Grand Reception at the White House




Downstairs at The White House: Blue Room

The Blue Room filled many presidential purposes. It was used by the Lincolns for social events, reception of diplomatic envoys, and as a waiting room for visitors seeking to see the President. When Prince Napoleon visited the White House in August 1861, an aide described the drawing room as "magnificent; the furniture, though extremely rich, was in rather poor taste."1 On the day he was inaugurated in March 1861, President Lincoln greeted guests in the Blue Room. This is also where President and Mrs. Lincoln normally stood to greet visitors at their levees on Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons. A White House functionary usually announced the guests while across the room, a guard kept an eye on their behavior. "None of the crowd of comers remain in the blue room except friends of the family, persons especially invited, and those who official position gives them the right," observed presidential aide William O. Stoddard.2

At one regular levee in the Blue Room, a visitor told the President: "Up our way, we believe in God and Abraham Lincoln." Replied the President as he turned to the next visitor on line: "My friend, you are more than half right."3 At the Lincolns' first levee on March 7, 1861, a big crowd showed up to examine the White House's new occupants. Wearing white kid gloves and a black suit, the President shook hands for more than two hours with everyone from cabinet members to office-seekers. The President's hand was so sore as a result that he claimed to be incapable of signing anything.4 A Washington reporter wrote:
Mrs. Lincoln occupied a position to the immediate right of the President, and next to her husband, was the target for all eyes. Dr. Blake, present Commissioner of Public Buildings, filled his usual position of introducing to the Queen of the White House such as desired to be presented. Mrs. Lincoln bore the fatigue of the two-and-a-half-hour siege with great patience. She appeared remarkably well and performed her part of the honors, in response to the grand ovation paid to her as well as to her honored husband, with that propriety which consistently blends all the graces with an unreserved dignity.
At half past ten o'clock, Mrs. Lincoln leaning upon the arm of an ex-member of Congress from Illinois — much to the chagrin of Senators and Representatives, who were dressed and dying to have that honor themselves — proceeded through the Blue Room to the East Room. The President followed, attended by one of his younger sons. The crowd in the East Room, although very great, made way for Excellency and lady and suite. They passed round the room once, the head of the President peering above all the rest, so that he could be distinctly seen at any time from any point. He was dressed in plain black broadcloth — and wore white kids. Mrs. Lincoln was attired in a rich Magenta colored brocade silk, with raised figure flounces, trimmed not extravagantly with rich point lace. Her ornaments were chiefly diamonds and pearls.5

Charles Francis Adams, Jr, son of the newly-appointed American minister to England, wrote of the event: "A few days later, I attended the new President's first evening levee. 'A pretty business it was. Such a crush was, I imagine, never seen in the White House before, on a similar, or any other, occasion. After two vain attempts to get into the reception room, Dexter and I resolutely set ourselves in the main current, and were pushed and squeezed along. It was a motley crowd. There they were — the sovereigns; some in evening dress, others in morning suits; with gloves and without gloves; clean and dirty; all pressing in the same direction, and all behaving with perfect propriety. There was no ill temper; no vulgarity or noise; no rudeness; in spite of the crowd and discomfort, everything was respectful and decorous. The sight was one not pleasant to see, and even less pleasant to participate in; but still good of its kind. Here, as everywhere, the people governed themselves. At last, after the breath was nearly out of our bodies, Dexter and I came in sight of the President — the tall, rapidly bobbing head of the good 'Abe,' as he shook hands with his guests, and quickly passed them along. The vastly greater number he hurried by him; but, when any one he knew came along, he bent himself down to the necessary level, and seemed to whisper a few words in the ear, in pleasant, homely fashion; though not exactly in one becoming our President. I hurried by as quickly as I could, and retreated into the rear of the room, there to observe. I stayed about an hour and a half, meeting Mr. [Charles] Sumner, Mr. and Mrs. [Stephen] Douglas and others, and subsequently, leaving by the south front, reached home with 'tir'd eye-lids upon tir'd eyes.'"6

Some would-be visitors were too worried about their coats to relinquish them at the door — and thus were refused entrance. They missed the president but many of those who met Mr. Lincoln later missed their coats when they sought to go home. One woman visitor later reported: "I was too curious to allow myself to be worried by the rush, and presently I got into a corner on a sofa and indulged myself at the scene. Mr. Lincoln did not seem much frightened because he was elected President, and I never thought it was exactly right to blame him because he was. Mrs. Lincoln reminded me very much of a very dear friend at home. She was graceful, modest and kind to everybody. I wondered whether she could keep her temper through all the troubles that are before her?"

Levees became part of the regular White House winter routine while Congress was in session. Benjamin Brown French described one such event on January 8, 1862: "I was there officially to introduce 'The American Queen' to her numerous and most brilliant visitors. I never have seen so elegant a reception, or one that went off better. Mrs. Lincoln in light silk, pearl headdress & ornaments, with a wrought lace scarf, or shawl, valued at $2,500! She was 'got up' in excellent taste, and looked the Queen. Mr. Lincoln in plain black, and as kind & cordial as it is possible for a President to be. Everybody loves & respects him & deservedly, for he is one of the best men who ever lived, and the Union ought to prosper under his mild but firm & kindly rule."7 After the first year of the war, there was little attempt by the Lincolns to organize more ornate social events. That was particularly true after February 1862 when Willie Lincoln died a few days after a major White House party. Journalist Noah Brooks described a typical levee:
The White House did not witness many brilliant festivities during the war, after that famous party which was given by the President and Mrs. Lincoln early in the first year of the Lincoln administration. But Mrs. Lincoln's afternoon receptions and the President's public levees were held regularly during the winters. Nothing could be more democratic than these gatherings of the people at the White House. They were usually held twice a week during the winter, those on Tuesday evenings being so-called dress receptions, and the Saturday levees being less formal in character. A majority of the visitors went in full dress: the ladies in laces, feathers, silks and satins, without bonnet; and the gentlemen in evening dress. But sprinkled through the gaily attired crowds were hundreds of officers and private soldiers, the light-blue army coat of the period being a conspicuous feature of the moving panorama. Here and there a day-laborer, looking as though he had just left his work-bench, or a hard-working clerk with ink-stained linen, added to the popular character of the assembly. Usually the President stood in the famous Blue Room, or at the head of the East Room; and those who wished to shake hands made their entrance, one by one, and were introduced by the functionary detailed for that occasion. So vast were the crowds, and so affectionate their greetings, that Mr. Lincoln's right hand was often so swollen that he would be unable to use it readily for hours afterward; and the white kid glove of his right hand, when the operation of handshaking was over, always looked as if it had been dragged through a dust-bin. Much of the time, I think, the President never heard with his inner ear the names of persons presented to him by Secretary [John G. Nicolay, Commissioner [of Public Building Benjamin B. French ], or United States Marshall [Ward Hill] Lamon [of the District of Columbia]. His thoughts were apt to be far from the crowds of strangers that passed before him. On one occasion, bringing up a friend, I greeted the President as usual, and presented my friend. The President shook hands with me in a perfunctory way, his eyes fixed on space, and I passed on, knowing that he had never seen me or heard the name of my friend; but after I had reached a point seven or eight persons beyond, the President suddenly seemed to see me, and, continuing the handshaking of strangers while he spoke, shouted out: 'Oh, Brooks! Charles Maltby is in town, and I want you to come and see me to-morrow.' Maltby, it may be said, was an old friend of Mr. Lincoln's then living in California, and about whose petition for a Federal appointment the President wished to talk with me. Lincoln's sudden outburst, naturally enough, astonished the people who heard it.8

These levees were physically challenging to a perpetually exhausted President. One semi-weekly levee was attended by the previously unsympathetic journalist Jane Grey Swisshelm, an abolitionist who later wrote: "Mr. Lincoln stood going through one of those dreadful ordeals of hand-shaking, working like a man pumping for life on a sinking vessel, and I was filled with indignation for the selfish people who made this useless drain on his nervous force. I wanted to stand between him and them, and say, 'stand back, and let him live and do his work.' but I could not resist going to him with the rest of the crowd, and when he took my hand I said: 'May the Lord have mercy on you, poor man, for the people have none.'"9

The exhaustion was partly caused by the naive expectations of those in attendance. Many attended "with the dim idea that they were about to make the acquaintance of the President and his wife, and prepared themselves for a quiet little chat, with stores of questions about this and advice about that for Father Abraham," noted aide William O. Stoddard. "Others, not expecting much time to themselves, would prepare patriotic little speeches, which they would launch with sudden fervor and wonderfully rapid utterance at the head of the President. I remember seeing a little wee bit of a fat man, half smothered in the crowd, stretching out a hand through a chink in the procession, as if he was drowning, and while the laughing President shook him almost convulsively thereby, the persistent little orator under difficulties, wheezed out some choked sentences about freedom, glory, emancipation &c. When Mr. Lincoln let go of him he disappeared."10

At a levee on New Year's Day, 1863, the president greeted visitors in the middle of this room -- first diplomats and officials and later the general public -- shaking so many hands that he was afraid his own hand would shake when signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years, later, Benjamin Brown French described the New Year's Day ritual, at which he always stood by Mrs. Lincoln's side: "At 11 [A.M.] The Diplomatic Corps, Judiciary, & members of the Senate and House came. Mrs. Lincoln not being quite ready, The President appeared without her, and the reception commenced. At 1/2 past 11 she appeared and did her part of the reception with her usual ease and urbanity. After the above-named dignitaries, the officers of the Army and Navy came, and then the people en masse. Mrs. Lincoln remained till ½ past 12 and then, concluding she had done her duty, left, bidding me good morning. Supposing my duty over I left. I understand she afterwards returned, and my friend Mr. Stoddard acted in my place."11

For the first time under President Lincoln, black Americans came to the White House for social occasions. Historians James G. Randall and Richard N. Current observed: "At his New Year's Day reception in 1864 'four colored men, of genteel exterior and with the manners of gentlemen, joined in the throng that crowded the Executive Mansion, and were presented to the President of the United States,' as the Washington Morning Chronicle reported the unprecedented news. There was no scene. 'We are neither amalgamationists nor advocates of the leveling of all social distinctions,' the Chronicle commented; 'but we rejoice that we have a President who is a democrat by fact as well as by nature.'"12

New Year's Day receptions were elaborate events. William O. Stoddard noted: "On New Year's day, after the assembling of Congress, the Executive Mansion is thrown open for a general popular reception, but the Supreme Court, and the representatives of foreign powers, are expected to pay their respects first, and all things are kept clear for them. The latter come in full court dress, or in uniform, and make quite a brilliant display. Officers of the army and navy who come are expected to wear full dress uniforms. The Cabinet generally make their appearance with the Supreme Court and diplomats, but it is no violation of etiquette for them to be absent."13

Attorney General Edward Bates described the January 1, 1862 event as a particularly "gawdy show" with diplomats and military officers wearing their appropriate costumes as they came to greet the President. "Coming out, at noon, found eager crowds at the gates, which were guarded by the police," he reported to his diary.14 Senator Orville H. Browning reported in his diary that "between 1 & 2 O'clck went to pay my respects to the President and Mrs. Lincoln. I remained with them till the reception was over. The crowd was very great and for the first time in my life I had my pocket picked of my purse, which contained I think from $50 to $100 in gold — I do not know exactly how much."15

Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana recalled how the President's kindness could overwhelm even the smallest guest: "Once there was a great gathering at the White House on New Year's Day [probably in 1864 or 1865], and all the diplomats came in their uniforms, and all the officers of the army and navy in Washington were in full costume. A little girl of mine said, 'Papa, couldn't you take me over to see that?' I said, 'Yes'; so I took her over and put her in a corner, where she beheld this gorgeous show. When it was finished, I went up to Mr. Lincoln and said, "I have a little girl here who wants to shake hands with you.' He went over to here, and took he up and kissed her and talked to her. She will never forget it if she lives to be a thousand years old."16

Assistant Secretary William O. Stoddard observed that President Lincoln "retained in all its freshness his love for children. If a child was led past him at a public 'reception,' he was apt to take it up and kiss it and give it a kind word as simply and even a little more eagerly than if he had met the child of some old neighbor on the sidewalk of his own street in Springfield." 17 Typically, noted Stoddard, the President might interrupt a receiving line: "'Come here, sister, I can't let you pass me in that way.' Sunny curls, blue eyes, cheeks delicately rosy, a child of seven or eight, plainly dressed, trembled with shyness and pleasure as he drew her to him for a kiss and a pat on her golden hair....Up, up went a chubby boy of four, and the squall changed to a laugh, for he was a brave little fellow and knew a game of toss even though it lifted him uncommonly high in the air."18

In the fall of 1863, the Russian fleet visited New York City and was enthusiastically received because the Russians were seen as an effective counter to the pro-Confederate sympathies of Britain and France. Later in the year, Russian officers also visited Washington. Democratic Congressman John T. Stuart, a former law partner of Abraham Lincoln, wrote his wife about a White House reception on December 19, 1863: "We went into the Blue Room bowed to Mr. Lincoln who held out his hand & said How are you Stuart! I introduced Cousin Sue & Charley and passed over to Cousin Mary. Her salutations were how are you Mrs. Craig!! How do you do Cousin John!!! and after a few common place words of ceremony & form we passed into the East Room. It was very select reception confined to Members of Congress, the Cabinet, Foreign legations and a few distinguished strangers. The dressing of the ladies was very elegant. The reception was give mainly to the Russian Navy who were present in full dress with their ladies who were magnificently dressed."19

On February 25, 1865, the Marquis de Chambrun attended his first Saturday reception at the White House and wrote his wife in France his first impressions of President and Mrs. Lincoln:
"The reception was almost over. Many guests had already left. In we went. Upon entering the first parlor, I at once perceived a tall man standing near the door, surrounded by an atmosphere of great respect. No mistake was possible; it was Mr. Lincoln himself! Apparently, when there are so many visitors in Washington, as is now the case on account of the Union victories, the President is apt to come to his wife's receptions. What an anxious moment! Here I was alone, without anyone to help, obliged to say a polite word in English to each of them. No possibility of retreat, though. I had time, while waiting my turn, to observe Mr. Lincoln closely. He is exceedingly thin, not so very tall. His face denotes an immense force of resistance and extreme melancholy. It is plain that this man has suffered deeply. His eyes are superb, large and with a very profound expression when he fixes them on you. It cannot be said that he is awkward; his simplicity is too great for that. He has no pretense to having worldly ways and is unused to society, but there is nothing shocking in this, quite the contrary. The elevation of his mind is too evident; his heroic sentiments are so apparent that one thinks of nothing else. Nobody could be less of a parvenu. As President of a mighty nation, he remains just the same as he must have appeared while felling trees in Illinois. But I must add that he dominates everyone present and maintains his exalted position without the slightest effort.
I waited fifteen minutes before Mr. Kennedy could bring me up to him and then managed to say that my whole heart was engaged on the side of his political ideals; that I participated enthusiastically in his present success and that of his armies, feeling, as I did, that Union victory was the victory of all mankind. This seemed to please him, for he took my hand in both of his as he said how glad he was to find his policies so well understood.
At the center of another circle, and some steps off from her husband, stood Mrs. Lincoln. I made her a low obeisance and said that as Mr. Kennedy had associated my name with that of [the Marquis de] La Fayette she would easily understand how greatly I rejoiced in the success of Mr. Lincoln and the United States of which, at heart at least, I felt myself a citizen. She seemed to understand my English very well and looked pleased at what I tried to express and, as was proved later, she must have attached importance to it.
In height and figure, she reminded me of Madame Pierre de Segur but with this difference: she must have been pretty when young. She wore an ample silk gown. You have one very much like it. Not a single necklace, only a bracelet.
From there we went into the third parlor, where a regimental band was installed. A little conservatory nearby, which Mrs. Lincoln herself takes care of, is simple and unpretentious like the rest.
I must say that her receptions, which everybody attends and where toilettes are exceedingly simple, partake of the general atmosphere which reigns in the White House. Guests are imbued with a sentiment of respectful deference toward the occupants of the dwelling. The master himself, if necessary, would be well able to impose this attitude. From what I am told, this dignified atmosphere is quite different from that which surrounded his predecessors.10


A few days later, poet Walt Whitman observed the last levee of the 1865 social season: "Never before was such a compact jam in front of the White House — all the grounds filled, and away out to the spacious sidewalks. I was there, as I took in a notion to go; was in the rush inside with the crowd; surged along the passageways, the blue and other rooms, and through the great east room. Crowds of country people, some very funny. Fine music from the Marine Band, off in a side place. I saw Mr. Lincoln, dressed in black, with white kid gloves and a clawhammer coat, receiving, as in duty bound, shaking hands, looking very disconsolate and as if he would give anything to be somewhere else."21

After nearly a month in the White House in March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln wrote a friend, Hannah Shearer: "We have given our last general levee until next winter, our cabinet dinner comes off this evening, a party of 28 will dine with us. Our friends have all left, except Mrs [Elizabeth Grimsley] & Mr and Mrs Kellogg of Cincinnati. The latter leave for home, tomorrow. Mrs. G will remain a week or two longer. This is certainly a very charming spot & I have formed many delightful acquaintances. Every evening our blue room is filled with the elite of the land, last eve, we have about 40 to call in, to see us ladies from Vice P.[John] Breckinridge down."22

Sometimes, Mary also entertained what she called her "beau monde friends of the Blue Room" here. A few women were included but most of her visitors were men who "could talk of love, law, literature and war, could describe the rules and thinkers of the time, could gossip of courts and cabinets, of the boudoir and salon, of commerce and the church, of Dickens and Thackeray."23 In February 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote General Daniel Sickles: "The President, is a little better to day, was able to visit the 'blue room;' to night, I will try & persuade him to take some medicine & rest a little on the morrow."24 Some of Mary's guests like Sickles, Oliver Halsted, Henry Wikoff and Lord Colchester were undesirable "company for respectable women," noted her biographer Jean H. Baker, and she "received anonymous warnings to which she paid no attention."25

On the day he died, April 15, 1865, President Lincoln was scheduled to receive a new British Minister, Sir Frederick Bruce, in the Blue Room. Frederick Seward, who sat in for an ailing Secretary of State William Seward, related a conversation at the end of the President's final cabinet meeting:
It must have been about two o'clock when the Cabinet meeting ended. At its close, the President remarked that he had been urged to visit the theatre that evening, and asked General Grant if he would join the party. The General excused himself, as he had a previous engagement. He took his leave, and some of the others followed him.
Then, I said, 'Mr. President, we have a new British Minister, Sir Frederick Bruce. He has arrived in Washington, and is awaiting presentation. At what time will it be convenient for you to receive him?'
He paused a moment in thought, and replied:
'Tomorrow at two o'clock.'
'In the Blue Room, I suppose?'
'Yes, in the Blue Room,' and then added with a smile,
'Don't forget to send up the speeches beforehand. I would like to look them over.'
I promised to do so, and then took my leave — I never saw him afterwards.26

A British girl who visited the White House in the middle of the war reported to her parents: “In the Blue Room beyond, the President stood receiving the stream that flowed toward him, and thence passed into the great East Room and so out. While the others were busy talking to a number of their friends, I watched the President. He shook hands and bowed, only occasionally speaking to someone he knew, or chose to distinguish by his notice. Sometimes he answered a remark made to him. But it was generally, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Jones.’ ‘Mr. Smith how do you do?’ (You see how carefully I write this that you may note the please difference of your daughter’s reception!) ‘Miss ____, of England.’ ‘Ah,’ said the President, and he stooped his great height to look into my face. He looked so kind that I forgot to be frightened. I forgot what he first talked of. Then I blurted out: ‘Mr. Lincoln, may I tell you how earnestly my people at home are with you in heart and soul, especially since the first of January.’ ‘I am very glad to hear it; very glad, though I may not know them personally. That is one of the evils of being so far apart. We have a good deal of salt water between us. When you feel kindly towards us we cannot, unfortunately be always aware of it. But it cuts both ways. When you, in England, are cross with us, we don’t feel it quite [so] badly.’ He smiled as he said this, and then he went on quite gravely: ‘I wish England were nearer, and in full understanding with us.’”27


Footnotes

    1. Camille Ferri Pisani, Prince Napoleon in America, 1861, p. 95.
    2. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 154 from William O. Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 3.
    3. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 259.
    4. Michael Burlingame, editor, William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, pp. 48-49.
    5. Gilson Willets, Inside History of the White House, p. 312.
    6. Charles Francis Adams, Charles Francis Adams: An Autobiography, pp. 99-100.
    7. Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, editors, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, p. 384.
    8. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, pp. 68-70.
    9. James G. Randall: Lincoln the President: Midstream, p. 27.
    10. Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 179 from William Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 8.”
    11. Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, editors, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, p. 443.
    12. Don E. Fehrenbacher, editor, The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln, J. G. Randall and Richard N. Current, “Race Relations in the White House,” p. 152.
    13. Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 153 from William Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 1”
    14. Diary of Edward Bates, p. 221.
    15. Diary of Orville H. Browning, p. 521.
    16. Charles A. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War, p. 168.
    17. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 243.
    18. William O. Stoddard, Jr., editor, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, pp. 126-127.
    19. Harry E. Pratt, editor, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 105.
    20. Marquis de Chambrun, Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War, pp. 21-23.
    21. Walter Lowenfels, editor, Walt Whitman’s Civil War, pp. 258-259.
    22. Justin G. Turner & Linda Levitt Turner, editors, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life & Letters, p. 82.
    23. John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, pp. 366-367.
    24. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Portrait of a Marriage, p. 303.
    25. Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln, p. 231.
    26. Frederick Seward, Reminiscences of a War-Time Statesman and Diplomat, p. 257.
    27. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp. 595-596 (Lady Agnes Harrison Macdonnel, Contemporary Review of London, May 1917).

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