George Washington was born, according to the calendar in use in 1732, on February 11. But when he was twenty, the Julian Calendar was abandoned in favor of the Gregorian Calendar. February 11 became February 22.
Can you imagine a change like this getting legislated today? (And if you think switching over was a problem back then, Greece was using the Julian all the way up until 1922!) But a recognition of astronomical miscalculations from Caesar’s time justified the change. Julius Caesar’s administration had mandated the 12-month calendar in 45 B.C. based on the solar year. However, the solar year does not contain a whole number of days or months. So Caesar (with help from his advisors) came up with a leap year formula that would add an extra day every 128 years. Alas, he overcompensated, and by the mid-sixteenth century, seasonal equinoxes were falling 10 days “too early,” and some church holidays, such as Easter, did not always correspond to the “proper” seasons.
In light of these discrepancies, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII authorized the “Gregorian” or “New Style” Calendar.” Ten days were dropped from the month of October, and the formula for determining leap years was revised. January 1 was also established as the first day of the new year. (That date was not uniformly observed at the time.) The new calendar was adopted immediately in Catholic countries. Protestant countries continued to use the Julian Calendar.
Thus, from 1582 to 1752, two different calendars were in use in Europe. To avoid misinterpretation, a designation for both the “Old Style” and “New Style” year was often used in English and colonial records. It was just getting too confusing.
In 1750, an Act of Parliament mandated that England and its colonies would change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. By that time, the divergence between the two calendars had grown to 11 days. To adjust, it was decreed that September 2, 1752 would be followed by September 14, 1752.
So when did Washington celebrate his birthday? It seems as if he went with both days! The first public celebration on record was at Valley Forge on February 22, 1778, when the Continental Artillery band serenaded Washington. But in 1781, Washington thanked Comte de Rochambeau for celebrating his birthday on the 11th. Tobias Lear, the personal secretary to President Washington from 1784 until the former-President’s death in 1799, wrote to Clement Biddle in 1790:
In reply to your wish to know the Presidents [sic] birthday it will be sufficient to observe that it is on the 11th of February Old Style; but the almanack [sic] makers have generally set it down opposite to the 11th day of February of the present Style; how far that may go towards establishing it on that day I dont [sic] know; but I could never consider it any otherways [sic] than as stealing so many days from his valuable life as is the difference between the old and the new Style….”
In that same year, Philadelphia celebrated the birthday on the 11th, and New York City on the 22nd.
Two years later, Lear indicated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson that Washington was favoring the 22nd::
T. Lear has the honor to inform Mr. Jefferson that the President considers the 22d day of this month as his birthday, having been born on the 11th old Style.”
Indeed, on February 22, 1797, Washington wrote in his diary of attending an “entertainment” in honor of his “birth night.”
His diary entry for February 12, 1798, however, has him writing:
Went with the family to a Ball in Alexa. given by the Citzen[s] [sic] of it & its vicinity in commemoration of the Anniversary of my birth day [sic].”
So what’s the answer? It seems as if Washington decided he could have his cake and eat it too, twice in each year in fact! So two ways to celebrate are included here, so you too can celebrate twice! On one day, you could go with his favorite breakfast, which according to the Mt. Vernon website (also the source of the specifics about celebrations in Washington’s time) was hoecakes “swimming” in butter and honey.
Washington’s step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, who was raised at Mount Vernon, wrote:
He rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready – he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream.”
She described the recipe in a letter, and the Mt. Vernon website cites this but also adds a modern adaptation:
George Washington’s Favorite Hoecakes
8 3/4 cups white cornmeal
1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
Shortening or other cooking grease
Honey & Butter
In large container, mix together 4 cups white cornmeal, 1 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast, and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter (probably 3-4 cups). Cover and set on the stove or counter overnight.
In the morning, gradually add remaining cornmeal, egg and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter (3-4 cups). Cover and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes.
Add cooking grease to a griddle or skillet and heat until water sprinkled onto it will bead up.
Pour batter, by the spoonful, onto the hot griddle. (Note: since the batter has a tendency to separate, you will need to stir it well before pouring each batch.) When the hoecake is brown on one side, turn it over and brown the other. Serve warm with butter and honey.
But don’t stop there! He celebrated both days, and so can you! Here is a recipe for his favorite cake (according to his wife, Martha):
Martha Washington’s Great Cake
Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d. Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy.
Notes on making Martha Washington’s Great Cake:
In making the great cake, Mount Vernon’s curatorial staff followed Mrs. Washington’s recipe almost exactly. Where the recipe called for 5 pounds of fruit, without specifying which ones, 2 pounds of raisins, 1 pound of currants, and 2 pounds of apples were used. The wine used was cream sherry. Since no pan large enough was available to hold all the batter, two 14 layers were made and stacked (note: the original was one single tall layer). The layers were baked in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours. Should be iced with a very stiff egg-white based icing, flavored with rosewater or orange-flower water.