The White House
( Originally Published 1922 )
In front of the north face of the White House, is an equestrian statue of General Jackson: a short distance beyond the south front is one of General Sherman; and this is re-mindful of a time when the two famous leaders almost met. It was in 1836. The future General Sherman, then a lad of sixteen on his way to West Point, to become a cadet, looked for an hour or so through the railing (at that time a wooden railing) watching General Jackson, then President, as he paced back and forth on the gravel walk at the north front of the White House.
That the future general must have been in-tensely fascinated by the sight and proximity of the soldier-President is certain: the eager-minded youth, about to begin his own soldier career, was tremendously interested in watching the victor of New Orleans : but whatever his thoughts, all that he sets down, when he comes to write his memoirs, is that he noticed that Jackson wore a cap, and that his overcoat was so full that it made him seem smaller than the lad had supposed him to be.
The building in front of which Jackson was pacing was even then often called "The White House," although it did not officially receive that designation until the time of President Roosevelt. It had been known as the President's House, the Palace, the Great House, the Castle or the Executive Mansion, but the simplicity of the two words "White House" finally made its permanent appeal.
The name of "White House," delightful and descriptive name that it is, has often been supposed to have its origin from the home of the wealthy and brilliant widow, Martha Custis. For she was owner of a "White House" when she and Washington first met; he being on his way to the capital of the Colony, mounted on the horse that the dying Braddock had given him, and attended (it is Washington's adopted son who tells this, so it must often have been talked over in the family circle) by Braddock's body-servant, Bishop, an old soldier whom the general, dying, advised not to return to England but to stay on with George Washington. "Never," said ,Custis, "did a man make more complete acknowledgment of error than did poor brave Braddock in his last hours, when recanting his criticism of the Americans."
It was not, however, because Martha Custis was owner of her "White House" that the White House of the Presidency took that name. For the term came, naturally and simply, after the Presidential home was painted white to cover the marks of smoke and fire, after its partial destruction by the British in the war of 1812. From the first, the name pleasantly attached itself. It is so unpretentious a name, so simple and pleasant a name, a name with, some-how, suggestion of charm even beyond what obviously impresses itself. It is an ideally American name : and it was one of the notable acts of President Roosevelt—the importance of official acts being measured, in final effect, by different standards than those of obviousness at the time—it was one of his important acts to give the name of "White House" officially, it having been for decades thus used unofficially.
Roosevelt, astute politician though he was, or, rather, because he was, was in some respects frankness itself. He enjoyed being President and living in the White House, and felt not the slightest hesitation in saying so. Neither did he hesitate to say that he had always been a lucky man. He was especially lucky when, after most positively refusing to accept the Vice-Presidency, even to the point, at midnight before his nomination, of thundering out his refusal from the depths of his bath-tub, and accenting his words with tremendous poundings upon the tub's edge, he reluctantly accepted. He dreaded the inactivity of presiding over the Senate—as if he could ever have been inactive !—and luck so adjusted matters that he was presiding officer of the Senate for only one week.
A glance at the equestrian generals reminds one again of the close proximity of Jackson and Sherman so many years, ago, and it is remindful also that Sherman, had he in his later days so chosen, could himself have been the official occupant of the White House. For the people wanted him as President. But he, loyal to his older brother, would not stand in John's path to the Presidency. John Sherman was unable to win the goal and William Tecumseh's abnegation was therefore of no practical good to either. John, by the way, could never overcome his intense disappointment. I remember having a talk with him in his' room at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in his old age, when he almost violently complained even then of what he termed treachery and bribery used by his rivals to keep him from the White House.
Jackson was one of the Presidents who left an impress. And he was of that class of men who always do what they think at the moment the proper thing to do. As, one bitter day when he was seen carrying a little girl in one arm and her little dog in the other. "The child was crying. They were cold. I'm taking them to a fire." And thus they entered the front door of the White House.
Presidents are remembered for little things for different reasons: some because there were no great things to mark their holding of a great office : others because they were giants whose slightest touch made indentations in history or legend.
Andrew Jackson loved children. When asked for something special to put in the corner-stone of the Treasury Building whose site he had one day marked with peremptory impatience with his cane and which was forever to block any possibility of a view in that direction from the White House, he clipped a lock of hair from the head of the baby of the White House, the tiny daughter of the wife of his adopted son.
When this same little girl was christened, Jackson deemed the occasion important enough to justify asking both Houses of Congress to be present: and few dared not to go ! And the highly self-important and sartorial Martin Van Buren was godfather. Dignifiedly as the name seems to befit a man of fine personal dignity, it is amusing to remember that until well on in life he signed only "M. V. Buren."
There have been Presidents who are remembered, if at all, through their connection with some one or some event apart from themselves. As, broadly speaking, what was there about either Fillmore or Pierce more important than their going arm in arm, when Fillmore was President and Pierce was President-elect, to a lecture by Thackeray, in Washington, on which occasion, as they met the distinguished Englishman, our own Washington Irving, who was present, murmured to Thackeray, "Two Kings of Brentford smelling at one rose!" And as I write who can say that the best remembered thing about President Harding, after all his acts of apparent world importance, may in the distant future be that he one day chose to play golf on a public ground of the city—paying the regular fee of twenty-five cents rather than go as guest to some fashionable club!
Hayes, man of excellent intentions and fair abilities, boomeranged into the White House by the Electoral Commission, when the Democrats fully expected to seat Tilden, would be quite forgotten, as a personality, were it not that his wife succeeded in establishing, for the Hayes term, prohibition in the White House, to the amazement of the world. What floods of merciless wit were poured upon them ! How Evarts chuckled over his description of a state dinner, when "water flowed like wine ! And now—the entire nation has swung around, to formal acceptance of prohibition.
The ill-natured quietly claimed even under the Hayes regime that wine was now and then inconspicuously served at special dinners at the White House; as, at a dinner to Grand Duke Alexis : and some good Americans grumbled about privileges given to Russians. And it was claimed that at least at some state dinners a certain kind of punch was served that was flavored with Jamaica rum and familiarly known as "the life saving station." But Mr. and Mrs. Hayes were probably sincere in their views, and stood for them in spite of ridicule. How incredible it would have seemed had some one prophesied then, that in less than half a century stern laws were to order absolute prohibition !
Among the occupants of the White House, few have been so interesting as Theodore Roosevelt. His mind was always alert, and he especially enjoyed historical correlations; and he writes, after a dinner at which the Prince of Battenberg and Secretary of the Navy Bonaparte sat together among his guests, that Bonaparte was the grand-nephew of the Great Napoleon and grandson of Jerome, King of Westphalia, and that Battenberg, British admiral, was grandson of a Hessian general who had been a subject of the same King Jerome—who, as Roosevelt does not forget to add, deserted Napoleon discreditably, in the midst of the Battle of Leipsic.
Roosevelt traveled a great deal after leaving the White House and found a warm welcome at one court after another. Of course they welcomed him, he declares cheerfully: their official rules so hampered them that they could be but slightly in real touch with men of the world, and so he served as "a relief to the tedium, the dull narrow routine of their lives." Apparently, what is needed in a king, he decided, thus getting back to his pet aversion the vice-presidency, is that the king shall be a kind of sublimated vice-president.
"Please put out the light," murmured Roosevelt, drowsily; and they were his last words in this world. The last words of his immediate predecessor, McKinley, dying in Buffalo and remembering the comfort and beauty of the White House, were something regarding the swaying of the trees outside the White House windows.
The White House has always been, outside and in, a place of charm, except after its burning, and during the period of the unsocial rule of Wilson.
The White House has always been looked upon as representing the social as well as political leader-ship of the nation. No other political leader, no matter how powerful, has ever been able to equal the power of the man actually in the Presidential chair : Hanna coming nearest to doing this, through his position as unscrupulous head of the group man-aging McKinley's involved fortunes.
And always, in spite of the power and claims of social leaders, has the position of the President, and "the first lady of the land," given social leadership : because, first, of the Presidential hold upon the great titled ones from abroad and because of the power of the President to appoint to important posts.
Socially and politically there is naturally a national head, and that headship naturally goes to the White House if the White House will assume it.
More prominently and importantly than even the Roosevelts took leadership, did the Madisons do so: and that was because the capabilities of wife and husband fitted and supplemented each other.
Madison was a man of ability and achievement; not a soldier, but an excellent politician, or states-man; an extremely good dresser, a small man, with rather a mild face; a sort of conciliatory man, often and good-naturedly referred to as "Little Jimmy." His wife was taller than he, a good-looking woman, still to this day loved and known as "Dolly" Madison; of remarkable qualities, accustomed to her own way. As wife of Secretary of State Madison, she had been mistress of the White House for the widower Jefferson, and then she was President's wife for eight years more.
Under the Madisons, the White House was a happy place of social gayeties, and the turbaned
Dolly" was a cheerful social despot, often called "the queen," whose rule no one thought of disputing.
Even the broad-brimmed western hat of Roosevelt (a kind of hat I used to notice in the West, that was made in Philadelphia, where still earlier a broad-brimmed hat of another kind was common) was never so well known as the turban of Dolly Madison. It was always of some striking or perhaps even vivid color. Some were crimson, some were spangled with silver. She is said to have spent a thou-sand dollars a year on her turbans and always had them made to match her gowns. As Washington used to send to London for his clothes, painstakingly writing his measures and demands, so "Dolly" sent to Paris for her grand costumes. She was not above such homely habits as using snuff, and one evening, talking with Henry Clay, she drew a bandana from her pockets saying smilingly, "This is for rough work": then she drew out a filmy square of lace and said, "But this is my polisher." No wonder she was recognized as the leader of polished society!
When one thinks of the White House, it seems inevitable that thoughts should first come of the folk who have inhabited it, with thoughts of the building itself to come only afterwards.
And of all its famous occupants, two more than any others in the long list (there have been twenty-nine Presidents while there have been but six sovereigns of Great Britain) stand out markedly as the possessors of that vivid social personality which combines power and rulership with camaraderie and an immense enjoyment in it all: and those two have been "Dolly" Madison and "Teddy" Roosevelt. Debonair, arbitrary, sparkling, human, all-alive, they were natural rulers.
Dolly Madison lived in Washington or in touch with Washington for almost fifty years. Many are still alive who were alive when she died. And she was a social ruler until her death. The Madisons, as with most others of the early leaders of family, lived in a beautiful and stately home, Montpelier, just as Washington lived at beautiful Mount Vernon, and Jefferson at beautiful Monticello : these and other beautiful homes giving dignity to the living of the leaders of those days. As to Mrs. Madison, she visited the city of Washington but briefly for the many years between her husband's retirement and his death, but those brief visits kept alive in the city the close knowledge of her personality, and when, in the last years of her life, she once more made her home in Washington, she was again yielded leadership. As a widow in Washington she held actual court: on New Year's and the Fourth the important people, after calling at the White House, went direct to her home.
Grant, though entering the White House a popular idol, and remaining there eight years, was one of those who on the whole made little impression. His inaugural ball, however, held in the Treasury Building, certainly made an impression, of sorts, for fully six thousand people had their wraps and coats checked, and all system was lost, and never was there such muddling and mixing of belongings. It was a cold and stormy night : there was shortage of carriages: many men and many women walked to their homes, without hats or wraps or in the belongings of other people, while many huddled in corners and helplessly wept or swore. There were colds, deaths, loss of clothes and jewels and furs—after all, a not likely to be forgotten administration, one sees!
The great stealings of members of his administration have been almost forgotten, so vastly have expenditures grown huge and unchecked in recent years.
In Grant's time it was still matter of common knowledge that when President Buchanan learned that the expenses of the trip of the Prince of Wales to Mount Vernon were about to be charged to the Government he instantly ordered that they be made a charge to himself. How times have changed! And it was not forgotten that when President John Quincy Adams bought a mirror for the White House, out of a Government appropriation, paying for it thirty-six dollars, there was such an outcry about extravagance that he paid for it himself.
Some years after Grant, the entire country was agitated by the so-called assurance of President Cleveland in using for a modest outing a modest Government light-house tender: but the country was not a particle shocked when, not many years after this, Roosevelt began to use warships with some freedom, even to the extent of ordering one to take one of his children across the Sound from Oyster Bay, to see a boat race. And in only a few years, so swiftly do changes sometimes come, another President personally ordered himself and attendants carried to Europe at immense Government expense, using one of the world's greatest liners as his private yacht. What a change within three decades!
Grover Cleveland is to be counted among the most serious of White House occupants ; yet he had his humorous side; and he loved to tell stories of happenings such as the jumping overboard, at the imminent danger of his life, on one of the Presidential fishing trips Cleveland being a devoted fisherman —of an old darky, who saved a colored youth at the last gasp for breath. Cleveland could not under-stand it. The darky had never impressed him as cast in heroic mold. "Is the boy a relative? No'? Then why did you take such a risk'?" "Well, sah, de fack is, sah, dat boy had de bait!" A stern, unshakable man was Cleveland, who would admit, with close friends, that his frequent apparent ignoring of political considerations was quite likely to be actually planned as good politics.
Fisherman that he was, I remember being told, while in the Berkshires at a place where he loved to stay, that at times he would patiently sit beside his little boy, leaning with him over the porch rail, the boy with dry fishline dangling and the Presidential father instructing him soberly in the art of fishing and the mysteries of bait.
That three Presidents have been murdered within the short space of our national life; that the three tragedies came well within the period of forty years; should be realizingly nemembered, as showing the evils possible to even a Republican nation. And to this should be added the fact that still other Presidents were the objects of attempted assassination!
Besides those who were assassinated, while President, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor died while holding the office.
Harrison's wife was too feeble to accompany him to his inauguration. In a month he was taken back home dead: but his widow, unable as she was to make the journey to Washington, survived him to al-most the age of ninety. It is told, down in Virginia, that Tyler, succeeding Harrison, was so sartorially unprepared that, when the news of the death of Harrison reached him, he had to make hasty borrowing of the needful clothes.
Tyler had become Governor of Virginia through the death of the one holding that office : he had become Senator by appointment after a death: and he became President through the death of Harrison.
Again and again one sees that in writing of the White House, one turns aside into writing of those who occupied it. It is curious to know for example that Zachary Taylor, when elected President, had never in his life cast a ballot in any election. He had seen so much army service, in Indian Wars, fighting in Mexico, in marching and campaigning and garrison duty, during the greater part of which his wife had accompanied him, that, when nominated for the Presidency, he remarked that for more than a quarter of a century the battle-field had been his home : but I noticed, in the memoirs of Mrs. Logan, the widow of General John, the very different statement that for a quarter of a century General Taylor's home had been his battlefield !
From the words, "Old Rough and Ready," it would be supposed that New England was right in estimating him as "an ignorant frontier colonel." Yet his announced platform was one in which even the greatest American of any section could have felt pride. For it was: "I have no private purposes to accomplish, no party projects to build up, no enemies to punish, nothing to serve but my country."
So far from being one of Hawthorne's "bullet-headed generals," he is described as a gentle-faced, white-haired man; with mild eyes and a soft and pleasant voice. Whenever a group, passing him, bowed respectfully to him as President, he would say, gently, "Your humble servant, ladies," or "Heaven bless you, gentlemen." In all he was one of the most interesting of the occupants of the White House.
Over and over one notices what little points are those which mark most of the Presidential careers. Tyler was the first President who was. not born a British subject. Even Van Buren could be technically claimed by England as he was born in 1782. But Tyler was born in 1790. And still more odd is the fact that this technically first American President was a member of the Confederate Congress when he died.
Tyler was not a man who shrank from publicity. When he married his second wife, Julia Gardiner, of Gardiner's Island, at the end of Long Island Sound, he was President and fifty-four years of age, and she was scarcely more than a girl. They were married in New York and after the ceremony the couple drove down Broadway in an open coach drawn by four white horses.
Between the death of the first Mrs. Tyler and his marriage to the second, his son's wife was for some-time mistress of the White House. She was the vivacious and charming daughter of an actor named Cooper. Not knowing that fact, one night a Sena-tor said to her, at a ball in an old theater trans-formed into a ball room, that on the very spot where they now stood, he once saw the best acting he had ever seen in his life: that of Cooper in Macbeth.
And Mrs. Tyler tells of how there came surging over her, thoughts of the changes that had come within the six years through which she and her father, who was the actor, Cooper, had struggled since the appearance spoken of.
One of the ablest and most American of the White House occupants was the first one of all, the choleric John Adams. It is interesting to remember that he was born at what is now Quincy, in a sweet but decidedly humble little house, and that to a similarly humble little place close beside it, he took Abigail as his bride, and there their son John Quincy Adams was born. The sixth President was son of the second and the twenty-third was grandson of the ninth ! Special interest lies in the fact that John and the able Abigail Adams came from that humble living to the White House, and that Mrs. Adams was from the first full of complaints. There was shortage of servants, to be written lengthily about, shortage of fuel, shortage of means of getting about in bad weather. No one could suppose from her letters that she had ever lived in that simple home in Quincy !
John Quincy Adams inherited a full measure of irascibility, yet in spite of that became President. Before going to the White House he represented our country abroad, becoming familiar with London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg—an unusual acquaintance with cities for an American of that period. He was our first Minister to Russia, and finding it necessary to go to Paris, he left his wife in St. Petersburg. And then he had to send for her to join him. With her child she bravely started off : bravely, for all Europe was in turmoil, as the time was immediately after the Russian disasters of the great Napoleon. She was in Paris when the Emperor returned from Elba, and witnessed the storm of delight with which he was greeted. Many and unusual were the memories that she could carry with her to the White House.
A curious point in connection with White House dwellers is that of the unexpected prominence of Friday.
Monroe, Hayes and Pierce were born on Friday. Pierce was inaugurated on Friday and died on Friday. Both John Quincy Adams and Garfield, as well as Pierce were inaugurated on Friday. Tyler and Polk died on Friday and Lincoln was shot on Friday. Friday indeed, has from the first been important in the history of America. Washington was born on Friday, the battle of Bunker Hill was fought on Friday, but, to go back to the beginning, Columbus sailed, on his first voyage, on Friday, first sighted land on Friday, and on still another Friday discovered the continent of America.
A coincidence of another kind, one of the most remarkable in all history, was that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, old men, not only on the same day but on July the Fourth, and on not only that, but July the Fourth of the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. Monroe also died on a Fourth of July : not a Signer, but a participator in the Revolutionary fighting and the author of the Doctrine which for more than a century stood as the symbol of high Americanism.
That Grant was the first President to wear a moustache, that Lincoln was the first to wear a full beard, are among the Presidential facts. And as to Lincoln, it is interesting to remember that he and his rival President, Jefferson Davis, were both born in Kentucky, and within a year of each other, and that one worked out his future through going into the Southwest and the other his through going into the Northwest.
And Lincoln ought not to be blamed, as he often is, for that hat ! For the daguerreotypes of the period show that it was quite the vogue.
What may be termed the most picturesque custom in America takes place annually in the grounds of the White House. And the fact that it is an ancient custom, dipping back vaguely into the misty centuries, that in all probability it long antedates the time of Christ, adds to the vast interest of it. It is a celebration of Easter, coming down, vaguely, out of the mistiness of vanished centuries.
It is the annual egg rolling : which became a custom here in the White House grounds perhaps some three-quarters of a century ago. Eggs and Easter time have long been associated and never was so charming an association as this. For all that might be grim in something coming down from the Druids has somehow vanished, and only the picturesque remains. It reminds me of an ancient Druid custom that I came across in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where, in a lonely place in the unsettled northern portion, on one night in the year, the children build a fire and then come rushing down the Druid-haunted hill, each waving a flaming brand.
But in Washington the function of egg-rolling is in daytime and not at night : it consists in the rolling of painted Easter eggs, on Easter Monday, on the grassy slopes of the White House grounds.
The children gather by thousands, boys and girls, and all young. No adults are admitted, except such as are in definite charge of a child. What may be termed the childless fathers of Washington (not the fatherless children) form a long unbroken line, along the stone base of the enclosing iron fence, standing tiptoe and eager to watch the gay scene within. I took my chance with the general public, and was curtly refused admission by a particularly stern policeman whom I had noticed turning back one adult after another. I briefly said a half dozen words to the effect that I was a stranger in the city, who had not brought a child. Apparently he did not hear me. He looked sternly over my shoulder at the Washington Monument, and in a growling undertone responded to "go back a little and adopt a child." So within five minutes I was within the grounds—and it was astonishing how soon that adopted boy was lost!
The sweeping grounds were thronged. Every moment more were arriving. They came in singles and twos and threes and they came in a succession of little throngs as street car after street car unloaded; they came, very many, in motor cars. And in the closed cars the little children, gathered half a dozen or so in a car, looked like crowded nests of brightly plumaged birds, for it was a gathering that included every class. The rich and the well-to-do were there; the poor were there, proud of their colored eggs.
There was no formal procedure. Each child carried its eggs, all fancifully decorated, and most of them sat quietly on the grass on knolls where their eggs rolled easily.
There was, oddly, a general appearance as if there were only children, for the elders were practically lost, practically unnoticeable, among the gayly colored throng of little ones. Quite amazingly colorful were the children and their accessories: their parasols, their many-colored toy balloons, held by strings, the bright baskets, the eggs themselves, the hair ribbons, the jackets and hats and skirts, in reds and blues and lavenders, in mustards and pinks—there were children like lilies, all in white, children in pale linen, children like yellow daffodils, seated on the pale green grass.
Some were moving about in gentle happiness. A great fountain was gloriously playing and all the lilacs were in delicate flower. Intermittently came the music of the Marine Band; and always was the softly chirring sound of children's voices.
It makes the most picturesque scene in America, with its noble background of the White House: it was like some unusually beautiful fete day for children in France, with the beauty of grass and shrubs and trees and costumes accented by the noble jet d'eau.
The entire scene, colors and children and fountain and the White House itself, all seem like a Watteau picture. And yet, the White House was not designed by a Frenchman though there were many Frenchmen in America, veterans of our Revolution, refugees from their home. It was an Irishman who gave the design for the White House; James Hoban, of Charleston, South Carolina. His design won in a public competition, and he was given the first prize, of five hundred dollars.