Upstairs at the White House: Reception Room

All manner of Americans occupied the reception room while they waited to see the President. One day when the reception room was crowded with folks waiting to see Mr. Lincoln, Senator Henry Wilson protested: "Mr. President, you are too exhausted to see this throng waiting to see you; you will wear yourself out, and you ought not to see these people to-day." Mr. Lincoln rejected Wilson's suggestion, maintaining "I must see them." Wilson wrote:
“Mr Lincoln was a genuine Democrat in feeling, sentiment and action. How patiently and considerately he listened, amid the terrible pressures of public affairs, to the people that thronged his Anti Room [sic]. I remember calling upon him one day during the war on pressing business. The Anti Room was crowded with men and women seeking admission. He seemed oppressed, care-worn, u[n]easy. I said to him, – ‘Mr. President, you are too exhausted to see this throng waiting to see you; you will wear yourself out, and you ought not to see these people to-day’. He replied with one of those smiles in which sadness seemed to mingle – ‘they don’t want much and they don’t get but Little, and I must see them.’”1

Presidential aide John Nicolay wrote that the visitors “cannot be driven off; they cannot be bluffed. Bars and bolts will not shut them out. The frowns of janitors have no terrors for them. They are proof against the snubbings of secretaries. It is in vain the President sends word that he ‘cannot be seen. He must bee seen; he shall be seen. Has not the Honorable Jonathan Swellhead come all the way from Wisconsin to consult with him about the [draft[ quota of his town? Has not the Reverend Dr. Blowhard travelled a thousand miles to impress upon him the necessity of increasing the number of fast days? Has not Christopher Carbuncle, Esq., traveled two days and nights in order to arrange with him the vexed question of the post office Grabtown? Has not Mr. Samuel Shoddy come expressly from Boston to get him to endorse an application for a blanket contract? Has not a committee from the synod of the See-No-Further church come to implore him to open cabinet meetings with prayer and inaugurate his Wednesday levees with the singing of a psalm? Nor can these clamorous patriots be dismissed with a brief audience. They belong to the class of bores who make long speeches. Having once got the ear of the President, they resolve to keep it. They hang on like a dog to a root. There is no shaking them off until they have had their say; and so hour after hour of the precious time of the head of the nation is thus frittered away.”2

Another assistant, Edward Duffield Neill, observed: "No one was too poor to be received."3 In fact, sometimes the poor had an advantage. One day, according to Lincoln biographer Josiah G. Holland, a Missouri general "saw, waiting in the ante-room, a poor old from Tennessee. Sitting down beside him, he inquired his errand; and learned that he had been waiting three or four days to get an audience, and that on his seeing Mr. Lincoln probably depended the life of his son, who was under sentence of death for some military offense. General Fisk wrote his case in outline on a card, and sent it in with a special request that the President would see the man. In a moment, the order came; and past senators, governors and generals, waiting impatiently, the old man went into the President's presence." Mr. Lincoln reviewed the case and granted the pardon.4

In order to avoid the crowds, the President required that a back corridor be built along the outside wall from his office to the family library so he could occasionally escape the incessant demands on him. Most supplicants pretended they were strong backers of the Union. Helen Nicolay, daughter of one presidential aide, wrote:
"Mr. Lincoln's secretaries estimated that, in spite of all they could do to reduce the number of his visitors, three quarters of the President's waking hours were spent in meeting people. In addition to those who came by appointment and others who managed by hook or by crook to gain an interview, people thronged to the public receptions he held, usually at noon on days when the Cabinet was not in session. The doors would be opened, and all who wished to do so might enter. For an hour men and women of all classes, from all parts of the country, would pass before him. Not a few brought children with them, and to children the tall President was very kind.
His friends urged him to spare himself the fatigue of this endless greeting and handshaking, reminding him that he would never see a large proportion of these visitors again, and that many came to ask favors he could not grant. But he replied that he could not do without these 'public opinion baths' because they kept him in touch with the 'plain people' who had elected him. Indeed, during the course of such a reception, there was scarcely a subject of popular interest that was not touched upon and briefly discussed.
Every morning, when my father or John Hay carried their digest of daily news to him, they marveled to find him already so well-informed. The secret lay in these same public receptions. Every visitor added unconsciously an element of enthusiasm or prejudice to the words he spoke. Since Mr. Lincoln had left behind him his wide knowledge of human nature when he entered the White House, he found even the prejudices illuminating.
Busy though he was, he had leisure and sympathy for each person. He hated to say 'No,' yet, having to say it so often, he strove to keep the conversation on a plane where the 'No,' if it must be spoken, would hurt as little as possible."5

Mr. Lincoln told a newspaper editor "This read means of access is, I may say, under our form of government, the only link or cord which connects the people with the governing power; and however unprofitable much of it is, it must be kept up. As, for instance, a mother in a distant part, who has a son in the army who is regularly enlisted, has not served out his time, but has been as long as she thinks he ought to stay, will collect together al the little means she can to bring her here to entreat me to grant him his discharge. Of course, I cannot interfere and can only see her and speak kindly to her."6

"The ante-rooms were crowded all the time from morning till night, with men, women and children all anxious to see Mr Lincoln to ask some appointment, or to see, and talk to him; and some to ask his advice about their private matters. That crowd swayed, and jostled against each other every day,” recalled long-time Lincoln friend Robert L. Wilson. “Members of the Cabinet, and Gen. McClellan, were admitted, whenever they came, and it did appear that they had to get his common opinion about anything they did, as they would call on him sometimes two or three times each day, and remain a long time in consultation about the duties of the several Departments.”7

The process of waiting was particularly disturbing to those who viewed it as an affront to their self-importance. It could be particularly galling in those waiting thought the President was engaged in frivolous activities. "Sometimes there would be a crowd of senators and members of Congress waiting their turn," noted Congressman Isaac Arnold. "While thus waiting, the loud ringing laugh of Mr. Lincoln – in which he would be joined by those inside, but which was rather provoking to those outside – would be heard by the waiting and impatient crowd."8

Sometimes, visitors encountered a surprising advocate in the Lincolns' youngest son. According to John Hay, "He treated flatterers and office-seekers with a curious coolness and contempt, but he often espoused the cause of some poor widow or tattered soldier, whom he found waiting in the ante-rooms, and it was most amusing to see the hearty little fellow dragging his shabby proteges into the Executive presence, ordering the ushers out of the way, and demanding immediate action from headquarters. The President rarely refused a grace of this kind, and the demands were not so frequent as to lose the charm of novelty."9

Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne waited in the Reception Room with a group of Massachusetts residents in March 1862 while President Lincoln finished breakfast. The delegation was 'ushered into a reception-room, in one corner of which sat the secretaries of War and of the Treasury, expecting, like ourselves, the termination of the Presidential breakfast. During this interval there were several new additions to our group, one or two of whom were in working garb, so that we formed a very miscellaneous collection of people, mostly unknown to each other, and without any common sponsor, but all with an equal right to look our head-servant in the face. By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passageway, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe." According to Hawthorne: "He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning after the disarrangement of the pillow; and as to a nightcap Uncle Abe probably knows nothing of such effeminacies. His complexion is dark and sallow, betokening, I fear, an insalubrious atmosphere around the White House; he has thick black eyebrows and an impending brow; his nose is large, and the lines about his mouth are very strongly defined."10

British citizen Goldwin Smith observed in early 1865: “You pass into the President’s room of business through an anteroom, which has, no doubt, been paced by many an applicant for office and many an intriguer. There is no formality – nothing in the shape of a guard; and, if this man is really ‘a tyrant worse than Robespierre,’ he must have great confidence in the long-sufferance of his kind.”11

Sergeant James Stradling went to the White House in 1863. Acknowledging his naivete, Stradling wrote a friend about his experiences in getting to see the President: “When I reached the front door of the ‘White House’ I found two or three policemen on guard, who said to me, ‘Well, Country, what do you want?’ I told them I wanted to see the President, when they showed me into a very large room which was full of people. Of course I was very much bewildered and did not know which way to turn.
I finally picked up courage to ask a gentleman near to me if these people had assembled to hear the President make a speech. He replied with a twinkle in his eye, after he had sized me up, that “the people were assembled to see the President, but that he was not going to make a speech, but that every one would have to wait their turn to be called inot his room for a personal interview.” After thanking him, I looked around the large room to see if I could see any one I knew. Presently I saw General [Joseph] Hooker, standing over on one side of the room, near a side door. At that moment a guard opened the door and General hooker passed in. I asked one of the guards where people landed when they passed through that side door. His reply was, ‘Why greeny, that goes to the President’s room.”
As soon as I could I edged my way around to that door and told the guard that I was a soldier in distress, and asked him if he could help me. I told him I had been home on a furlough and___ ‘You want to get it extended I suppose. I do not believe the President will do that.”
“I want to get to the front tonight.” I told him there was a steamer going down to-night, but the captain of the steamer had refused me passage. “Oh,” he said, “that is an Indian of another skin.” I asked him what he meant by that, when he said, “it is a horse of another color.” He looked at me and said, “You are very green, aren’t you?” I acknowledged that I was just slightly like a green apple, but I told him I could learn, and in fact I had learned a whole lot since ten o’clock this morning. I said to him that if I could get a chance to put my case before the President, and get him to thoroughly understand that I was endeavoring to get to and not from the front, that he would assist me. When he had heard me through he said ‘D__n all steamboat captains.” Probably he had run up against a steamboat captain some time in his career, too.”
He took my furlough and, calling another guard to watch the door, disappeared. He was gone for a long, long time. While I was waiting a very nicely dressed gentleman came to the guard, and showing him his card, he was passed in. I asked the guard who that was that could go in by simply showing his card. He replied, ‘That was United States Senator Ben Wade of Ohio.”
While still waiting, another fine-looking gentleman and a lady came up and handed the guard a letter, which he at once sent in to the President. The lady’s eyes were very red, and soon she commenced to weep again, and I heard her remark to her escort, ‘I must see the President to-day, or my son will be shot to-morrow.”
Of course I was very anxious to learn who they were and what was the trouble with her son, and was about to ask the guard when the other guard, the one who had my papers, appeared and said, ‘Follow me.” I followed him into a small room where there a gentleman sitting, and my guard addressed him as Mr. [John] Hay. He said, ‘Please be seated, the President will see you very soon.”12


Footnotes

    1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, pp. 561-562.
    2. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, p. xix.
    3. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 604.
    4. Josiah G. Holland, Holland's Life of Abraham Lincol, pp. 438-439.
    5. Helen Nicolay, Lincoln's Secretary, p. 118.
    6. Wilson and Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 208 (Letter from Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon, February 10, 1866).
    7. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 31.
    8. Isaac Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 453.
    9. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln's Side: John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 112.
    10. Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 464-465 (from National Hawthorne, "About the Homeliest Man I Ever Saw," Atlantic Monthly, July 1862).
    11. Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 593 (Goldwin Smith, Macmillan’s Magazine, June 1865)
    12. James M. Stradling, His Talk with Lincoln, being a Letter written by James m. Stradling, pp. 7-13 (Letter from John M. Stradling to John W. Gilbert, March 6, 1863).

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