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Chapter 27:

Life at the White House.

after Grant became President he did not for some weeks occupy the Executive Mansion as a residence, but of course the official business was transacted there. His first official reception was one for the Diplomatic Corps. It was not very formal. I had called on the various chiefs of legation at his request and notified them that the President and Mrs. Grant would receive the members of the corps and their families on a certain afternoon. It was desirable that the new President should make their acquaintance, and this was the democratic substitute for what in Europe would have been a ‘court.’ I went in the President's open carriage, which was a conspicuous, light-colored vehicle, and when I visited the Haytien representative my arrival created a commotion. I suspect that preceding administrations had hardly accorded the same recognition to the fellows of the freedmen, and the dusky democrat had perhaps not long been used to considering himself an ambassador. At any rate, when I entered and made known my errand, the diplomatist rose and dusted my chair. Soulouque himself began life as a servant.

Washburne, the Secretary of State for a week, had already given up his place to Fish, who had not lived in Washington for many years and was therefore unacquainted with the foreign representatives. As I knew them all, I was selected to introduce them to Mr. Fish, who then made the presentations to the President. They came, many of them, [240] in morning dress, and some I thought were rather too homespun in their attire. In fact, more than one member of the British Legation affected an indifference to etiquette in regard to the President and his family that was more democratic than even democrats approved. I remember Lady Thornton saying to me at a party at Mrs. Fish's, when Mrs. Grant was present: ‘How different all this would be in England! There nobody would dream of being seated while the Queen was standing.’ Yet ‘my lady’ remained in her chair when the wife of the President entered the room, and a good many Americans rose. I doubt, however, if at that time Lady Thornton had ever been at court in London. I was assured in England that this wife of a diplomatist once declared she had met only two ladies in all America; whereupon a genuine aristocrat exclaimed: ‘But Lady Thornton is hardly a judge—she has known so few at home.’ Her ladyship, you see, was born in the middle class.

General Grant, however, as President, desired to be recognized as Head of the State; he was always served first at his own table, and of course preceded everybody. He himself determined the precedence at his dinners, for he assumed as much as any foreign sovereign or any host at home the right to place his guests as he chose. He insisted always on making a distinction for personal reasons if he pleased; though he regarded public station and public services, he yet held that if he preferred to pay any one a compliment he was at liberty to do so. At a bridal dinner I have known him place the newly-married man on the right of Mrs. Grant, although the Secretary of State was present, while he himself took in the bride from among a company that included the wives of Senators and Cabinet ministers. So, too, he sometimes regulated the precedence of foreign ministers without regard to the Almanach de Gotha or the Congress of Vienna, but according to a certain code of his own. This, it is true, was before he had been abroad. Had there been a [241] third term after his European experiences I am inclined to think he would have deferred more to the diplomatic idea. But he had a feeling that as President it was for him to determine, and he acted even in etiquettes without fear or anxiety. He thought that he made the etiquette, and I don't see why a President has not this right as well as any potentate of another sort.

Up to his time Presidents had never visited or dined out or gone to any private parties, but Grant declared at once that he did not intend to be caged because he was Chief Magistrate. He accepted the invitations of his Cabinet and of a few others, either especial friends or persons whom he wished to honor. Yet he refused to return the visit of the son of the Queen of England when Prince Arthur, as he was then called, the Duke of Connaught now, was in Washington. I was in America at the time and was anxious that Grant should make the visit. I proved to him that sovereigns abroad paid such compliments to members of royal houses; but he did not think the democratic Head of the State should recognize a royal boy of only nineteen in this way. The British Minister especially desired that the ceremony should be performed, but Grant persisted in his refusal. He went, however, to a ball given in the Prince's honor, and he invited the youth to a dinner, on each occasion giving him Mrs. Grant for a partner, but he maintained that democratic dignity would not allow him to make a formal call. He seemed to think this would be a recognition of the royal principle which it was imperative on him to deny.

I remember that afterward in England this same young man failed to call on General Grant. 'Tis true he was not in London, but he was not a day's journey away, and having been so warmly received in America, the absence of the civility seemed significant. Lady Augusta Stanley, a warm personal friend of the Queen, corresponded with me while the Prince was in America, and, knowing that I was on duty [242] at the White House, she asked me to do what I could to make the visit successful. After the Prince had left I wrote to her stating that he had made a good impression, and Lady Augusta replied expressing Her Majesty's gratification, so that I fancy the lack of the President's visit gave no umbrage. Still, it may be that Jesse Grant's experience at Windsor was the corollary of the Prince's visit unreturned.

I remained at the White House during the first three months of Grant's Administration, after which I spent four months in England, and then I was on duty again at the Executive Mansion from October until May. After that I was there as a visitor on only a few occasions in 1875; so that my recollections of the life at the White House are mostly those of the first and second years of Grant's Presidency. I saw the first Cabinet in power and their families in position. Some of these, people of undoubted ability and character, yet long unfamiliar with the life of the great world, never acquired that ease of manner which is so exquisite, whether the gift of nature or the result of art; but others were persons early used to elegant associations and fitted to adorn as well as worthily occupy the positions they enjoyed. But Mrs. Grant was like the General, a good deal of an autocrat in a certain way. If she liked the suggestions made by such women as Mrs. Fish or Mrs. Robeson she accepted them, but she felt that she herself was responsible for the result, and entitled to decide the means; and they of course deferred to her decisions. Whatever the etiquette or the custom, it either had the sanction of the President or of Mrs. Grant, or it was not introduced at all. I fancy indeed that most of the usages were those that had long prevailed, or else were the suggestion of one of the heads of the establishment themselves.

Those usages must have been generally acceptable, for the greater part of the people who had lived longest in Washington, and had been familiar with society there under many administrations, found themselves very much at home at the [243] White House during General Grant's official terms. A few with bitter memories stayed away and criticised; but that charming element—the old Washington families, made up for the most part of the survivors and relatives of military and naval and other official people of the past—all gathered around Mrs. Grant, and liked the geniality and simplicity of the General. Some of the political opponents, and I believe not a few strangers who came for a while to Washington and found no immediate access to the intimate circle and life at the White House, carped a little, or censured what they heard of but did not see; but the ‘good company’ of Washington, —by far the best company in America,—made the White House its center while Grant was PresidentGrant and Mrs. Grant its mistress. The old army people found themselves with a comrade; the soldiers of the war and their families were always welcome, and when the children of the President grew up there were young people and their visitors to make the house gay. There was a brilliant wedding for ‘Nellie Grant,’ and the eldest child of Colonel Grant was born in the Executive Mansion.

For the home life went on under all the pressure of public business and all the demands of public ceremony. I passed a few days at Long Branch in 1875, and saw much of my old chief in his family life. I found it nearly the same as before he was President. The step, indeed, was not so great for him as for others; from the position of General-in-Chief, at that time the most important but one in the country, he merely passed to the President's chair. I think, too, that as he became used to his station some of the formality which at first I thought I observed wore away. I recollect dining with him more than once in Washington in 1875. His table was always laid so that half a dozen unexpected guests might be entertained, and one Sunday we lunched informally in the library, no one but himself and me. He had just finished writing the letter in which he declined a nomination for a [244] third term. The paper had not been read as yet to any of his CabinetGrant, and Mrs. Grant did not know of his decision. He asked my opinion of the letter, and I told him that I thought it was a good one if he had determined to withdraw from the contest, but I had supposed he would not so determine. The letter was sent to the press the same day without Mrs. Grant's knowledge, for the General was sure it would be disagreeable to her, and he wished his decision to be irrevocable before she learned it. Years afterward, when I told her I had heard that letter before it was sent, she reproached me, more than half in earnest, for not striving harder to prevent its issue.

It was a simple domestic life that went on in the upper part of that historic house during those eight years. The business half of the mansion is connected closely with the family rooms. The Cabinet chamber is next the library, which in Grant's day was not used for official purposes, but more as a family parlor. Many informal discussions of important affairs have occurred in that library, and many scenes that would interest the world, if the survivors would tell what they know. The few bed-chambers were always occupied; now and then a guest could be invited to sleep, but the demands of the family prevented as much hospitality of this sort as either the General or Mrs. Grant would have desired.

Below, the State apartments were often used; the East Room of course on grand occasions, and the Red parlor was open of an evening to many personal visitors. All the State dinners were given that custom requires, and sometimes the State dining-room was opened for a family party at Christmas or an entertainment to personal friends, while the ordinary dining-room was hardly ever without a guest of importance. For Grant liked to discuss informally with a Senator or Cabinet Minister or even with a political opponent the affairs in which he was peculiarly interested. Cigars always followed [245] dinner, and sometimes billiards or cards with a few intimates. Grant spent more than his income during his first Administration and saved very little in the last four years, when the salary was doubled.

Mrs. Grant introduced at her receptions the custom that still prevails on these occasions of inviting women of distinction to assist the mistress of the White House—Senators' wives and the wives and daughters of Cabinet officers or personal friends. Before her time the President's wife received without this graceful surrounding. Indeed, the White House had hardly been so popular in a long while as in the days when I knew it under the Grant regime. During the war Mrs. Lincoln saw few besides the political adherents of the Administration, and for various reasons ‘society,’ as it is called, was greatly interrupted. Under Mr. Johnson also the acerbities and acrimonies of politics prevented many from visiting the White House, and there was at that time no absolute mistress to preside; Mrs. Johnson was never visible, and her daughters were not women with a taste for the duties of their position. When Mrs. Grant came to her place the dissensions of the war period were abating; people of great military and naval and civil eminence with their families crowded around the new Administration, which became the nucleus of the most distinguished and delightful society that has been seen at the capital in at least a quarter of a century.

The attractions of such a society have since induced many people of wealth to make Washington their home, some of whom have only wealth to offer as a claim to admission there. In the days I tell of nobody cared who was rich or who was poor. Power was so much more important than money; great fame, great deeds, so much more distinguished than fine houses or fine clothes, that society was ‘good’ in the best sense of the word. What did a mere millionaire amount to in a company that included Sherman or Farragut or Seward or Sumner, a Chief Justice, a General of the Army, [246] a Secretary of State or of the Treasury? Some of the greatest people had the humblest houses; even diplomatists lived over cooks' shops and gave dinners to the Cabinet on china that they saw every night in the week at each other's tables. Women with names that will never die wore the plainest gowns, and breeding and wit and elegance went about on foot to parties that were finer in all the elements of real society than can be seen to-day in Washington or New York. The life at the White House under Grant had something to do with this.

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