Washington DC – Before The White House

DURING the two official terms of the first President he resided in plain, comfortable, but not over-large houses in New York and Philadelphia, which were rented by the government and furnished in a suitable manner. In these houses Washington and his wife held what has been described as a ” Republican court,” and established the official ceremony which, in part, has come down to this age.

When the government removed to the capital city in October, 1800, the White House was ready for occupancy, and President John Adams and family at once took up their residence in it. The first public reception was given on the 1st of January, 1801, and the guests were received in the room in the second story in which the President now receives his business callers. The East Room was then unfurnished, and Mrs. Adams used it as a drying-room, for lack of a good yard, the grounds of the White House being rough and exposed at that time, and in this spacious state parlor the presidential linen was hung on wash-days. In writing to her daughter, Mrs. Adams said of her new residence : ” The house is on a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables. The lighting of the apartments, from the kitchen to parlors and chambers, is a tax indeed, but the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues are cheering. Bells are wholly wanting ; not one hung through the whole house, and promises are all we can obtain.”

Abigail Adams is credited with a strong intellect and extensive culture. Although in feeble health, she zealously and faithfully per-formed all her social duties, aided her husband in his official work, and carefully attended to the household affairs. She is the only lady of the White House who reared a son to become President.

During President Adams’ residence in the official mansion he gave many splendid state dinners and receptions, but his own way of living was very plain. His invariable luncheon consisted of oat-cake and lemonade, and the family dinners were simple. He was in the habit of taking long walks, and was quite unassuming in manner. In fact, his wife, it is said, occasionally had to remind him, when he was somewhat free and sportive in his intercourse with people, that he held a high and dignified office. Like all persons of rank in those days, he wore richly embroidered coats, silk stockings, huge silver buckles on his shoes, and a powdered wig, but is said to have preferred a plainer garb. He was frugal, and went out of office with a good sum of money saved from his salary.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President, entered the White House in 1801. When he appeared before Congress to deliver his ” annual speech” every one was astonished at his simple attire, which was in great contrast to that of his predecessors. He wore a blue coat with gilt buttons, blue pantaloons, and serviceable American shoes tied with leather strings. He had entirely discarded the aristocratic foppery,” as he termed it, of official life. He adopted the plainest style of living, and appeared in public either on foot or mounted on a sedate, slow-going horse, instead of in a showy presidential coach with liveried servants and outriders. Usually he wore a large felt hat, pulled down nearly over his eyes. With the stiff, formal customs then in vogue he would have nothing to do, and he set himself to the pleasant task of making all the callers at the White House ” perfectly at home.” He liked to be surrounded by poets and painters, singers and musicians, and every genial denizen of Bohemia that he could secure. As his wife had died some time before he became President, his two daughters, assisted by Mrs. Madison, the wife of the then Secretary of State, conducted the social affairs of the White House during his administration.

Jefferson was noted for his exalted ideas of equality. He was sincere and unaffected, and made it a rule to be courteous and companionable to all men. One day while riding with a grandson, named after him, an old slave they met in the road raised his cap and bowed very obsequiously. Jefferson returned the salute in a polite manner, but his grandson took no notice of it. Turning to the boy he said, ” Thomas, do you permit a poor slave to be more of a gentleman than yourself ? ”

On one occasion when Jefferson was returning from a horseback ride in Virginia, with two of his nephews anc a party of gentlemen, he and the young men rode somewhat in advance of the others, and coming to a swollen stream they found the water was up to their saddle-girths. A countryman was on the bank, waiting to get across, and when the young men had ridden over, he stepped up to the President and requested a ride. ” Certainly,” said Jefferson ; and he reined up to a rock, bade the stranger mount his horse, and then took him over the stream. The party in the rear noticed the occurrence, and when shortly after they overtook the pedestrian, one of them asked him why he did not request one of the young men instead of the elderly gentleman to take him over the water. Well,” he replied, if you want to know I’ll tell you. I reckon a man carries yes or no in his face. The young chaps’ faces said no ; the old ‘un’s said yes.”

But it isn’t every man that would have asked the President of the United States for a ride behind him,” said the other. ” You don’t say that’s Tom Jefferson, do you?” cried the astonished country-man, adding, ” He’s a fine old fellow, anyway !” Then he laughed heartily, and said, ” What do you suppose my wife Polly will say when I get back home and tell her I’ve ridden behind Jefferson? She’ll say I voted for the right man !”

When James Madison became President, in 1809, he restored in full the stately ceremonies of the White House, disregarded by Jefferson, and court costumes were again seen at the levees. Madison always wore his hair powdered, but his dress was usually plain, except when he gave official receptions and dinners, when he would don a very magnificent suit. He was a small man, with a mild, pleasant face, and was quite overshadowed by his tall, elegant wife. At the inauguration ball Mrs. Madison ‘ looked and moved a queen.’ She wore a buff-colored velvet dress with pearl ornaments, and a Paris turban with a bird of paradise plume.” Dolly Madison was a widow when she married Madison, and was known in Philadelphia society for her beauty and accomplishments. She had a happy, buoyant nature, and during her reign of five years filled the great mansion with merriment and good-cheer. Dancing-parties were frequent, and innumerable gay social events delighted the fashionable circles of Washington. At the levees Mrs. Madison is said to have ” made a most magnificent appearance, her stately and Juno-like form towering above the rest of the ladies.” She was often styled ” the queen,” and the White House was generally called ” the palace.”

The first marriage which ever took place in the White House was during Madison’s administration. In the winter of 1811 Miss Todd, a relative of Mrs. Madison, was married to Congressman Jackson, of Virginia. The nuptial ceremony was very brilliant, and was at-tended by nearly all the select society of the capital.

When the British troops entered Washington and fired the Capitol, the inmates of the White House made a hasty flight. President Madison with his Cabinet had retired from the city after the battle of Bladensburg, but he had left his wife and her companions to follow as soon as it should be necessary. Mrs. Madison had issued invitations for a dinner-party, and as it was not believed that the enemy would reach the city that evening, she had the preparations for the dinner go on. When the news was brought that the British were on Capitol Hill, she collected a few personal articles, cut from its frame the famous painting of Washington hanging in the East Room, that it might not fall into the hands of the invaders, and with her friends fled from the house to a place of safety.

The British soldiers, when they marched into the White House, found, to their great surprise, a bountiful dinner all spread, with covers for thirty guests. The meats were ready to be served, and on the sideboard the wine was cooling. It is almost superfluous to say that the soldiers made a good meal before they fired the ” Yankee palace.”