Gadsby’s Tavern, in Alexandria, is steeped in the romance and history of colonial Virginia. It was the northern terminus of the King’s Highway – that much-traveled route from Williamsburg, the ancient capital of the Colony.
The smaller of the two buildings knows as City Tavern fronts on Royal Street, and was built in 1752. In 1792 John Wise acquired this tavern and added the building that is now on the corner. Two years later John Gadsby, an English caterer, rented the hostelry, and from that time until about 1811 it bore his name.
Washington established headquarters in City Tavern at the outbreak of the French and Indian War and there recruited two companies of provincial troops-his first command. From the tavern he marched to defeat at Great Meadows, July 4, 1754. A year later Washington again established headquarters there, at which time he was commissioned major on General Braddock’s staff. From here he again marched against the enemies of his country in the fateful Braddock expedition.
In the crisis preceding the Revolution the old tavern be-came the hub of military activities. Later it was the meeting place of Lafayette, Baron deKalb, and the first admiral of the American Navy, John Paul Jones. From City Tavern this trio proceeded in Philadelphia to begin their illustrious careers.
It was in City Tavern that the famous Maryland-Virginia Commission met in 1785 to settle the dispute regarding the excessive tariff duties imposed on goods transported across the Potomac. This dispute had retarded the work of deepening the Potomac, a pet scheme of Washington’s, and it was at Washington’s request that the Commission convened and held its first three sessions there, commencing March 22, 1785. Its members were Daniel Jenifer, Thomas Stone and Daniel Chase, all of Maryland, and George Mason, Alexander Henderson, Edmund Randolph and James Madison, representing Virginia. Washington was present at the sessions in lieu of Randolph and Madison who were not informed of their appointments in time to attend.
Later City Tavern was the scene of a public gathering, June 28, 1788, when news was received that Virginia had ratified the Constitution.
When Washington was elected president he was escorted from Mount Vernon to City Tavern where he made a farewell address to his neighbors. Eight years later, upon his return to private life, he was given an ovation at this tavern, whose name had been changed to Gadsby’s, about 1794.
President and Mrs. Washington were honored guests at Gadsby’s, February 22, 1798, on the occasion of the first celebration of the general’s birthday. A year later, February 11, 1799, Washington was again a guest of honor at a ball which had been preceded by military manoeuvres. In November of the same year he held his last military review from the steps of the tavern and issued his final military order.
Shortly after the death of Washington and to continue his local enterprises the Washington Society was formed in Gadsby’s. From here its members proceeded to the old Presbyterian Meeting House to participate in the first memorial exercises for the departed president.
But Gadsby’s has other traditions. There is the story of an English Freemason who was found desperately ill in the tavern. He was nursed back to health by members of the local fraternity. He refused to give his name, but four years later twenty-five hundred pieces of cut glass arrived from England as his present to the local Masonic lodge. They were engraved with the Masonic emblem, also the initials and number of the lodge. Of this unique collection 175 pieces yet have escaped the ravages of time and carelessness.
In 1842, when Lafayette paid his last visit to America, he was entertained at the City Hotel, which was the name of Gadsby’s at that time.
The original woodwork in the ballroom was purchased recently, and the room duplicated in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.