This Day in History: George Washington’s inaugural ball

On this day in 1789, the first inaugural ball is held. It wasn’t quite what we think of as a presidential ball, but it was a celebration, nonetheless!

Can you imagine Washington dancing at his ball? You probably can’t. The picture painted of Washington in our history books is that of a calm, emotionless figure. How could such a stoic figure enjoy dancing?

Except he did! Washington loved to dance. Moreover, he was far from emotionless. To the contrary, Washington was a man of deep passions. Did you know that he had a terrible temper? When he was young, his strong emotions nearly got the better of him a few times. Thus, he learned early in life that his passions must be controlled. Otherwise, they would control him. What you (or your history book) think of as a stoic, emotionless front was actually a deliberately controlled and disciplined exterior.

Washington was known for his grace and energy as a dancer. As early as 1779, the Pennsylvania Packet reprinted a letter “from a foreigner to a gentleman in this city.” The letter described a celebration of the first anniversary of the alliance between France and America. This foreign observer waxed eloquent about Washington’s dancing abilities:

“The ball was opened by his Excellency the General. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn its trifles into instruction.”

Washington often took advantage of opportunities to dance, even during the Revolution. In 1779, General Nathanael Greene wrote that his wife danced with Washington “upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” A year later, Greene noted a ball at which Washington “with dignified and graceful air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner, carried down a dance of twenty couples in the arbor on the green grass.”

Many years later, Washington was still speaking fondly of dancing, describing it as “so agreeable and innocent an amusement.”

Well, what do you know? History books have presented a picture of Washington as a stoic, emotionless figure. In reality, he could be the life of the party.

P.S. The attached painting is of Washington dancing, although not at his inaugural ball.