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“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
Martha was capable of breaking up a reception at 9:30 by stating that her husband usually went to bed at 9:00 and that she usually preceded him. Such homey notes (and the lack of liquor) did not keep Martha’s teas from figuring luridly in many minds. Newspaper editors who yearned for a high, monarchical society reported the occasions in inflated terms, even referring to the female guests not as “Mrs. ——” but as “Lady This” and “Lady That.” Republican editors viewed with the utmost alarm: that the servants who ushered in the guests had their hair powdered seemed to threaten the very fabric of the nation.
The Washingtons often went to the theatre, on one occasion taking Senator Maclay, who was horrified that the Chief Magistrate should countenance the exposure of “ladies of character and virtue” to such an “indecent representation” as Sheridan’s School for Scandal . Maclay also had his turns at Washington’s dinner parties.
Despite the restriction of the invitations to officials, the dinners could be gay, since such of Washington’s favorite friends as Knox and Robert Morris held office. He often tried to leaven a lump and create a party more like those at Mount Vernon by inviting (as he did with the John Adams family) not only the elders but grown-up sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law. However, there were unsuccessful dinners, and one of these Maclay—who was enough by himself to put a damper on almost any party—reported gleefully for posterity.
As he dressed in preparation, Maclay warned himself that he had to be wary lest his pure republicanism be undermined by the seductions of Washington’s aristocratic method of entertaining. He found that the President and Mrs. Washington sat opposite each other at the middle of the dinner table, the ladies being ranged on both sides of Martha, the gentlemen, opposite them, on both sides of George. The dinner began with soup; then fish, various roasted meats, fowls. Dessert consisted of apple pies and pudding followed by ice creams and jellies and then by watermelons, muskmelons, apples, peaches, nuts. Unable to deny that the meal was “the best of the kind” he had ever experienced, Maclay was nonetheless able to find some soothing dissatisfactions: the room was “disagreeably warm,” and the food was eaten in solemn silence—“not a health drank.”
After the cloth had been removed, the pendulum swung the other way, and there were too many toasts. To MaClay’s disgust, the President “drank to the health of every individual by name round the table.” The guests then imitated him, “and such a buzz of ‘health, sir’ and ‘health, madam’ never had I heard before.” Silence, according to Maclay, sank again until the ladies withdrew. Then the President told an anecdote about “a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing a river called the Brunks”—which Maclay did not consider funny.
“The President kept a fork in his hand,” but instead of using it to open nuts, as Maclay suspected he would, he “played with the fork, striking on the edge of the table with it.” Maclay assumed that the President was being pompous and dull, but perhaps Washington was hearing yearningly in his mind’s ear laughter on the banks of the Potomac.
Congress decided that it would make a bad precedent to accede to Washington’s request that he not be paid a salary but be reimbursed for his expenses: they set the presidential stipend at $25,000 a year. Although they seemed to be brushing aside his self-sacrifice, the decision would have been to Washington’s advantage only if his expenses had been less than the $25,000. As it was, he had to supplement his salary each year with some $5,000 from his own pocket. Fortunately, this was not more than he could afford, since the expenses at Mount Vernon, which he now inhabited only for visits, were so much reduced. He was enabled to escape the acute financial embarrassments from which he had suffered on taking office. If he still possessed little fluid cash, he was no longer being dunned for debts.
In 1789 Washington kept fifteen servants around the house and six who were assigned to the stables. He had brought with him seven slaves. However, probably because of the northern objections and his own uneasiness concerning slavery, he hired fourteen white servants, who occupied all the positions that brought them into contact with the public; they included the coachmen, two footmen, and the housemaids. Washington’s steward, a well-known tavern owner in New York called Samuel Fraunces, came from the West Indies and must have had a dark complexion, since he was known as Black Sam. He stood at attendance at the dinner table, dressed in a wig and smallclothes, superintending the service. Washington also had a French confectioner and for a time a valet who was probably French—his name was Julian L’Hoste. The valet bought powder for the presidential hair, black silk bags to hold the presidential queue, and the narrow black ribbons known as solitaires that held the queue neatly in place. Although Washington wore black velvet on formal occasions, his favorite suit color was brown. He also wore gray and gray mixtures. The President never appeared in military costume except to receive the members of the Society of the Cincinnati or to review militia.