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Letters And Gifts For The Presidents

( Originally Published 1908 )

THE first letter received by a President of the United States at the White House was, of course, one delivered to President John Adams in November, 1800, soon after Mr. Adams had taken possession of the newly finished "President's House." It cost much money to send a letter any considerable distance in those days, so the number of letters received at the President's House was very insignificant as compared with the number that comes in every postbag to President Roosevelt today.

With the construction of railways the mail of the Presidents began greatly to increase in size, of course, and with the coming of President Fillmore to the White House the number of letters received on a single day had grown to "over one hundred" as Mr. Fillmore said in a speech at the opening of the Erie Railroad. Today the average number of letters received daily is over one thousand, while in the first months after the inauguration of a new President the letters received at the White House reaches the stupendous number of fifteen hundred.

So vast is the Presidential mail to-day, indeed, that a special department has been created at the Washington Post Office, just to handle the White House letters, papers and packages. At least a dozen postal clerks are employed in the special departments named merely to sort Mr. Roosevelt's enormous mail.

How President Roosevelt's Mail is Handled

All White House mail of today passes first through the hand of the Secretary to the President, Mr. William Loeb, Jr.

He permits only letters of the first importance to reach the President. The mail is stupendous. After inauguration day in 1905 fully 1,500 letters a day reached Mr. Loeb's desk. The White House mail at any time is so enormous that the President cannot read one letter in ten and sometimes not one in a hundred. Mr. Loeb himself can read only a fraction of the mail. Often there are letters which Mr. Loeb would like the President to see, but even such letters are swamped in the mass of demands for office and for pensions, notes of warning and advice and requests of charity. In a single fortnight Mr. Loeb has opened letters containing requests for pecuniary aid to an amount exceeding that of the President's salary for a year.

So huge is Mr. Roosevelt's mail in fact so more than huge as compared with the mail received by any private individual in the country that it is safe to assert that no other head of a Government anywhere on earth receives so many letters, news-papers and packages. We are told that Mr. Roosevelt's mail "comes from the four corners of the country, and from beyond the seven seas." Some write merely to assure the President that they "voted for him, and would like to vote for him again." Others break gently the news that they are in urgent need of a few dollars, and hope the President will come to their relief "by return mail," while a few pause a moment in their day's work to put the President right on some question of governmental policy. Out of this enormous mass of mail comes an occasional letter that the President himself sees and is sometimes glad to get. But this does not often happen. Most of the letters that are received "merely form part of the heavy burden" of work under which President Roosevelt's secretaries and clerks struggle day by day.

President McKinley's Enormous Correspondence

President McKinley received an average of one thousand letters daily. He insisted that every communication be read and respectfully answered within twenty-four hours. Probably not more than one-third of these letters came to his personal attention; most of those which did were marked for his perusal. His correspondence clerks were sometimes employed until eleven at night.

President McKinley, indeed, received more letters than any former President. His acquaintance with men, public and private, was large, and he more than once invited expressions of the people's minds upon important affairs.

Gifts Sent to the White House

All the Presidents have been made the recipients of a great number of presents from admirers throughout the country. Not all of such presents have been accepted. Most Presidents have made it a rule to return all gifts received from strangers, on the ground that to accept gifts from utter strangers was to become saddled with obligations which might at some inopportune moment confront a President to his extreme embarrassment.

Where the donors have been known personally, however, or when the giver happened to be a foreign monarch, the gifts have usually been accepted. Thus President Roosevelt accepts annually a Thanksgiving turkey from a certain Southern gentleman, because that gentleman is known to Mr. Roosevelt, and because he has been known to many of Mr. Roosevelt's predecessors. Thus also Arab horses from the Sultan of Turkey have been accepted by a President, as well as presents from the Mikado, the Czar, the Shah and the Kaiser.

Huge cheeses were sent to Jefferson and Jackson. But Mr. Jefferson insisted upon paying fifty per cent. more than the value of the mammoth product of dairy. Lincoln accepted many gifts, but Johnson usually would have none of them. Jefferson declined valuable presents from a Tunisan envoy.

Presents Received by Mr. Roosevelt

The following facts relating to the remarkable number of presents sent to President Roosevelt are of particularly human interest:

There come to the White House huge stacks of express packages, these being gifts of every conceivable character, from live guinea pigs to suspenders. "At last I feel I can afford two pairs of suspenders," said the President to Secretary Loeb when he first saw the suspenders. Yet the suspenders were returned to the donor along with other gifts galore.

"The President regrets that he cannot accept the deer head you so kindly sent him, as he is obliged to adhere to his rule to accept no presents. The deer head, therefore, is returned to you today by express." Such in substance is the stereotyped signed by Mr. Loeb, a dozen or more of similar purport leaving the White House in the mail every working day.

Despite the President's known aversion to receiving presents the express companies continue to deliver many gifts into Mr. Loeb's hands. Many of the gifts are sent anonymously, thereby making it impossible to return them promptly. The gifts include all sorts of firearms and other weapons, watches, chains, scarfpins and other jewelry; sleeping bags, antlers, fur robes, bearskins, sets of harness, oil paintings, and no end of patent medicines and books and photographs of the President in costly frames. Barrels of fruit and other perishable foods are thrown away, if 'Mr. Loeb does not know the sender's name. Even live animals—a Shetland pony, a Scotch collie, an Arabian stallion may reach the White House. For humane reasons Mr. Loeb orders these anonymous living gifts fed until they can be transferred to the national zoological garden.

One authority tells us that all mail "that looks bulky and fat, as if it consisted of a fancy sofa-pillow or a bundle of neck-ties, is returned to the senders. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, thousands of such packages come. Some persons even send crated goats and other large boxes C. O. D., by express. The goats and things go back to their senders."

Jackson, Grant and McKinley Received Strange Presents Honors of all kinds were thrust upon General Grant, during and after his term at the White House. While President, he received a carpet from the Sultan of Turkey as well as a silver coffee pot and a number of splendid leopard skins from the dons of Mexico. Meantime the people had given him a house, and had even asked him to accept gifts of money, all this in line with the universal honors that were showered upon him.

President McKinley received one of the most unique gifts ever sent to the White House. It was a curiosity of a class with the mammoth cheeses sent to Jefferson and Jackson. This unique gift reached Mr. McKinley in 1897 in the form of a huge prize watermelon from Georgia. It was nearly three feet long, weighed nearly eighty pounds, and was wrapped in a large American flag tied with white ribbons. It was presented with ceremonies far beyond its importance, by Congressman Livingstone, of Georgia, who assured the President, how-ever, that "no office-seeker is inclosed in yonder watermelon."

President Jackson received so many gifts during his first weeks at the White House that he knew not where to store them, nor what to do with the more perishable of them. A newspaper account printed at the time (1829) says :

"The General is not likely to lack stores for the maintenance of the Republican hospitality of the palace. His supplies are daily coming in from every quarter in the shape of voluntary and gratuitous tribute. A great cheese, for instance, has been sent to him from New England; beef from New York; and the Kentuckians, they say, are to send him `a whole hog'."

Mighty Cheeses at the President's House

"The greatest cheese in America for the greatest man in America."

This was the motto on the box containing the mammoth cheese sent to Thomas Jefferson at the White House on the first day of January, 1802. It was a gift from a number of foreign-born citizens of Pennsylvania, who sent it to the President in token of their appreciation of his annual message setting forth his views on naturalization. The cheese was made in West Chester, Massachusetts, and weighed 1,235 pounds. From West Chester it was drawn to Washington in a wagon pulled by six horses, taking many weeks for the journey. When it reached the White House, ceremonies were held and Mr. Jefferson made a speech in which he said he would accept the cheese provided the donors would permit him to pay two hundred dollars for it, or fifty per cent. more than its market price.

But Jefferson was not the only President to receive a huge cheese. Jackson also received a number of large cheeses, which were "set out" as a form of refreshment for White House guests. Andrew Jackson's cheese came from a dairyman named Meacham, of Sandy Creek, New York. At the White House reception on Washington's Birthday, this gift to President Jackson had a conspicuous place, the incident being described by a chronicler of the day thus :

"It had been officially given out that the President's mansion would be thrown open to the people on this day, and that they would be entertained with a cheese, four feet in diameter, two feet thick and weighing fourteen hundred pounds, a cheese which beats the great cheese that was made an offering to Mr. Jefferson, as the most appropriate present the farming class could tender to the President."

This was in 1837. Two years later President Van Buren sold the last of Jackson's cheeses at public auction, the report of the sale (which was for charity), being as follows:

"A cheese weighing 700 pounds is now at the store of Mr. William Orme, near the corner of Eleventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where it will remain entire for one day, and will afterwards be sold in quantities to suit purchasers. It is from the dairy of Colonel Meachem of Orange County, New York, by whom it was presented two years ago to the President of the United States, and has been preserved with great care. Having been made expressly for the President and by a gentleman whose cheeses are in high repute, it may be supposed to be of the very best quality."

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