Washington DC – Through Many Changing Years

WITH the advent of the Monroes, social life at the President’s House underwent a transformation. Its character could have been forecast from the fact that, although for the six years Monroe had been at the head of the Cabinet his family had been with him in Washington, they were as nearly strangers to the great body of citizens as if they had been living in New York or Boston. If a lady wished to call on Mrs. Monroe, she had to apply for an appointment and have a day and hour fixed, unless she were a member or intimate of some former Presidential family. In this administration, too, was born to Washington its first formal code of social precedence, which, with certain modifications in detail, has remained unchanged to this day. It differs from the codes of other American communities in having official rank as a basis. John Quincy Adams, before becoming Secretary of State, had served at various times as envoy to five European courts. He was therefore ripe with information on the rules observed abroad and resolved on bringing something of the same sort into operation at our capital.

Mrs. Monroe and her daughters made it an absolute rule to pay no visits ; so calls made on them, no matter by whom, went unreturned. Their dislike of the underbred caused them to take no part in the preparations for the general levees, which were thronged with anybody and everybody ; but their invitation list for select receptions was cut down mercilessly, and the reduced company were treated to supper, an innovation on recent practices. At all such entertainments Mrs. Monroe was so exacting in her demands as to dress that when one of her near relatives presented himself in an informal costume which he had worn without criticism at the best of the Jefferson and Madison functions, she refused him admittance till he should don the regulation small-clothes and silk hose.

The Monroes renamed the east room “the banqueting hall” and had their state dinners there, partly because of its spaciousness, and partly because the dining-room had been so badly damaged in the fire that it took a long time to rehabilitate. The table appointments included a central oval “plateau” twelve feet long by two feet wide, composed of a mirror “surrounded by gold females holding candlesticks.” The china was highly gilt, and the dessert knives, forks, and spoons were of beaten gold. All the plate was the private property of the family and bore the initials ” J. M.” ; much of it was afterward purchased by the Government and made a part of the official furnishing of the White House, where it remained in use down to Van Buren’s day.

A New York Representative went with some friends to dine with the Monroes. Arriving at half-past five, his party were “ushered, Indian file, into the drawing-room,” where they found “some twenty gentlemen seated in a row in solemn state, mute as fishes, having already undergone the ceremony of introduction.” And he goes on :

“Mrs. Monroe was seated at the further end of the room, with other ladies. On our approach, she rose and received us handsomely. After being myself presented, I introduced the other gentlemen. I now expected to be led to the President, but my pilot, the private secretary, had vanished. We beat a retreat, each to his respective chair. Observing the President sitting very demurely by the chimney-corner, I arose and advanced to him. He got up and shook me by the hand, as he did the other gentlemen. This second ceremony over, all again was silence, and each once more moved to his seat. It was a period of great solemnity. Not a whisper broke upon the ear to interrupt the silence of the place, and every one looked as if the next moment would be his last. After a while the President, in a grave manner, began conversation with some one that sat near him, and directly the secretary ushered in some more victims, who submitted to the same ordeal we had experienced. This continued for fully half an hour, when dinner was announced. It became more lively as the dishes rattled.” The party remained at table till about half-past eight.

The retirement of Monroe marked the end of “the Virginia dynasty.” It had always been a sore point with John Adams that the highest office of the Government should be passed from hand to hand in the Old Dominion, and he once threw out the splenetic comment that not “until the last Virginian was laid in the graveyard” would his son have a chance at the Presidency. The son had been trained with reference to such an inheritance, and, on becoming Monroe’s Secretary of State, regarded himself as in the line of succession. His appearance as a Presidential candidate, however, aroused no general enthusiasm, whereas General Andrew Jackson, having given the finishing stroke to the defeat of the British invaders by his victory over Pakenham, and acquired the nick-name “Old Hickory,” had become the idol of the multitude. In spite of their approaching competition for the Presidency, Adams was obliged to recognize Jackson’s prestige at every turn ; and on the eighth of January, 1824, Mrs. Adams gave a ball in the General’s honor which was so grand that it was still talked of in Washington fifty years afterward. .

The Adams house stood on the site now occupied by the Adams office building in F Street near Fourteenth. On this occasion the floor of the ballroom was decorated with pictures in colored chalks. The central design, which portrayed an American eagle clutching a trophy of flags, bore the legend : “Welcome to the Hero of New Orleans !” The pillars were trimmed with laurel and other winter foliage, roses were scattered everywhere, and the illumination was furnished by variegated lamps, with a brilliant luster in the middle of the ceiling. There were eight pieces of music. Mrs. Adams was seated in the center of the hall, with Jackson standing at her side and a semi-circle of distinguished guests behind them. President Monroe and Mr. Adams attended, but both were conspicuous for their sobriety of attire. It was this gathering which inspired a tribute in verse by a local journalist, beginning :

Wend you with the world tonight ? Brown and fair, and wise and witty, Eyes that float in seas of light, Laughing mouths and dimples pretty, Belles and matrons, maids and madams, All are gone to Mrs. Adams ! ”

Nine months later, Jackson polled a far larger popular vote for the Presidency than Adams, and so distributed as to give him a lead in the electoral colleges also. But as there were four candidates, none of whom had a clear majority of the electoral vote, the decision was left to the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay, the candidate at the bottom of the list, threw his support to Adams, giving him the office. Adams recognized his debt to Clay by appointing him Secretary of State, and thus placing him in the line of promotion. Jackson never forgave Clay for his share in electing Adams, and from that day forth had nothing to do with him beyond the coolest exchange of civilities. In other respects the General accepted defeat philosophically, attending the inaugural ceremonies and promptly coming forward to congratulate the new President, an act of grace that brought tears to the eyes of Adams. The appearance of the two men together in public delighted the crowd, and there was vociferous hurrahing for Jackson. Judged solely by appearances, indeed, the day was a festival in honor of Jackson rather than of Adams. Many of the General’s friends had come a long distance, in an era when traveling was so slow that they had been obliged to leave home before learning the final outcome of the election, and supposed that they were to attend the inauguration of their favorite. They sought solace for their disappointment in turbulent demonstrations. For the whole afternoon the dramshops carried on a tremendous business, and all. night the streets were full of tramping men roaring out Jackson campaign songs and silencing opposition with their fists. Pistol shots were heard at frequent intervals, and a rumor spread that Henry Clay had been killed.

Whatever Adams may have thought of these exhibitions, he bore them with a calm exterior. He was always indifferent to criticism, and became famous as the most shabbily clad man who had ever occupied the Presidential chair, being accused even of having worn the same hat for ten years. He braved public opinion by setting up a billiard table in the White House, which gave a North Carolina Representative a text for a speech denouncing the expenditure of fifty dollars for the table and six dollars for a set of balls as “alarming to the religious, the moral, and the reflecting portion of the community.” The antiadministration press, using the game of billiards as a theme, opened fire upon the President as a gambler. For a fact, he never made but one bet in his life. Clay had picked up at auction a picture which Adams tried to buy of him. One day, in jest, Clay offered it as a stake for a game of all-fours. To his astonishment, Adams, the supposed ascetic, took him up, and won the game and the picture.

It was a habit of Adams to take a plunge in the Potomac, at the foot of his garden, every morning “between daybreak and sunrise,” the weather permitting. Once he had all his clothing stolen, and had to catch a passing boy and send him home for enough raiment to cover him. But this was by no means his most embarrassing adventure. It was during his administration that the first woman newspaper correspondent turned up in Washington. She was resolved to procure an interview with the President, who did not care to gratify her. So she rose early one morning and repaired, notebook and pencil in hand, to the river bank, and planted herself beside his clothes till he started to come out. Standing almost neck-deep in the water, he tried first severity and then persuasion to induce her to go away, but she held her ground till he surrendered and answered her most important questions.

The billiard table was not the only basis for charges of prodigal living brought against Adams. When he ran for reelection, his enemies made effective use of a letter written by a member of Congress who had attended a New Year’s reception at the White House and who mentioned the “gorgeously furnished east room.” The truth was that the east room, except for three marble-topped tables and a few mirrors, did not contain fifty dollars’ worth of furniture of any sort. A Washingtonian of the period has written that there were no chandeliers, and that the great room depended for its lighting on candles held in tin candlesticks nailed to the wall, which “dripped their sperm upon the clothes of those who came under them, as I well know from experience.”

Adams sometimes aroused personal hostility by his peppery temper. He had to dine with him one evening a Southern Senator who was notorious for his dislike of everything in New England but prided himself on his knowledge of wines. The Senator had the bad manners to remark that he had “never known a Unitarian who did not believe in the sea-serpent.” This aroused the ire of Adams, who later, when his guest said that Tokay and Rhine wine were somewhat alike, turned upon him with the exclamation : “Sir, I do not believe that you ever drank a drop of Tokay in your life!” He afterward apologized, but the Senator would not accept the apology and became the implacable foe of his administration.

Jackson’s election in 1828 was a foregone conclusion from the moment he reappeared as a Presidential candidate ; and, immediately upon the announcement that he had won an electoral vote a good deal more than double that of Adams, Washington became the Mecca of a hundred pilgrimages. By the fourth of March, 1829, the city was so crowded with worshipers of the President-elect that they overflowed the inns and boarding-houses, and many were obliged to live in camp. Half the men wore their trousers tucked into their bootlegs, and not a few carried pistols openly in their belts. The hickory emblem was in evidence everywhere : men wielded hickory canes and staffs, women wore bonnets trimmed with hickory leaves and necklaces composed of hickory nuts fancifully painted, and scores of horses were driven with bridles of hickory bark.

Like his father, Adams did not attend the inauguration of his successor ; he withdrew to a hired dwelling on the heights north of the city and kept to himself till the flurry was over. Probably Jackson did not regret his absence, for the campaign had been surcharged with bitter personalities, into which the name of Mrs. Jackson was remorselessly dragged. Mrs. Jackson had died since election day, and the General believed her death the direct result of calumny.

Madison had set the fashion, and Monroe and Adams had improved upon it, of having a formal escort to the Capitol on the way to inauguration. Jackson, how-ever, refused to follow custom. As the only militia organization in the city was under command of a colonel who hated him, he had no military display, but walked down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue with only a body-guard composed of veterans of the War of the Revolution, then a half-century past. For any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the resident population, that of the visiting Jacksonians more than compensated. All the way the General and his little party were so surrounded by a yelling, cheering crowd that they could advance only at a snail’s pace. To watchers on Capitol Hill he was distinguishable from the mob by being the one man in the midst of it who walked bareheaded.

Jackson was the first President to take the oath of office on the east portico of the Capitol, the place now generally used. He also was the first to read his speech before being sworn. He wore two pairs of spectacles, — a pair for looking at the crowd and a pair for reading ; when he was using one pair, the other was perched aloft on his forehead. At the close of the exercises, he mounted a fine white horse and rode to the White House, again having to make his way through a mass of singing and shouting admirers. At the mansion a feast had been provided, and the gates thrown open to every one. The building was soon stuffed full ; and, as the people waiting outside could hardly hope to force their way in, negro servants came to the doors with buckets of punch and salvers of cakes and ices and passed these out. Much of the food and drink was wasted, and much china and glassware smashed. Women fainted, men quarreled and bruised one another’s faces. At one stage the doorways became so blocked that people coming out had to climb through the windows and drop to the ground. The rabble inside, bent on shaking the hand of the President, jammed him against a wall to the serious peril of his ribs, till he succeeded in escaping through a back entry and taking refuge in the hotel where he had lately had his lodgings.

The boisterous incidents of his first day in office were only an earnest of the stormy administration which lay before Jackson. Realizing how much he was indebted to New York for his election, and that Mar-tin Van Buren had a powerful following there, he appointed Van Buren his Secretary of, State. This proved a pretty lucky investment in human nature ; for in the Peggy Eaton controversy, which broke out soon after Jackson began his term, Van Buren was a valuable ally. General John H. Eaton, a lifelong friend whom Jackson had appointed Secretary of War, had been boarding for several years with a local tavern-keeper named O’Neal. The publican’s daughter, Peggy, had grown up a pretty, but pert and forward girl, who flirted with her father’s patrons and married one of them, Purser Timberlake of the navy. Timber-lake was addicted to drink, and during one of his cruises he ended a spree by suicide, leaving his wife and children destitute ; and Eaton, whose name gossip had already linked with the widow’s, came to the front with an offer of marriage, which was accepted.

The wedding followed so closely upon the tragedy as to cause wide criticism, and this, together with her antecedents, condemned Mrs. Eaton to social ostracism. Left to themselves, Eaton’s colleagues of the Cabinet would have ignored the circumstances of his marriage, but the ladies of their families declared that they would have nothing to do with the bride. Van Buren, as a widower with no daughters, felt free to act as he pleased ; and Jackson, remembering what his own wife had endured, gallantly espoused the cause of Mrs, Eaton and gave the hostile Secretaries their choice between accepting her or resigning their portfolios, whereupon the Cabinet went promptly to pieces.

Being a man of means, Van Buren did a good deal of entertaining for Mrs. Eaton’s benefit, and also inspired those members of the diplomatic corps who were unaccompanied by ladies to join him in “floating” her. The British Minister was a bachelor, so was the Russian Minister ; but, though the dinners and balls which they gave attracted many feminine guests who were flattered by being invited, they were not wholly successful. Madam Huygens, wife of the Dutch Minister, for instance, was induced to attend a ball, but when escorted to the supper table found that she was expected to sit next but one to Mrs. Eaton and would have to exchange a few words with that lady. Instantly she placed her arm in that of her husband and withdrew with him from the room. When the story was told to Jackson, he rose in his wrath and declared that he would send Huygens home to Holland ; but he never carried out the threat.

Viewed in historical perspective, Jackson appears to have been a man of tremendous force, thoroughly patriotic, conscientious in even his most wayward conceptions of duty, unlearned but not illiterate, and above all things hating treachery. He handled the sword with more facility than the pen, and some of his correspondence, reproduced with its crudities of syntax and spelling, would make the better educated angels weep. Conscious of his scholastic shortcomings, he rarely attempted anything original in writing or speaking, except on public questions ; and when his autograph was sought in the albums which were the fashionable fad of the day, he borrowed his sentiments from the Presbyterian hymn-book, quoting, as Miss Martineau recalls, “stanzas of the most ominous import from Dr. Watts.”

Jackson usually flavored his dinners and receptions with a dash of the unexpected. On one occasion he jostled the proprieties by singing “Auld Lang Syne.” He ate sparingly at his own table but talked a great deal, slowly and quietly, and, when women were present, with much real kindliness of tone. He had a homely way of disposing of questions which he regarded as not overimportant. At a dinner in honor of the marriage of his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Junior, he decided on an innovation in etiquette by having his Secretary of State precede the diplomatic corps, the rest of the Cabinet to follow the foreigners. This plan was vigorously resisted by the Secretary of the Treasury, who argued that the Cabinet was a unit, and that its members should therefore be treated on an equal footing. “In that case,” said the President, “we will put all the Cabinet ahead of the diplomats,” and he sent his private secretary, Major Donelson, to make the announcement to the guests. The French Minister at once stirred up the Dutch Minister, as senior member of the corps, to prevent the threatened indignity. Meanwhile, dinner had been announced, and every one was standing. Donelson reported the strained situation to the President, who, instead of vowing “by the Eternal” that his commands should be obeyed, smiled good-naturedly and said : “Well, I will lead with the bride. It is a family affair ; so we’ll waive all difficulties, and the company will please to follow as heretofore.”

The first baby born in the White House probably was Mary Emily Donelson, child of the private secretary. At her baptism in the east room the President and Martin Van Buren stood as godfathers. Van Buren took her in his arms when she was first brought in, but she squirmed and wriggled so that Jackson reached out for her, whereat she cooed with delight, as children always did at any attention from him. He held her throughout the service, and, at the minister’s question, “Do you, in the name of this child, renounce the devil and all his works ?” he stiffened up as he might have if confronted with a fresh machinaion of his enemies, and declared with characteristic emphasis: “I do, sir; I renounce them all!”

It was during Jackson’s administration that Harriet Martineau first visited Washington. She was suffering from overwork and had been orderd by her physician in England to cross the sea for a good rest. In spite of that, people would not let her alone. It is said that within twenty-four hours after her arrival in town more than six hundred persons had called to pay their respects. Probably not fifty could have told why they did so, except that she was a literary celebrity. One lady was eager to learn “whether her novels were really very pretty,” and most of the statesmen, when told that she was a political economist, laughed outright. A social leader, desirous of giving her a dinner such as she had been accustomed to at home, made the table groan under the choicest things the market afforded, including eight different meats, only to see the guest confine herself to a tiny slice of turkey-breast and a nibble of ham. She was equally disconcerting with her other simplicities, such as coming to a five o’clock dinner at a little after three, clad in a walking suit in which she had been tramping about the city, but bringing in her capacious pockets all the trappings necessary for a presentable evening toilet.

Notwithstanding her idiosyncrasies, Miss Martineau made a profoundly pleasant impression wherever she went. Webster, Clay, and Calhoun would desert their seats in the Senate to join her for a talk, and Chief Justice Marshall would descend from the bench to greet her when she came into his courtroom. She could take up her unpretentious position in the corner of a sofa anywhere, and in a few minutes have a circle of the country’s elect about her awaiting their turns for a chat ; and this in spite of the fact that she was very deaf and had to make use of an ear-trumpet of an unfamiliar pattern, so that often a newcomer would talk into the wrong aperture. She never made anything of her infirmity ; and, of all the poems, addresses, and letters of appreciation with which she was showered, the production which gave her most delight was an ode to her trumpet, beginning : “Beloved horn !”

Early in this administration, the east room at the White House, which had figured in the Democratic campaign speeches as an audience chamber sumptuous enough for royalty, was discovered to be too shabby for a President of Jackson’s simple habits. So four large mirrors, heavily framed in gilt, were hung against its walls, their bases resting on mantels of black Italian marble. Chandeliers gleaming with glass prisms were suspended from the ceiling; damask-covered chairs, their woodwork gilded like the mirror frames, were substituted for the worn-out furniture which had sufficed for the Adams family; the windows were richly curtained; a Brussels carpet, with the sprawling pattern then so much admired, was stretched over the entire floor ; and this array of elegance was capped with bouquets of artificial flowers, in painted china vases, distributed among the mantels and tables and in the window recesses.

These things did not long retain their freshness. Jackson’s dinners had features quaint enough, but his receptions were little short of riots. A literary visitor has left us the description of one where “generals, commodores, foreign ministers and members of Congress” brushed elbows with laborers who had come in their working clothes from a day of canal digging, and “sooty artificers” direct from the forge. “There were majors in broadcloth and corduroys, redolent of gin and tobacco, and majors’ ladies in chintz or russet, with huge Paris earrings, and tawny necks profusely decorated with beads of colored glass. There were tailors from the board and judges from the bench ; lawyers who opened their mouths at one bar, and tapsters who closed theirs at another ; and one individual — either a miller or a baker — who, wherever he passed, left marks of contact on the garments of the company.” Meanwhile, the waiters who attempted to cross from the pantry to the east room with cakes and punch were intercepted by a ravenous horde who emptied the trays as fast as they could be refilled, so that little or nothing reached the better-mannered guests. This went on till the Irish butler, in exasperation, enlisted a dozen stalwart men and armed them with billets of wood, to surround the waiters as a guard, and keep their sticks swinging about the food so briskly that it could not be captured except at the cost of a broken head. Of course the carpet, curtains, and cushions were deluged with sticky refuse, and broken bits of china and glass were ground into powder under foot.