After two years in New York and ten years in Philadelphia, the capital of the country was moved to Washington at the very end of 1800.
The Dismal Days
Washington DC was just opening for business in late 1800, after a ten-year building process. Designed and built practically from scratch from donated pieces of Virginia and Maryland, the new city was muddy, full of building debris, stray dogs, cats and pigs, unpaved streets, fields of weeds, and huge distances between neighbors.
President John Adams came to the White House alone. His wife Abigail joined him shortly afterwards, along with John and Esther Breisler, their long-time stewards.
The place was cold and damp, basically unfurnished other than what Adams brought himself. No one was there to welcome him. The inhospitable atmosphere was matched by the President’s private feelings. His presidency had been troubled and generally unsuccessful, and he had recently lost a bid for a second term to his Vice President and good friend Thomas Jefferson. He had also come to suspect a widening rift marring their quarter century of friendship.
His few weeks in residence in the unfinished President’s House would not be happy.
Nevertheless, Adams began what would become an annual event for more than a century.
New Year’s Day: 1801
George Washington had instituted a Presidential open house reception on the 4th of July, both in New York and in Philadelphia. Everyone was invited. No formal invitations were needed.
As Chief Occupant in the new President’s House in Washington, especially in a centennial year, Adams believed it was the “people’s” house, and it was incumbent upon him, its first resident, to extend hospitality. Thus, on New Year’s Day, 1801, the doors were open to any and all persons in Washington who wished to come by, shake his hand and exchange greetings.
A year later, Jefferson, urbane and sophisticated, followed suit and cordially greeted any and all who wished to shake his hand on New Year’s Day.
Public Presidential receptions differed somewhat from official or private ones. The purpose was to express cordiality to the general public. Refreshments were either very modest or not included. (Presidents were expected to pay for their guests’ refreshments out of pocket until the time of Calvin Coolidge.)
As the town grew, the New Year’s Day reception lines grew longer. And if a person, male or female, was properly dressed (most of them in their finest clothes) and willing to stand patiently in line, they were welcome.
Except for slaves. Or even free blacks. It was not a written rule originally, but a tacit understanding. Few blacks could be “properly” dressed, and few blacks – or whites – would be comfortable standing next to each other in line.
By the time of Andrew Jackson, the white population of Washington had grown from some 10,000 in 1800 to nearly 28,000 in 1830. Jackson, a man-of-the-people, attracted thousands of proletariat followers. Clothing was more rustic, manners more coarse, but the people still came to shake hands with Their Hero, who seemed pleased to shake hands with them.
New Year’s Day: 1863
The annual New Year’s Day reception in 1863 is arguably the most important event in the Reception’s history. Abraham Lincoln was President, and the Civil War was raging.
It was a Thursday. Earlier that morning, a somber President, well aware of the momentous occasion, retweaked any final changes he wanted made and had the final copy of the Emancipation Proclamation prepared. Then at 11a.m., as customary, the Blue Room reception began, for high ranking public officials and invited guests. A half hour later, the White House doors were opened to the public, and for the next three hours, the President duly shook hands with any and all who had waited in line. Mrs. Lincoln, who was still in mourning for their son Willie who had died less than a year earlier, knowing the importance of this particular day, came for an hour.
At three p.m. the public New Year’s Day reception ended, and the President moved to a different room to sign his carefully written full name to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Hundreds of Northerners who had been active in anti-slavery efforts, some for a generation, had flocked to Washington for this welcome event. Thousands had lined Pennsylvania Avenue waiting to shake the President’s hand. His arm grew tired. His kid glove was stained by contact with thousands of hands. But everyone who came was welcome.
The following year, there were a few well-dressed, cultured and educated Negro attendees admitted to the Reception. It was the first time they had been permitted to attend a social event in the White House.
The End of the Receptions
As time went on, the New Year’s Day receptions became cumbersome and onerous for the President. Some, like Theodore Roosevelt who was naturally gregarious, perfected a handshake that firmly pushed the visitor along, while controlling the strength of the handshake itself. By 1900, the population of Washington DC was over 279,000, not counting visitors. By the twentieth century, the estimate was more than 9,000 attendees and was becoming annoying for the president, who complained of a sore arm and hand.
Then there was the obvious problem: Cold, wet, damp weather, with attendees standing outside, perhaps for hours, coughing and sneezing, chilled to the bone. It had become a serious health concern.
The last New Years Day Reception was held in 1932. Herbert Hoover had followed the protocol three times, but by 1933, whether it was from his own disinclination to press the flesh, or the unwieldy (and unhealthy) crowds, or even a perceived threat to his personal safety, since the Great Depression was gripping the country, he was “out of town” on New Year’s Day.
No President since has sought to revive the old custom, and today, the logistical and security problems would make it completely impossible.
Brandus, Paul – Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency – Lyons Press, 2016
Landau, Barry H. – The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy – Harper-Collins, 2007