George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Jay, 30 November 1789

To John Jay

[New York] Monday November 30th 1789

The President of the United States presents his best Compliments to the Chief Justice of the United States and his Lady, and encloses them Tickets for the Theatre this evening.

As this is the last night the President proposes visiting the theatre for the season, he cannot deny himself the gratification of requesting the company of the Chief Justice and his Lady—altho’ he begs at the same time that they will consider this invitation in such a point of view as not to feel themselves embarrassed, in the smallest degree, upon the occasion, if they have any reluctance to visiting the theatre; for the President presents the tickets as to his friends who will act as is most agreeable to their feelings, knowing thereby that they will meet the wishes of the person who invites them.1

L, in the writing of Tobias Lear, NNC: John Jay Papers.

1The Old American Company gave a benefit performance on 30 Nov. of “Cymon and Sylvia, Or, Love and Magic,” an “Opera, or, Dramatic Romance,” at the John Street Theatre (Ford, Theatre description begins Paul Leicester Ford. Washington and The Theatre. New York, 1899. description ends , 40–43). On the same day Jay replied: “The Ch. Justice of the U.S. & Mrs Jay esteem themselves honored & obliged by the Presidts Invitation wh. they accept with Pleasure and by his delicate attention to there Embarrassmt wh. he had Reason to think probable, but wh. ceased with all Questions between govt & the theatre” (NNC: Jay Papers). GW was undoubtedly concerned with Jay’s reaction to the opposition to the theater in New York City and elsewhere during the mid—1780s. In 1778 Congress had recommended to the states that many public entertainments, among them the theater, should be suppressed as “productive of idleness, dissipation, and a general depravity of principles and manners” (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 12:1001, 1118). A number of theatrical companies left the country in search of employment elsewhere. In August 1785 the Old American Company returned to New York City and opened the John Street Theatre without a proper license, provoking tirades in local newspapers against the theater as a “species of luxury and folly” and statements of dismay from official sources that “while so great a Part of this City still lies in Ruins and many of the Citizens continue to be pressed with the Distresses brought on them in consequence of the late War, there is a loud Call to Industry and Œconomy: And it would in a peculiar Manner be unjustifyable in this Corporation to countenance enticing and expensive Amusements. That among these a Play House however regulated must be numbered, while under no Restraint it may prove a fruitful Sourse of Dissipation Immorality and Vice” (New-York Packet, 26 Dec. 1785; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, description begins Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784–1831. 19 vols. New York, 1917. description ends 1:178–79). In 1786 a memorial signed by many of New York’s leading citizens castigating the theater as one of the “Evils which threaten our City and State” was drawn up for presentation to the legislature (NN: Emmett Collection, item 11167). By mid–1786, however, the Old American Company and the John Street Theatre were firmly established and its productions there well attended.

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