- Historic Sites
George Washington wouldn't believe it
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
One of the chief mysteries of the Presidency is the cost of maintaining its outward splendor. Dozens of corporate leaders, television personalities, athletes, and entertainers earn substantially more than the President does, but few—or none—live as well or as expansively, and none can match the pomp and pageantry that lately have given the Presidency an almost royal cast. Indeed, during his years in office he enjoys a life-style that goes well beyond the relatively modest sum he receives in salary and that easily rivals in its comfort and trappings that of royalty. To a large extent this is a recent development and a corollary to the expansion of Presidential power in this century, although—as some of the Founding Fathers feared—it may have been implicit in the nature of the office from the beginning. We think it worth further examination and present here a record of the growth in Presidential expenses since 1789.
In the spring of 1840, as the Presidency entered its fiftyfirst year, Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania took the floor in the House of Representatives to deliver a devastating attack on the highfalutin ways of Martin Van Buren. Over the course of three days Ogle patiently examined the furnishings of the White House and the incumbent President’s habits and tastes. In florid strokes of what a colleague called “pure buncombe,” he painted a broad portrait of a sybaritic chief of state, living in royal splendor at the public’s expense.
While the rest of the country toiled in hard labor, Ogle fulminated, “Sweet Sandy Whiskers” lolled about his commodious White House bath sipping French champagne and gently spraying his red beard with an imported cologne called Triple Distillé Savon Daveline Mans Sens. Where the common man was content with honest American fare on his table, like “fried meat and gravy, or hog and hominy,” the President, Ogle said, would dine only on continental cuisine that any true citizen would find “hardly fit to eat,” despite its elaborate preparation by an imported French chef.
Compare, the congressman implored, the contents of the White House—the fine china, the heavy silverware, the crystal, the paintings, the rich carpets, and the imported furniture—with the simple, homespun decorations of the log cabins in the West, whose bareness was scarcely relieved by “a string of speckled birds’-eggs festooned about a looking-glass measuring eight by ten inches, and a fringed window curtain of white cotton cloth.” Compare, he said, and note how far the Presidency had come from the days of authentic heroes like Washington and Jackson. The once-proud office was now dimmed by Van Buren’s unseemly display of “pomp, pride, and parade.”
“I put it to the free citizens of this country … ,” Ogle said with a flourish, “will they longer feel inclined to support their chief servant in a Palace as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion?”
Apparently the answer to that question in the election of 1840 was No, for the incumbent was soundly drubbed by William Henry Harrison, who was adroitly, if inaccurately, peddled to the public as the simple “Farmer from North Bend.” But what is the answer in 1974? If Ogle found the “Royal Splendors of the President’s Palace” too expensive for his democratic tastes more than a century ago, what splenetic phrases would he need now to describe the way of life of the contemporary chief of state? For surely one of the remarkable developments of the last forty years has been the dramatic increase in the richness and comfort of the President’s life.
Equally striking is the significant change during those four decades in the attitude of both Congress and the public—the one generally ready to pay for added Presidential perquisites, the other apparently prepared to accept each addition as a necessary prerogative of the office. Historically such was not the case, for the Founding Fathers had viewed the executive with considerable trepidation. As Edmund Randolph put it, there was buried in Article n of the Constitution “the foetus of a king.” Consequently every effort was made to circumscribe the President’s power and keep him within the responsible bounds of republican rule. Each succeeding Congress tried to resist nourishing the very monarchy it feared. Allocations for the White House were kept to a minimal (some would say niggardly) level, and Presidential expenditures were carefully scrutinized. In 1825, for example, John Quincy Adams was so strongly challenged for spending $61 out of a furniture fund on a pool table for the family quarters that he finally paid for it out of his own pocket.
Presidents were expected to live on the salary Congress voted them; no additional moneys were offered for most of the nineteenth century. This meant that all state entertainments, public receptions, formal dinners, and the like were the President’s financial responsibility, as were the staff of servants in the White House, transportation, medical care, additional office help beyond that provided by the government, office supplies, and—to some extent—the furnishings of the White House. Congress from time to time made funds available for redecorating and refurbishing the Presidential mansion, but most of the limited money provided was expended on the public rooms. The Presidents supplied the rest. As late as 1945, when the Trumans moved in, the private quarters, according to young Margaret, resembled “a third-rate boarding house.”