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White House - Early-day 'drawing-rooms' And Levees

( Originally Published 1908 )

President Monroe's "Drawing-rooms"

IN PRESIDENT MONROE'S time, the regular weekly receptions were called a "drawing-rooms," of which a correspondent for a newspaper of the time informs us that: "The secretaries, senators, foreign ministers, consuls, auditors, accountants, officers of the army and navy of every grade, farmers, merchants, parsons, priests, lawyers, judges, auctioneers and nothingarians all with their wives and some with their gawky offspring, crowd to the President's house every Wednesday evening; some in shoes, most in boots and many in spurs. Some with powdered heads, others frizzled and oiled, whose heads a comb has never touched, and which are half hid by dirty collars (reaching far above their ears), as stiff as pasteboard."

President J. Q. Adams as the Nation's Host

That President John Quincy Adams was not over delighted with his duties as the host of the White House, is suggested by an entry he made in his diary, in the winter of 1828,which reads :

"This evening was the sixth drawing-room. Very much crowded ; sixteen Senators, perhaps sixty members of the House of Representatives and multitudes of strangers among whom were the Institutors of Deaf and Dumb from Philadelphia, New York and Hartford. The heat was oppressive and these parties are becoming more and more insupportable to me."

President Van Buren's "Drawing-room"

An account of a "drawing-room" given by President Van Buren on the night of March 8, 1838—his first reception following his inauguration is given by an Englishman, a visiting Member of Parliament, James Silk Buckingham, who says :

"We went about nine o'clock with the family of Colonel Gardiner, who is attached to the public service here, and found the company already assembled in great numbers. The official residence of the President is a large and substantial mansion.

"The whole air of the Mansion and its accompaniments is that of unostentatious comfort, without parade or display, and therefore well adapted to the simplicity and economy which is characteristic of the Republican institutions of the country.

"The President received his visitors standing, in the centre of a small oval room, the entrance to which was directly from the hall on the ground-floor. The introductions were made by the City Marshal, who announced the names of the parties ; and each, after shaking hands with the President, and exchanging a few words of courtesy, passed into the adjoining rooms to make way for others. The President, Mr. Van Buren, is about sixty years of age, is a little below the middle stature, and of very bland and courteous manners ; he was dressed in a plain suit of black; the Marshal was habited also in a plain suit, and there were neither guards about the gate, nor sentries within, nor a single servant or attendant in livery anywhere visible.

"The dresses of the ladies were some of them elegant, but generally characterized by simplicity; and jewels were scarcely at all worn. The party, therefore, though consisting of not less than 2,000 persons, was much less brilliant than a drawing-room in England, or than a fashionable soirée in Paris ; but it was far more orderly and agreeable than any party of an equal number that I ever remember to have attended in Europe.

"There being no rank (for the President himself is but a simple citizen, filling a certain office for a certain term), there was no question of precedence, and no thought, as far as I could discover, of comparison as to superiority. Every one present acted as though he felt himself to be on a footing of equality with every other person ; and if claims of preference were thought of at all, they were tested only by the standard of personal services, or personal merits."

President Polk Holds a Levee

In the days when dancing was forbidden at the Presidential receptions, President Polk held a levee, a full account of which was written by an eye-witness, saying:

"The sudden transition from the darkness outside to the brilliant glare within is not without its effect in impressing one with a magnificent idea of the ceremony through which he is about to pass, and these grand anticipations are considerably heightened by the spirit-stirring music, proceeding from an entire band of the U. S. Marines.

"Ranged in an irregular group at one end stands a bevy of beautiful women whose milliners have sent them forth in fit trim to challenge the rainbow for the exquisiteness and variety of colors in which they are decked, while on their heads and bosoms glittering brilliants recline like nestling glow-worms, darting forth rays of light in dazzling emulation. A loud hum of conversation and a continued peal of laughter add somewhat to the confusion of your mind, and it is some minutes before you are sufficiently collected to note all around. Then on the right side of the room you will perceive fifty or sixty gentlemen standing up in silence, and looking on the busy group around the ladies; these gentlemen have no particular business there they look upon the whole affair as a national show got up for their express gratification admission gratis. In the centre of the room stands the President, willing to shake as many people by the hand as may be presented to him while his strength lasts; and a fine, gentlemanly man he is.

"At his right hand you will probably discover Mr. Marcy, the Secretary of War. There is also Mr. Dallas, performing acts of civility with the air of a perfect courtier to every one. Behind the President stands Mrs. Polk, whom I will uphold on any and every occasion of your attending the levee to be one of the finest women in the room. You will probably find her supported by an elderly lady in a black turban, who, you will know at once, is Mrs. Madison ; behind them will be twenty or thirty young ladies standing at ease.

"Presently your friend will present you to a gentleman standing near the President, who will introduce you. Mr. Polk will shake your hand, `be happy to know you'. Having gone through this important ceremony, you fall back among the crowd of lookers on, and watch the entrance of visitors. There is considerable amusement attending this, and much information to be obtained in the art of shaking hands politely.

"It is not necessary to be informed to which party a member of either house belongs when you see his presentation. Some with a kind of stately humility touch the Presidential fingers and smile in languid respect. Others grasp the Executive dexter hand with a Democratic heartiness and an air of merry complacency. And a few wring the magisterial right hand in an imploring mannerlook earnestly in the President's face and stay to converse with him for a few minutes, to let the assembled crowd learn that they are on terms of intimacy with so great a man.

"While noting all these things you have been elbowed by the crowd to a doorway, where a policeman seizes you by the elbow and says in a slow, effective manner : `Gentlemen who have been presented, will please walk forward to the East Room, don't stop up the passage'.

"To the East Room you repair, then, and find a spacious apartment splendidly furnished and brilliantly illuminated. There is comparative stillness here ; the conversation is more moderate. The great amusement of the evening now commences ; all before has been merely preparatory. This popular court pastime consists in solemnly promenading round the room in pairs.

"Senators, Ministers, Congressmen, mechanics, clerks and would-be clerks are there, leading ladies belonging to every stage in society, from the fashionable belle of the higher circles to the more fashionable seamstress. Solemnly and without pause, they perform their slow gyrations, while a group of young men in the centre survey their motions, quizzing their dresses and general appearance. The room is oppressively 'warm, when the President enters leading a lady, probably Mrs. Madison,and followed by Mrs. Polk and all the great people of Washington.

"The noise increases, the complimenting and bowing go on worse than ever; the promenading ceases. The President has a word for every one, and all mingle together in irregular groups chatting and laughing."

President Fillmore Receives in the Morning

During President Fillmore's term, levees at the White House were sometimes held in the morning. One such morning reception is described by one who was present, thus :

"Yesterday was a bright, but windy day, and there were a good many ladies at the morning levee. Mr. Fillmore is in fine health and spirits, and I think it will be conceded by everybody, that he is the best-looking of all the Presidents who have occupied the National Mansion. I have seen the greater part of them, but certainly for an unaffectedly polite and courteous gentleman none could compare with the present occupant.

"John Quincy Adams, with whom my Presidential remembrances commence, was chillingly cold, stiff and ungenial in his manner of receiving visitors ; he made you keep your distance and feel it, too. General Jackson was frank and dignified, but not very cordial; his successor (Van Buren), was civil and politely gracious ; Gen. Harrison, poor old man ! was kind-hearted but feeble, and was soon worried out of his existence. Mr. Polk was a very civil President, and easy in his manners. General Taylor heaven rest his honest soul ! Rreceived you as a grandfather does his grandchildren, and you left his presence forgetting that you had seen the President, and only feeling that you had been talking to one of the kindest old souls in existence.

"President Fillmore differs essentially from them all ; he is a man among men in appearance, overtopping in his height the majority of the human family; finely formed, in good health, with a bright eye, erect in carriage, and sufficiently stout without being corpulent, he is the representative of the American gentleman whom his countryman may take pride in."

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