The True George Washington: Social Life: As President

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

As President

While President, a more elaborate hospitality was maintained. Both in New York and Philadelphia the best houses procurable were rented as the Presidential home,?for Washington "wholly declined living in any public building,"?and a steward and fourteen lower servants attended to all details, though a watchful supervision was kept by the President over them, and in the midst of his public duties he found time to keep a minute account of the daily use of all supplies, with their cost. His payments to his stewards for mere servants' wages and food (exclusive of wine) were over six hundred dollars a month, and there can be little doubt that Washington, who had no expense paid by the public, more than spent his salary during his term of office.

It was the President's custom to give a public dinner once a week "to as many as my table will hold," and there was also a bi-weekly levee, to which any one might come, as well as evening receptions by Mrs. Washington, which were more distinctly social and far more exclusive. Ashbel Green states that "Washington's dining parties were entertained in a very handsome style. His weekly dining day for company was Thursday, and his dining hour was always four o'clock in the afternoon. His rule was to allow five minutes for the variations of clocks and watches, and then go to the table, be present or absent, whoever might. He kept his own clock in the hall, just within the outward door, and always exactly regulated. When lagging members of Congress came in, as they often did, after the guests had sat down to dinner, the president's only apology was, 'Gentlemen (or sir) we are too punctual for you. I have a cook who never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come.' The company usually assembled in the drawing-room, about fifteen or twenty minutes before dinner, and the president spoke to every guest personally on entering the room."

Maclay attended several of the dinners, and has left descriptions of them. "Dined this day with the President," he writes. "It was a great dinner? all in the tastes of high life. I considered it as a part of my duty as a Senator to submit to it, and am glad it is over. The President is a cold, formal man; but I must declare that he treated me with great attention. I was the first person with whom he drank a glass of wine. I was often spoken to by him." Again he says,?

"At dinner, after my second plate had been taken away, the President offered to help me to part of a dish which stood before him. Was ever anything so unlucky? I had just before declined being helped to anything more, with some expression that denoted my having made up my dinner. Had, of course, for the sake of consistency, to thank him negatively, but when the dessert came, and he was distributing a pudding, he gave me a look of interrogation, and I returned the thanks positive. He soon after asked me to drink a glass of wine with him." On another occasion he "went to the President's to dinner.... The President and Mrs. Washington sat opposite each other in the middle of the table; the two secretaries, one at each end. It was a great dinner, and the best of the kind I ever was at. The room, however, was disagreeably warm. First the soup; fish roasted and boiled; meats, sammon, fowls, etc.... The middle of the table was garnished in the usual tasty way, with small images, flowers, (artificial), etc. The dessert was, apple pies, pudding, etc.; then iced creams, jellies, etc.; then water-melons, musk-melons, apples, peaches, nuts. It was the most solemn dinner I ever was at. Not a health drank; scarce a word was said until the cloth was taken away. Then the President filling a glass of wine, with great formality drank to the health of every individual by name round the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of 'health, sir,' and 'health, madam,' and 'thank you, sir,' and 'thank you, madam,' never had I heard before.... The ladies sat a good while, and the bottles passed about; but there was a dead silence almost. Mrs. Washington at last withdrew with the ladies. I expected the men would now begin, but the same stillness remained. The President told of a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing a river called the Brunks. He smiled, and everybody else laughed. He now and then said a sentence or two on some common subject, and what he said was not amiss.... The President ... played with the fork, striking on the edge of the table with it. We did not sit long after the ladies retired. The President rose, went up-stairs to drink coffee; the company followed."

Bradbury gives the menu of a dinner at which he was, where "there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkey, ducks, fowls, hams, &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch. We took our leave at six, more than an hour after the candles were introduced. No lady but Mrs. Washington dined with us. We were waited on by four or five men servants dressed in livery." At the last official dinner the President gave, Bishop White was present, and relates that "to this dinner as many were invited as could be accommodated at the President's table.... Much hilarity prevailed; but on the removal of the cloth it was put an end to by the President?certainly without design. Having filled his glass, he addressed the company, with a smile on his countenance, saying: 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is the last time I shall drink your health, as a public man. I do it with sincerity, and wishing you all possible happiness.' There was an end of all pleasantry."

A glance at Mrs. Washington's receptions has been given, but the levees of the President remain to be described. William Sullivan, who attended many, wrote,?

"At three o'clock or at any time within a quarter of an hour afterward, the visitor was conducted to this dining room, from which all seats had been removed for the time. On entering, he saw" Washington, who "stood always in front of the fire-place, with his face towards the door of entrance. The visitor was conducted to him, and he required to have the name so distinctly pronounced that he could hear it. He had the very uncommon faculty of associating a man's name, and personal appearance, so durably in his memory, as to be able to call one by name, who made him a second visit. He received his visitor with a dignified bow, while his hands were so disposed of as to indicate, that the salutation was not to be accompanied with shaking hands. This ceremony never occurred in these visits, even with his most near friends, that no distinction might be made. As visitors came in, they formed a circle round the room. At a quarter past three, the door was closed, and the circle was formed for that day. He then began on the right, and spoke to each visitor, calling him by name, and exchanging a few words with him. When he had completed his circuit, he resumed his first position, and the visitors approached him in succession, bowed and retired. By four o'clock the ceremony was over."

The ceremony of the dinners and levees and the liveried servants were favorite impeachments of the President among the early Democrats before they had better material, and Washington was charged with trying to constitute a court, and with conducting himself like a king. Even his bow was a source of criticism, and Washington wrote in no little irritation in regard to this, "that I have not been able to make bows to the taste of poor Colonel Bland, (who, by the by, I believe, never saw one of them), is to be regretted, especially too, as (upon those occasions), they were indiscriminately bestowed, and the best I was master of, would it not have been better to throw the veil of charity over them, ascribing their stiffness to the effects of age, or to the unskillfulness of my teacher, than to pride and dignity of office, which God knows has no charms for me? For I can truly say, I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state, and the representatives of every power in Europe."

There can be no doubt that Washington hated ceremony as much as the Democrats, and yielded to it only from his sense of fitness and the opinions of those about him. Jefferson and Madison both relate how such unnecessary form was used at the first levee by the master of ceremonies as to make it ridiculous, and Washington, appreciating this, is quoted as saying to the amateur chamberlain, "Well, you have taken me in once, but, by God, you shall never take me in a second time." His secretary, in writing to secure lodgings in Philadelphia, when the President and family were on their way to Mount Vernon, said, "I must repeat, what I observed in a former letter, that as little ceremony & parade may be made as possible, for the President wishes to command his own time, which these things always forbid in a greater or less degree, and they are to him fatiguing and oftentimes painful. He wishes not to exclude himself from the sight or conversation of his fellow citizens, but their eagerness to show their affection frequently imposes a heavy tax on him."

This was still further shown in his diary of his tours through New England and the Southern States. Nothing would do but for Boston to receive him with troops, etc., and Washington noted, "finding this ceremony not to be avoided, though I had made every effort to do it, I named the hour." In leaving Portsmouth he went "quietly, and without any attendance, having earnestly entreated that all parade and ceremony might be avoided on my return." When travelling through North Carolina, "a small party of horse under one Simpson met us at Greenville, and in spite of every endeavor which could comport with decent civility, to excuse myself from it, they would attend me to Newburn."

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