Postscripts To History

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To the Editors:

In your August, 1964, issue Gerald Carson ably tells the story of Charles Ogle’s viciously false speech in the House of Representatives on April 14, 1840, and the major part it played in knocking Martin Van Buren out of the White House and electing William Henry Harrison, the “log-cabin-and-hard-cider” man of the people. As Carson makes clear, the nub of the hatchet job was the untrue picture of Van Buren as a voluptuary, living in the White House in sumptuous splendor and eating from gold plates with gold spoons.

Your editorial comment says that “the question did not come up in the Presidency of Van Buren’s successor … since [Harrison] died within a month after taking office.” But the question did come up, in a wry sequel that underlines a curious fact of American political life: that a matter inflated into a bulbous issue during a heated campaign may collapse like a pricked blister—or even turn inside out-after the election is over. The sequel also provides an interesting view of White House furnishings and what they cost a century and a quarter ago.

On February 23, 1841, shortly before Harrison’s inauguration, John W. Alien of Ohio, a Harrison man, rose in the House of Representatives to move an appropriation of $6,000, “in addition to the avails of sales of decayed furniture,” to buy furnishings for the President’s House. (It will be recalled that Ogle’s attack on President Van Buren’s extravagance had been by way of objecting to an appropriations item of $3,665 for landscaping the grounds and repairing the furniture of the White House.)

At once a spirited discussion arose. Henry A. Wise of Virginia demanded an itemized statement “to see what this six thousand dollars is wanted for.” Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts, a staunch Harrison Whig, rose to defend the appropriation; and Mr. Alien, after some delay, produced a letter from W. Noland, Commissioner of Public Buildings, stating that it would be necessary to spend an estimated $5,359.50 to refurnish the President’s House, chiefly the bed chambers. An itemized list, chamber by chamber, was appended, showing such typical entries as, “i feather bed, $45.50 … fire set, $6.50 … 1 set chamber toilet ware, $16.00.” Most of the items sounded eminently practical, the most questionable being, perhaps, “Brussels carpet [for an anteroom], $275.00,” “i mirror, $75.00,” and “Dinner set entire, 5500.00.” When the list of proposed purchases had been read to the House, Mr. Wise desired to know whether the furniture already in the White House was not sufficient. For his part, he would not vote a single dollar of the motion: General Harrison had not asked for it.

After further discussion, Julius C. Alford of Georgia offered a substitute motion: “That, for furniture for the President’s House, the President-elect be authorized to sell the gold spoons and other such furniture as he may deem extravagant and unnecessary in the President’s House, and purchase with the proceeds of the sale thereof, such furniture as he may deem proper and useful.” This raised the question of whether there were, in fact, any gold spoons in the White House. Nobody seemed to know, and a study of the official inventory was called for. After an appropriate interim, a statement from the Commissioner of Public Buildings was read, certifying that all knives, forks, and spoons in the White House, according to an inventory taken by order of President Jackson in 1837, were “silver-gilt” rather than gold; and that “no gold or silver-gilt knives, or forks, or spoons, or plate of any description has been purchased for the President’s House since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the nation.” To this was added a statement from a professional jeweller certifying that the White House dining utensils were indeed silver-gilt, that is, “covered with gold and burnished”; they were not solid gold. Mr. Alford thereupon modified his substitute motion about selling gold spoons, to make it read “silver-gilt spoons.” It was voted down, sixty-six to sixty-one.

The question then reverted to Mr. Alien’s motion to appropriate $6,000 for White House furnishings. George M. Keim of Pennsylvania remarked, speaking as a member of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, that the committee had not recommended any purchases for General Harrison’s household because, if anything had been more distinctly decided in the late contest than any other, it was the extravagance which had been practised in the President’s House.

A vote was then taken on Mr. Alien’s motion, calling for an appropriation of $6,000 to buy furniture for incoming President William Henry Harrison. It carried, ayes ninety, noes fifty-one.