The Aristocratic Washington: High Society's Darling (1876-1930s)

While the 1876 Centennial allowed people from all walks of life to get close to the relics of their country's birth, some individuals from the "more cultivated" classes grew anxious. George Washington, they argued, was a man too refined for the raw democracy the United States was beginning to represent. Several of these classes yearned for what they remembered as the glorious days of Virginia aristocracy and Washingtonian refinement, when "a 'Republican Court' still flourished--and everybody else still knew their places" (Marling, 87).

Images of Martha Washington, even before those of her husband, may have played the earliest role in heightening America's upper- class preoccupation with finding an "aristocratic" lineage. As early as 1865, a painting by Daniel F. Huntington, The Republican Court in the Time of Washington, or Lady Washington's Reception Day, elicited enthusiasm from those yearning for evidence of highly cultivated ancestry. The painting depicts the Friday evening social engagements held by Martha Washington throughout her husband's presidency and included several recognizable faces.

In the decades following, Martha Washington "teas" and "receptions" were advertised as ways to celebrate the upcoming centennials, and shared simultaneous success with the celebratory Boston Tea Parties of 1873 (Marling, 47, 44). The costumes and etiquette of such "haute couture" social engagements harked back to the colonial era and some went so far as to enlist guests as pretend Martha and George Washingtons to preside over the affairs.

By the time of the centennial of Washington's inauguration in 1889, members of the upper classes were well prepared to present the Washington they cherished. Groups claiming ancestry to Washington and other Revolutionary War heroes (in particular, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution) sprang up at this time, gathering for balls and banquets up and down the East Coast. As early as 1887, organizers of the Centennial Inauguration secured the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for the imitation Inaugural Ball, and in doing so, also secured a privileged view of the festivities for New York's elite. If others wished to witness some of the events, the parade could be seen from the streets, or, for a small fee, one could gain a spot in the galleries of the Opera House to watch the more fortunate feast below. In fact, more than 4,000 citizens did so, gasping at the luxurious gowns, expensive table-settings and gourmet food they were supposed to associate with Washington's era (Marling, 120).

The Centennial Ball, as drawn by W.A. Rogers. (Marling, 113)

The ball itself was an event for the picture books. To accurately replicate the actual 1789 event, a group of ladies from families of famous ancestry and wealth were selected to dance a quadrille in the center of the floor. As historian Karal Ann Marling reports in George Washington Slept Here, the dance itself was relatively disappointing, but the costumes held everyone's gaze. Diamonds, pearls, lace and embroidery covered the gowns, almost all tailored in floor-sweeping, colonial style. One woman, said to be George Washington's great-grandneice, wore a buckle containing a lock of her dear great-grand uncle's hair (Marling, 114).

These inaugural celebrations may seem an extreme example of the way elite society appropriated Washington, but they set the stage for society's highest strata to crown the Father of Our Country the father of their own good taste. As Marling writes, "For good or ill, during the 1890s Washington the lover, the dancer and the courtly aristocrat displaced the rather abstract figure who once stood for national unity, moral rectitude, self denial and a stoic devotion to duty." (Marling, 143). During a time characterized by a suspicion of populism, resentment of immigration, and nostalgia for days of classed society, the more aristocratic elements of Washington's life superceded all others. By evoking the Washington of Virginia plantations and embroidered finery, America's high society could finally legitimize aristocracy in a country of increasingly blurred class lines.

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