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Presidents, Imperial And Otherwise

June 2024
6min read

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 But the rest of us can be grateful that in the course of his work with original documents—diaries, bills of sale, unpublished letters—plus whole libraries of published sources, he found that he could make little sense of the many changes that had taken place within the mansion without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.)

Harrison soon fell ill, underwent a possibly fatal battery of treatments—bleeding, cupping, laudanum, opium, calomel, castor oil, patent powders, root cures, and shots of warm whiskey—and died just thirty days after his inauguration. No other President had ever died in office: “What! Soared the old eagle to die at the Sun?” wrote the journalist Nathaniel P. Willis, “Lies he stiff with spread wings at the goal he has won?/Death, Death in the White House?/0h never before/Trod his skeleton foot on the President’s floor.” That rattly tread would be heard a good many more times over the years, and The President’s House is filled with the sad details of mourning.

Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the modern Presidency—and virtually built the modern White House. It was he who hired Charles McKim to “restore” it, by adding the east and west wings, and when critics objected, he was characteristically unabashed: “Only a yahoo could have his taste offended,” he wrote, “and excepting a yahoo, only a very base partisan politician would complain of it.” (In fact, McKim’s haste to finish on TR’s frenetic schedule resulted in such slipshod construction that much of the work had to be redone in Harry Truman’s time.) No man delighted more in the Presidency’s potential for display than TR, who dressed the White House coachman in the livery of his late father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., complete with brass buttons incised with his initials, and decreed strict rules of etiquette even for those who accompanied him on his frantic gallops through Rock Creek Park: “The President will notify whom he wishes to ride with him. The one so notified will take position on the left of the President and keep his right stirrup back of the President’s left stirrup....Those following will keep not less than ten yards in the rear of the President....Salutes should be returned only by the President....”

It was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who introduced the phrase “Imperial Presidency” to describe what happens when the constitutional balance between presidential power and presidential accountability is upset. He returns to that all-too-frequently timely subject among many others in his rich new mix of essays, The Cycles of American History. It makes marvelous, challenging reading for anyone interested in who we are and what we have been.

When the White House was electrified, President Harrison wouldn’t let his family touch the switches for fear of electrocution.

For four decades now, as writer, teacher, sometime presidential assistant and political adviser, Schlesinger has been unabashedly engaged—with past events and current problems and the little-understood links between them. In the fourteen essays that make up this, his fifteenth book, he revisits ideas and themes that have interested him throughout his career: he argues again, for example, that American political life beats back and forth from conservatism to liberalism in a thirty-year rhythm. (If he’s right, a liberal should be back in the White House in 1989—’93 at the outside.) But he also traces how, in our relatively short history, we have gone from thinking ourselves merely a fragile if “exemplary experiment” to “mankind’s designated judge, jury and executioner”; sees the current debate over what to do about human rights abroad foreshadowed in an 1849 argument over whether to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Austria in order to display American sympathy with the Hungarian democrat Lajos Kossuth; bloodies revisionist historians of the Cold War and revisionist biographers of Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy—along with those who wish our government were somehow more like Britain’s. (He also makes a novel proposal of his own—that the Vice-Presidency be abolished in favor of a kind of ninety-day regency under the Secretary of State, to be followed by a new election.)

One may dislike any or all of his resonant opinions, but it is hard to fault either his easy command of the history with which be bolsters them or the combative wit with which they are often expressed: who else would think to summarize Aaron Burr as “a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history except for his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal”? And he remains healthily scornful of cant and sloppy writing: “We carelessly apply the phrase ‘end of innocence,’ to one or another stage of American history,” he notes. “This is an amiable flourish when not a pernicious delusion. How many times can a nation lose its innocence? No people reared on Calvin and Tacitus could ever have been very innocent. No nation founded on invasion, conquest and slaughter was innocent. No people who systematically enslaved black men and killed red men were innocent. No state established by revolution and thereafter rent by civil war was innocent.”

In the opening paragraphs of “The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?” the first—and to my mind the most compelling—of the essays included here, Schlesinger confesses his own liberal leanings, then cheerfully challenges those historians tempted to differ with him to be as forthcoming: “Let them betray their own biases.” He knows that history is an endless argument, and his keen pleasure in that idea seems undiminished by forty years of distinguished scholarship and eloquent advocacy.

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