he went to an Oratorio at the Stone Chapel (King’s Chapel) and attended a large and elegant dinner in his honor that afternoon at Faneuil Hall. On Wednesday the 28th President Washington visited a Duck (sailcloth) Manufactory where he saw 28 looms at work with 14 girls spinning. He also toured a Card Manufactory. He visited ships in Boston Harbor and attended a grand ball in the evening at Concert Hall. The President departed the town the next morning, Thursday October 29th at 8 o’clock.

Any stories about President Washington’s visit to Boston that may have been passed down by my ancestors did not survive. In an effort to better appreciate what they might have experienced, I decided to seek out eyewitness accounts of this historic event. One of the best accounts I was able to find is that of William H. Sumner (1780-1861) the son of Increase Sumner, fifth governor of Massachusetts. William H. Sumner, who served as a General in the Massachusetts Militia, was nearly 80 when his childhood recollections appeared in the April 1860 issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. This is a publication of Boston’s New England Historic Genealogical Society – a wonderful resource I used to research my own family history and can highly recommend to others. In the article, William H. Sumner notes that he is one of the very few now living who can say, “I have seen the great Washington.” Sumner was a boy between the ages of 9 and 10 years old, and a student at Master Lane’s West Boston Writing School when President Washington entered Boston on Saturday, October 24, 1789. Recalling that day, Sumner writes:

The children of the schools were all paraded in the main street, and stood in the gutters in front of the long rows of men whose strength was required and exerted to protect them from the crowd on the sidewalks as the procession passed along the street. The General rode on a noble white charger with characteristic erectness and dignity. Colonel Lear and Major Jackson accompanied him as his aids. Washington was in uniform, and as he rode, his head uncovered, he inclined his body first on one side and then on the other, without distinctly bowing, but so as to observe the multitude in the streets, and the ladies in the windows and on the tops of houses, who saluted him as he passed.

Master Lane’s boys were placed in front of Mr. Jonathan Mason’s hardware store, near the bend in Washington Street (then Cornhill) opposite Williams Court. I will remember the laugh which our salute created, when, as the General passed us, we rolled in our hands our quills with the longest feathers we could get. Mr. N.R. Sturgis, who was at school with me at that time, remembers this circumstance. From our position at the angle of the street, we had a fair view of the procession as it approached and after it passed us. A select choir of singers, led by Rhea, the chorister of Brattle Street Church, was placed on the triumphal arch under which the procession was to pass, and which extended from the Old State House to the stores of Joseph Pierce and others on the opposite side of Cornhill. The arch was decorated with flags, flowers and evergreen, so that the musicians were not seen until they rose up and sang the loud paean, commencing as Washington first came in sight at the angle where we stood, swelling in heavy chorus until he passed from our sight under the triumphal arch and took his station upon it. Here the Selectmen of Boston gave him a formal reception.

Another eyewitness account of Washington’s visit by a schoolboy appears in the book John Tileston’s School by D.C. Colesworthy. The author’s father Daniel P. Colesworthy was a pupil of the legendary Boston schoolmaster John Tileston and he recalls how Master Tileston instructed the boys to come to school that day with clean faces and dressed in their best clothes. He also remembers rolling his quill pen in an effort to get General Washington’s attention.

Washington, with his hat in his hand, passed by us on his light gray horse. We rolled our quills between our hands, that the General might notice us. When school was dismissed we called to see him, each one making a bow, which he politely returned. I saw him several times afterwards.