- Historic Sites
“i Walk On Untrodden Ground”
WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION: IV As the very first President, Washington had to invent his own job. What about a cabinet? How do you “advise” with tiresome senators? Should you have slaves in the executive mansion? How do you deal with all those uninvited visitors? And with the Vice President—especially when you know that he is terribly jealous?
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
Two days after his inauguration Washington published in the newspapers that he would receive “visits of compliment” only between the hours of two and three on Tuesdays and Fridays. He would return no visits and accept no invitations “to entertainments.” A little later he modified this by establishing two occasions a week when any respectably dressed person could, without introduction, invitation, or any prearrangement, be ushered into his presence. One was the President’s “levee,” for men only, every Tuesday from three to four. The other was Martha’s tea party, for men and women, held on Friday evenings. Washington would also stage dinners on Thursdays at four o’clock in the afternoon. To avoid any charges of favoritism or contests for invitations, only officials and their families would be asked to the dinners, and these in an orderly system of rotation.
His levees exhibited none of the joviality of entertainments at Mount Vernon, nor of the ancient relaxations in army camps. The occasions could hardly have been stiffer. Exposed, as he put it, to “foreign characters, Strangers, and others who from motives of curiosity … or any other cause, are induced to call on me,” Washington suffered from the same rigid embarrassment that made him so frustrating a sitter for painters.
“Domestic arrangements” were the province of Tobias Lear. Washington waited until everything was “well fixed” in the new house before he summoned Martha from Mount Vernon. She arrived, with two of her grandchildren, ten-year-old Nellie and “Little Washington” Custis, almost a month after her husband had been inaugurated.
She must have stared nervously from her carriage to see what kind of a house had been prepared for her. Since it proved to be three stories high, with a five-window front, she concluded it was “a very good one.” On entering, she was pleased to discover that it was “handsomely furnished all new for the General.” But yet, how she did miss Mount Vernon!
Perhaps under Martha’s urging (which certainly agreed with his own predilections), Washington gradually and inconspicuously loosed his rigorous avoidance of private visits with personal friends—and at the official entertainments Martha shone. She not only soothed the men but charmed the ladies.
Abigail Adams had also arrived late at the capital. Having been told by her husband, John—who sarcastically referred to Washington as “His Majesty”—that hauteur and false grandeur now characterized the Washingtons, she must have been surprised, when she called on Martha, to be received with “great ease and politeness.” Martha, she noted, “is plain in her dress, but the plainness is the best of every article…. Her hair is white, her teeth beautiful.” Abigail even admired Martha’s plump figure, considering it better than her own.
Although Washington’s levees were usually dull (and criticized for being aristocratically stiff), Martha’s weekly tea parties were gay (and criticized for being aristocratically splendid). At the tea parties the General was a different man, since he relaxed in the presence of the fair sex. Female elegance appealed to him, and the ladies of New York (as later in Philadelphia) having no parties more elaborate than these to attend, did not spare the milliners and hairdressers. They wore their hair low, with pearls and bandeaux, à la grecque , or rolled moderately skyward, à la Pompadour . It was noted that when his duties as a host left him free to circulate, Washington passed the men by and spent all his time with the ladies.
Throughout her tea parties Martha remained seated. Because he did not personally like the Vice President, Washington was all the more meticulous in honoring the office: he saw to it that the seat at Martha’s right was assigned to the Vice President’s lady. If another lady happened to be sitting there when Abigail Adams arrived, Washington got the interloper to move with a tact that made Abigail comment, “This same President has so happy a faculty to accommodate and yet carry his point, that, if he were really not the bestintentioned man in the world, he might be a very dangerous one.” She then launched on a panegyric about Washington that would, had he seen it, have irritated her husband: “He is polite with dignity, affable without familarity, distant without hautiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise and good.”
Servants who stood at the door announced the name of each guest. Then one of Washington’s secretaries escorted the ladies to Mrs. Washington. After making a respectful curtsy and engaging in a moment of conversation with Martha, each lady was conducted to a chair where she was supposed to sit “without noticing any of the rest of the company” until the President came up to her. Washington approached and chatted, so noted Abigail—who had been at the Court of St. James’s—“with a grace, dignity, and ease that leaves royal George far behind him.” The lady was then free to go into the other room, where there were refreshments: ice cream, tea and coffee, cakes, candy, etc.