These days, when a president or other elected official is inaugurated, the ceremony is often followed that evening by an inaugural ball. In fact, it is pretty much expected, like the celebration of victory after a long, hard-fought battle. When our first president, George Washington was sworn into office as the first president of the United States, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, New York, on April 30, 1789, all tradition concerning elections was brand new. Our country was still trying to figure out what our traditions would be at that point.
A week later, on May 3, 1789, George Washington attended a ball in his honor. These days inaugural balls are planned and held with every inauguration. In fact, most presidents attend several balls on inauguration night. Still, in 1789, they were brand new, and it would be another decade before the practice was revived, with the inaugural of James Madison, the fourth president. Dolley, President Madison’s wife, threw a gala for 400 people at Long’s Hotel in Washington. Tickets cost $4.00, which would have amounted to about $100.00 today. That was actually very reasonable, considering that they run about $350.00 today. I suppose that if you were part of high society, you would think nothing of that amount for a ball which would show your support of the new president, as well as, your position in society.
Since Madison’s inaugural ball, the events have become more or less a quadrennial presidential fixture. Today, we think nothing of the event, assuming that it is just part of the grand tradition of our electoral process and seating a new president. Nevertheless, there have been years that the Inaugural Ball has been cancelled. Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, and Warren Harding, in 1921, both passed up balls, citing the need to economize. Franklin Pierce canceled his in 1853 because of the recent death of his son. President Franklin D Roosevelt was another exception, choosing to work through the night rather than attend his first inaugural ball in 1933. He canceled the next three galas because of the Depression and World War II.
At the first ball, Washington danced with many ladies who were considered the cream of New York society. New York was the temporary site of the newly established federal government. Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, the treasury secretary, recorded her impressions in her memoirs. She wrote that Washington liked to dance the minuet, a dance she thought was “suited to his dignity and gravity.” In what would seem strange today, Martha Washington apparently did not attend the Inaugural Ball. One month to the day of her husband’s departure for New York, Martha Washington set out on her own triumphant trip to the seat of the new government, thereby becoming our first, First Lady.