Notable Visitors At The White House
( Originally Published 1908 )
OVERNIGHT visitors at the White House, in the various administrations, have embraced notable men and women from all States in the Union and from all the countries of the world. Visitors who have broken bread with the Presidents and their families at luncheon or dinner, or who have been received informally in the evenings and at other times, include men, women and children from every walk of life, and of every race and every calling.
President Roosevelt, in his seven years at the White House, has entertained cowboys and ranchmen, former Rough Riders, settlement workers, authors both known and unknown, struggling artists, and men of every race from Booker T. Washington to a Malay student.
Altogether, the qualifications that enable a man to become a guest at the White House today are very simple. If a man or woman has done something for his country or for humanity, he is invited by the Chief Executive to come to the mansion of the head of the nation. If he be an old friend of a President, no matter how humble his station in life, he is asked to sup with the Presidential family.
Author of "The Simple Life" Visits President Roosevelt
A charming and sympathetic account of his visit to the White House as the guest of President Roosevelt, is given in McClure's Magazine, by the Rev. Charles Wagner, author of The Simple Life. Pastor Wagner says:
"I arrived at the White House, toward the end of the afternoon, late September. The Presidential residence is a building of the Greek order, on simple lines, entirely white, and situated in the midst of immense lawns and gardens. Beyond is the Washington Monument, in the form of a colossal obelisk, its smooth shaft springing upward like the symbol of a great idea. The White House is entered like a private dwelling; there are no sentries; the main effect is that of simplicity. To me this entire absence of pomp was more impressive than all the majestic exhibitions of authority I have seen about the residences of sovereigns. It is, however, the testimony of many of its former inhabitants that as a home, and for comfort, the White House leaves much to be desired. But it has become a historic building, and no splendid residence, no palace, however rich and beautiful, could replace it.
"A servant conducted me to my room, which was elegantly furnished, and toward eight o'clock I was informed that the President had asked for me."
"I found him in one of the drawing-rooms of the first floor, which contains the portraits of former presidents. He came to meet me with outstretched hands, and a moment afterward we were at table, four in all, including the President, Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt West, of New York. It was to be a little friendly dinner.
"Where are the boys'? asked the President."
"They are on their way to bed', some one answered."
"Never mind, let them come and say "How do you do?" to Mr. Wagner."
"And I see two young boys coming in, from nine to eleven years old, evidently tired out after a long run, their eyes fore-telling sleep."
"I've a very important question to ask you', I said to one of them. `Do you sleep with your hands open or shut'? " `I don't know', he replied, `as I'm asleep."
"The President laughed heartily at this answer, which was of course the only good one to make, and the little fellows hurried off to bed."
McKinley Entertains His Farm Manager
At the second inauguration among the White House guests, as described in Capital Stories About Famous Americans, were Jack Adams, who runs the President's farm near Canton, and a friend, Mr. Alexander, a tinsmith, from Minerva, Columbiana County, Ohio. Mr. Adams came to Washington at the President's invitation, but had no idea of doing more than "eating one meal in the White House," as he expressed it. Here is Mr. Adams' own story of how he happened to be stopping at the White House during the inauguration week :
"Just before the inauguration of 1897, Mr. McKinley asked me if I did not want to come to Washington. Well, I was pretty busy on the farm just then, so I said no, I would come to the next one. The President laughed, and said to remind him and he would send me a pass. I got it. When my friend Alexander and I went up to the White House the President held out his hand and said : `I'm glad to see you', and asked me about my health and my family and how everybody was doing. I told him I had just come to town and got a room. He said : `Not a bit of it. You are to stay right here in the White House, you and your friend'. I said that I did not like to impose upon him, but he replied that it was no imposition, and that I must bring my grip and stay the week out as his guest, and he would see that I had a good time and do everything for me that he could do. He made out a ticket that passed us to the grand stand to see the parade ; also gave us seats at the Capitol and admission to the inauguration ball."
Washington Irving Meets Dolly Madison
That beloved American author, Washington Irving, visited the White House during the administration of President Madison, and describes his meeting with the famous Dolly Madison thus :
"Understanding that Mrs. Madison was to have her levee or drawing-room that very evening, I swore I would be there. But how ? was the question. I had got away into Georgetown, and the persons to whom my letters of introduction were directed lived all upon Capitol Hill, about three miles off, while the President's house was exactly halfway. Here was a non-plus enough to startle any man of less enterprising spirit; but I had sworn to be there, and I determined to keep my oath. So I mounted with a stout heart to my room ; resolved to gird up my loins and sally forth on my expedition. In a few minutes I emerged from dirt and darkness into the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison's drawing-room. Here I was most graciously received; found a crowded collection of men and women, and in ten minutes was hand and glove with half the people in the assemblage. Mrs. Madison is a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody."
Irving the Guest of President Fillmore
Washington Irving again visited the White House many years after his visit in Madison's time, this time as the guest of President Fillmore. Concerning this, his second visit, Washington Irving wrote :
"I have been much pleased with what I have seen of the President and his family, and have been most kindly received by them."
Yesterday I made a delightful excursion, with some of our household and some of the young folks of the President's family down the Potomac to Mount Vernon. We began by a very pleasant breakfast at the President's.
"In the evening I was at the President's levee. It was very crowded. I met with many interesting people there, but I had no chance of enjoying conversation with any of them, for in a little while the same scene began which took place here eleven years ago, on my last visit. I had to shake hands with man, woman and child."
Thackeray Received at the White House
William Makepiece Thackeray, the great English author, was received at the White House and formally entertained by President Pierce, who at that time had been an occupant of the mansion only a few weeks, the date of Thackeray's visit being April 5, 1853, about a month and a day after the inauguration of the new President. In a letter describing his visit, Thackeray wrote:
"At Washington, I passed some three weeks pleasantly enough among the great people of the Republic, and receiving a great deal of hospitality from them and our Minister, Mr. Crampton, the most hospitable of all possible diplomatists. I saw the two Presidents (they came together to my lecture), and dined at the White House in the reign of the late Sovereign, Mr. Fillmore."
James Fenimore Cooper a Guest of President Monroe
During President Monroe's administration, the American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, twice visited the White House, his own account of his experience being as follows :
"The principal entrance of the `White House' communicates with a spacious vestibule, or rather a hall. From this we passed into an apartment, where those who visit the President in the mornings, are to wait their turns for the interview. Our names had been given in at the door, and after two or three, who preceded us, had been admitted, we were desired to follow the domestic. Our reception was in a cabinet, and the visit, of course, quite short, Colonel Monroe received us politely, but with an American gravity. He offered his hand to me.
"On the succeeding Wednesday, Mrs. Monroe opened her doors to all the world. No invitation was necessary, it being the usage for the wife of the President to receive once a fort-night during the session without distinction of persons. We reached the White House at nine. The court (or rather the grounds) was filled with carriages, and the company was arriving in great numbers. On this occasion two or three additional drawing-rooms were opened, though the frugality of Congress has prevented them from finishing the principal reception-room of the building."
"On another occasion (of a dinner at the White House) we were honored with the presence of Mrs. Monroe and two or three of her female relatives. Crossing the hall we were admitted to a drawing-room in which most of the company was already assembled. The hour was six. By far the greater part of the guests were men, and perhaps two-thirds were members of Congress.
"There was great gravity of mien in most of the company, and neither any very marked exhibition, nor any positively striking want of grace of manner. The conversation was a little sombre, though two or three men of the world got around the ladies, where the battle of words was maintained with sufficient spirit. To me the entertainment had rather a cold than a formal air. When dinner was announced, the oldest Senator present (there were two, and seniority of service is meant) took Mrs. Monroe and led her to the table. The rest of the party followed without much order. The President took a lady as usual and preceded the rest of the guests.
"The drawing-room was an apartment of good size, and of just proportions. It might have been about as large as a better sort of a Paris salon in a private hotel. It was furnished in a mixed style, partly English and partly French, a custom that prevails a good deal in all the fashions of this country. It was neat, sufficiently rich, without being at all magnificent, and, on the whole, very much like a similar apartment in the house of a man of rank and fortune in Europe.
"The dining-room was in better taste than is common here, being quite simple and but little furnished. The table was large and rather handsome. The service was in china, as is uniformly the case, plates being exceedingly rare, if at all used. There was, however, a rich plateau, and a great abundance of the smaller articles of table-plate. The cloth, napkins, etc., were fine and beautiful. The dinner was served in the French style, a little Americanized. The dishes were handed around, though some of the guests, appearing to prefer their own customs, coolly helped themselves to what they found at hand.
"Of attendants there were a good many. They were neatly dressed, out of livery. To conclude, the whole entertainment might have passed for a better sort of European dinner-party, at which the guests were too numerous for general or very agreeable discourse, and some of them too new to be entirely at their ease. Mrs. Monroe arose at the end of the dessert, and withdrew, attended by two or three of the most gallant of the company. No sooner was his wife's back turned, than the President reseated himself, inviting his guests to imitate the action. After allowing his guests sufficient time to renew the recollections of similar enjoyments of their own, he arose him-self, giving the hint to his company that it was time to rejoin the ladies. In the drawing-room coffee was served, and every one left the house before nine."
Captain Marryat Visits Van Buren
That English novelist, beloved of all boys who like to read stories of the sea, was a guest at the White House during the term of President Van Buren, and this is his own account of his visit :
"Mr. Van Buren is a very gentleman-like, intelligent man ; very proud of talking over his visit to England and the English with whom he was acquainted. It is remarkable, that although at the head of the Democratic party, Mr. Van Buren has taken a step striking at the very roots of their boasted equality, and one on which General Jackson did not venture—i. e., he has prevented the mobocracy from intruding themselves at his levees. The police are now stationed at the door, to prevent the intrusion of any improper person. A few years ago, a fellow could drive his cart, or hackney coach, up to the door, walk into the saloon in all his dirt, and force his way to the President, that he might shake him by the one hand, while he flourished his whip with the other. The scenes which took place when refreshments were handed round, the injury done to the furniture, and the disgust of the ladies, may be well imagined. Mr. Van Buren deserves great credit for this step, for it was a bold one; but I must not praise him too much, or he may lose his next election."
Charles Dickens at the Executive Mansion
When Charles Dickens paid his visit to America on a lecture tour, he was invited to the White House by President Tyler. The distinguished novelist afterward wrote a vivid description of his stay at the White House, in which he said :
"The President's mansion is more like an English clubhouse, both within and without, than any other kind of establishment with which I can compare it. The ornamental ground about it has been laid out in garden walks ; they are pretty, and agreeable to the eye; though they have that uncomfortable air of having been made yesterday, which is far from favorable to the display of such beauties.
"My first visit to this house was on the morning after my arrival, when I was carried thither by an official gentleman, who was so kind as to charge himself with my presentation to the President.
"We entered a large hall, and having twice or thrice rung a bell which nobody answered, walked without further ceremony through the rooms on the ground floor, as divers other gentlemen (mostly with their hats on, and their hands in their pockets), were doing very leisurely. Some of these had ladies with them, to whom they were showing the premises ; others were lounging on the chairs and sofas.
"After glancing at these loungers, who were scattered over a pretty drawing-room, opening upon a terrace which commanded a beautiful prospect of the river and the adjacent country, and who were sauntering too about a larger state-room called the Eastern Drawing-room, we went upstairs into another chamber, where were certain visitors, waiting for audiences. At sight of my conductor, a black in plain clothes and yellow slippers who was gliding noiselessly about and whispering messages in the ears of the more impatient, made a sign of recognition, and glided off to announce him.
"We had previously looked into another chamber fitted all round with a great bare wooden desk or counter, whereon lay files of newspapers, to which sundry gentlemen were referring. But there were no such means of beguiling the time in this apartment, which was as unpromising and tiresome as any waiting-room in one of our public establishments, or any physician's dining-room during his hours of consultation at home.
"There were some fifteen or twenty persons in the room. One, a tall, wiry, muscular old man, from the West, sunburnt and swarthy, with a brown white hat on his knees, and a giant umbrella resting between his legs, who sat bolt upright in his chair, frowning steadily at the carpet, and twitching the hard lines about his mouth, as if he had made up his mind `to fix' the President on what he had to say, and wouldn't bate him a grain. Another, a Kentucky farmer, six-feet-six in height, with his hat on, and his hands under his coattails, who leaned against the wall and kicked the floor with his heel, as though he had Time's head under his shoe, and were literally `killing' him. A third, an oval faced, bilious looking man, with sleek black hair cropped close, and whiskers and beard shaved down to blue dots, who sucked the head of a thick stick, and from time to time took it out of his mouth, to see how it was getting on. A fourth did nothing but whistle.
"We had not waited in this room many minutes, before the black messenger returned, and conducted us into another of smaller dimensions, where, at a business like table covered with papers, sat the President himself. He looked somewhat worn and anxious, but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly and agreeable. I thought that in his whole carriage and deemanor he became his station singularly well.
"Being advised that the sensible etiquette of the Republican court admitted of a traveler, like myself, declining, without any impropriety, an invitation to dinner, which did not reach me until I had concluded my arrangements for leaving Washington some days before that to which it referred, I only returned to this house once. It was on the occasion of one of those general assemblies which are held on certain nights, between the hours of nine and twelve o'clock, and are called, rather oddly, levees.
"I went, with my wife, at about ten. There was a pretty dense crowd of carriages and people in the courtyard, and so far as I could make out, there were no very clear regulations for the taking up or setting down of company. There were certainly no policemen to soothe startled horses, either by sawing at their bridles or flourishing truncheons in their eyes. But there was no confusion or disorder. Our carriage reached the porch in its turn, without any blustering, shouting, backing or other disturbance ; and we dismounted with as much ease and comfort as though we had been escorted by the whole Metropolitan force.
"The suite of rooms on the ground-floor were lighted up, and a military band was playing in the hall. In the smaller drawing-room, the centre of a circle of company, were the President and his daughter-in-law, who acted as the lady of the mansion, and a very interesting, graceful and accomplished lady too. One gentleman who stood among the group appeared to take upon himself the functions of a master of the ceremonies. I saw no other officers or attendants, and none were needed.
"The great drawing-room and the other chambers on the ground-floor were crowded to excess. The company was not, in our sense of the term, select, for it comprehended persons of very many grades and classes ; nor was there any great display of costly attire ; indeed, some of the costumes may have been, for aught I know, grotesque enough. But the decorum and propriety of behaviors which prevailed were unbroken by any rude or disagreeable incident; and every man, even among the miscellaneous crowd in the hall who were admitted, without any orders or tickets, to look on, appeared to feel that he was a part of the institution, and was responsible for its preserving a becoming character, and appearing to the best advantage.
"That these visitors, too, whatever their station, were not without some refinement of taste and appreciation of intellectual gifts, and gratitude to those men, who, by the peaceful exercises of great abilities, shed new charms and associations upon the homes of their countrymen, and elevate their character in other lands, was most earnestly testified by their reception of Washington Irving, my dear friend, who had recently been appointed Minister at the Court of Spain, and who was among them that night, in his new character, for the first and last time before going abroad. I sincerely believe that in all the madness of American politics, few men would have been so earnestly, devotedly and affectionately caressed, as this most charming writer; and I have seldom respected a public assembly more, than I did this eager throng."