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White House - Etiquette And Precedence

( Originally Published 1908 )

GEORGE WASHINGTON saw the necessity which would confront his successors, as well as himself, for some plan regulating the etiquette at the White House entertainments, dinners, receptions and the like. Upon consulting Alexander Hamilton, he received from Hamilton the following formal "Code of Procedure," which, with certain broad changes, has governed every President from Washington to Roosevelt.

1. The President to have a levee once a week for receiving visits ; an hour to be fixed at which it shall be understood that he will appear, and consequently that the visitors are to be previously assembled. The President to remain half an hour, in which time he may converse cursorily on different subjects, with such persons as shall invite his attention, and at the end of that half hour disappear. A mode of introduction through particular officers will be indispensable. No visits to be returned.

2. The President to accept no invitations, and to give formal entertainments only twice or four times a year, the anniversaries of important events in the Revolution. If twice on the day of the Declaration of Independence, and that on the day of the Inauguration of the President, which completed the organization of the Constitution, to be preferred; if four times, the day of the treaty of alliance with France, and that of the definitive treaty with Great Britain to be added. The members of the two houses of the Legislature; principal officers of the Government; foreign ministers, and other distinguished strangers only to be invited. The President on levee days, either by himself or some gentleman of his household to give invitations to family dinners on the days of invitation. Not more than six or eight to be invited at a time, and the matter to be confined essentially to members of the Legislature and other official characters. The President never to remain long at the table.

Washington's Conception of Official Etiquette

Among the records of the social customs of George Washington, as President, in Philadelphia, the following vivid and detailed description is given :

"He devoted an hour every other Tuesday from three to four to visits. He understood himself to be visited as the President of the United States, and not on his own account. He was not to be seen by anybody and everybody ; but required that every one who came should be introduced by his Secretary, or by some gentleman, whom he knew himself. He lived on the south side of Chestnut Street, just below Sixth. The place of reception was the dining-room in the rear, twenty-five or thirty feet in length, including the bow projecting into the garden. Mrs. Washington received her visitors in the two rooms on the second floor.

"At three o'clock, or at any time within a quarter of an hour afterwards, the visitor was conducted to this dining-room, from which all seats had been removed for the time. On entering one saw the tall, manly figure of Washington clad in black velvet; his hair in full dress, powdered and gathered behind in a large silk bag; yellow gloves on his hands; holding a cocked hat with a cockade on it, and the edges adorned with a black feather about an inch deep. He wore knee and shoe buckles; and a long sword, with a finely wrought and polished steel hilt, which appeared at the left hip; the coat worn over the blade, and appearing from under the folds behind. The scabbard was white polished leather.

"He always stood in front of the fireplace, with his face towards the door of entrance. The visitor was conducted to him, and he required to have the name so distinctly pronounced that he could hear it. He had the very uncommon faculty of associating a man's name and personal appearance so durably in his memory as to be able to call any one by name who made him a second visit. He received his visitor with a dignified bow, while his hands were so disposed of as to indicate that the salutation was not to be accompanied with shaking hands. This ceremony never occurred in those visits, even with his most near friends, that no distinction might be made.

"As visitors came in, they formed a circle around the room. At a quarter past three, the door was closed, and the circle was formed for that day. He then began on the right and spoke to each visitor, calling him by name and exchanging a few words with him. When he had completed his circuit, he resumed his first position, and the visitors approached him, in succession, bowed and retired. By four o'clock this ceremony was over.

"On the evenings when Mrs. Washington received visitors, he did not consider himself as visited. He was then as a private gentleman, dressed usually in some colored coat and waistcoat (the only one recollected was brown, with bright buttons), and black on his lower limbs. He had then neither hat nor sword ; he moved about among the company, conversing with one another. He had once a fortnight an official dinner, and select companies on other days. He sat (it is said), at the side, in a central position, Mrs. Washington opposite ; the two. ends were occupied by members of his family, or by per-sonal friends."

Such, then, with modifications, is the basis upon which some of the rules of etiquette are in force in the White House today.

Jefferson's Simple Social Forms

Thomas Jefferson, with his ideas of simplicity, abolished some of the more formal of the rules, stopping entirely the formal weekly receptions, or levees, and the State receptions. Among the quaintest of Mr. Jefferson's rules is the one wherein it is stated that "gentlemen offering their arms to ladies and going in to dinner in any order of rank or honor is prohibited."

The Order of Precedence Today

The order of precedence has always been a source of some embarrassment and a great deal of discussion among those invited to the White House. Among Cabinet Ministers and their wives, and among the foreign diplomats, especially, the question has sometimes caused amusing complications.

In the Roosevelt administration, however, in order to settle this long standing question of precedence that is, the question of who, by reason of rank, shall precede another at White House entertainments the United States Government established a set of rules embracing an "order of precedence" for those in official life, as follows :

The President, the Vice-President, the foreign Ambassadors, the Secretary of State, the foreign envoys and plenipotentiaries, the Chief Justice, the President pro tem, of the Senate (only upon the death of a Vice-President and the consequent election of a President pro tern. of the Senate does he precede the Speaker of the House) ; Cabinet Secretaries, other than the Secretary of State; Foreign Ministers-resident, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, the Admiral of the Navy, Senators, Governors of States, Representatives in Congress, the Chief of Staff of the Army, Foreign Chargés d'Affaires, Major Generals of the Army, Rear Admirals, Foreign Secretaries of Embassy and Legation, Assistant Secretaries of the Executive Departments, Judges of the Court of, Claims, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, District Commissioners, District Court of Appeals, District Supreme Court, Brigadier-Generals, Cap-tains in the Navy, Director of Bureau of American Republics, Army and Navy Officers below army brigadiers and navy captains, Foreign guests in private life, untitled, American guests in private life.

For the wives of the officials named, the order of precedence is precisely the same as in their husbands, thus :

The wife of the President, who is exempt from returning visits.

The wives of Ambassadors in the order of their official recognition. These ladies make the first call upon the wife of the President and the Vice-President, but upon no others.

The wives of envoys plenipotentiary, who should make the initial visits on those ranking above them:

The wife of the Chief Justice.

The wife of the Speaker of the House.

The wives of Cabinet Ministers other than the Secretary of State.

The wives of Foreign Ministers-resident.

The wives of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. The wife of the Admiral of the Navy.

The wives of Senators.

The wives of Governors of States.

The wives of Representatives in Congress; and so,on, to the end of the order of procedure as given for the officials.

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