On this day in 1789, President George Washington attends a ball in his honor. The event provided a model for the first official inaugural ball, held to celebrate James Madison’s ascension to the office twenty years later, which then became an annual tradition.
Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789. A week later, an elaborate ball was held to celebrate the event in New York, the temporary headquarters of the federal government, in a building on Broadway near Wall Street. Unfortunately for the president, his wife Martha was unable to attend. She was still at their estate Mt. Vernon, in Virginia, where she was wrapping up business affairs before making the trip to New York.
Washington arrived at the ball in the company of other American statesmen and their wives. That evening he danced with many of New York’s society ladies. Vice President John Adams, members of Congress and visiting French and Spanish dignitaries, as well their wives and daughters, joined in the festivities. Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, recorded her impressions of the ball in her memoirs, noting that the president liked to dance the minuet, a dance she thought was suited to his dignity and gravity.
Following Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson held much more informal inaugural celebrations. But in 1809, Madison’s gregarious wife Dolly threw a gala for 400 people at Long’s Hotel in Washington, D.C. Since then, formal inaugural balls have been held almost every four years to celebrate new presidential terms. As the tradition evolved, venues changed to accommodate the increase in attendees. In 1957, multiple balls were held at several venues for Eisenhower’s inauguration. Presidents since Eisenhower have spent inaugural night making whirlwind stops at a series of parties. Both Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding cancelled their inaugural balls in order to save money; Franklin Pierce cancelled his due to the recent death of his son. Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt held charity balls for their inaugurations. William Henry Harrison attended three balls after standing all morning in freezing cold conditions at his inaugural ceremony. Soon after, he caught a cold that later developed into pneumonia. He died of complications from the pneumonia 30 days into his term.
The record number of inaugural balls attended in one night by a president is 15, set by President Bill Clinton in 1997. George H.W. Bush ran a close second, making 11 stops in 1989.