- Historic Sites
Presidents, Imperial And Otherwise
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
Shall we have a King?” John Jay asked George Washington in 1787, when the new nation, still pinned together only by the Articles of Confederation, seemed likely to fly apart. More than any other man, Washington would make sure that the answer to that plaintive query was a resounding no. But his own sense of the Presidency was itself fairly kingly; guests at his Philadelphia levees were not to speak to him unless spoken to, nor would he shake their hands—to ensure that no one dared try to press his flesh, he rested one hand upon the hilt of his dress sword and held a specially made false hat in the other.
It was Washington, too, who determined that his successors should live in a “palace” in the new federal capital to be built on the Potomac; he personally chose the site for it with Pierre L’Enfant, in 1791, and initially favored that turbulent Frenchman’s plan for a residence five times the size of the one that we now know.
The President’s House, a new study by William Scale, is the most detailed account of the White House yet published. The author, the former curator of American culture at the Smithsonian Institution, set out nearly a dozen years ago, under the auspices of the White House Historical Association, to write a short, strictly architectural history, and ended up with a long one, filled with all the detail the most demanding architectural historian could want. But the rest of us can be grateful that in the course of his work with original documents—diaries, bills of sale, unpublished letters—plus whole libraries of published sources, he found that he could make little sense of the many changes that had taken place within the mansion without first trying to understand the personalities of the men and women who lived in and so often altered it. The result—two fat volumes, totaling 1,224 pages—is a little unwieldy for reading straight through and has its share of niggling errors of the sort an alert editor should have caught (Eleanor Roosevelt’s friend and biographer is Joseph P. Lash. Justice James F. Byrnes was part of FDR’s wartime White House; the political scientist James MacGregor Burns was not). But it is filled with lively details about every presidential family from John and Abigail Adams to Bess and Harry Truman. (A brief epilogue summarizes developments since 1953.)
Such a big, crowded study may be enjoyed several ways. To begin with, it provides a sort of exalted guide to middleclass American domestic habits. Thomas Jefferson had the Adams’s wooden “necessary” torn down in 1800 and replaced upstairs by two “Water Closets...of superior construction...prepared so as to be cleansed constantly by a pipe throwing Water through them at command from a reservoir above.” Andrew Jackson put in running water, though he was himself probably too feeble to stand upright beneath his new shower. James K. Polk had the first gaslights installed in 1848—about the same time Mrs. Polk first ordered musicians to strike up “Hail to the Chief” in order to alert White House guests that her otherwise easily overlooked husband was about to make his entrance. (The Polks’ initial gaslit reception was not entirely a success; the Washington gas plant closed down for the night at nine o’clock sharp, plunging the parlors into darkness.) Electricity reached the house in 1891, but President Benjamin Harrison forbade members of his family to touch the light switches lest they be electrocuted; a fearless servant snapped them on and off.
Neither the Presidents nor their wives nor we who vote them in and out of the White House have ever quite known just how royal they are supposed to be, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the sometimes startling pretensions of these temporary occupants of what Franklin Pierce first called “the people’s house.” James Monroe deliberately wore the powdered wigs and knee breeches of an earlier age, a sort of court dress he evidently thought proper for presiding over the Era of Good Feelings. The accusations of monarchism and unseemly love of luxury that helped drive Martin Van Buren from office were mostly false, the products of shrewd but shameless Whig propagandists. But his daughter-in-law, Angelica Van Buren, was evidently guilty as charged; fresh from a trip to Europe where she had been made much of at several courts, she took to silently greeting guests in the Elliptical Saloon as the centerpiece of a tableau vivant, dressed all in white and surrounded by ladies in waiting in matching gowns standing motionless on a specially built platform.
Van Buren’s successor, the venerable William Henry Harrison, on the other hand, did his damndest to live down to the reputation for ordinariness that had helped elect him; he even tried to do his own marketing, setting out early each morning with a basket over his arm, only to have to give it up because of the gawkers who turned out to see him and the petitioners who tugged at his sleeve. (Similar charades have been played out in our own time; not long after plain Gerald Ford succeeded the Imperial Nixon, a photo opportunity was provided so that Americans could see for themselves that their new President sometimes toasted his very own English muffins. Everyone was pleased, as I remember.)