The symbol of American statehood a wreck. Drunken revelers in the
lobby. Boozers romping through the bedrooms. And all this 140 years
before JFK moved in.
The most riotous party scene in the U.S. political arena occurred when the war hero Andrew Jackson, considered a country bumpkin by many a patrician Easterner, arrived in Washington, D.C. An estimated 30,000 of his supporters converged on the young capital city, mostly from the South and West, to whoop it up for the March 4 swearing-in. These frontier crowds didn’t just want to fill the saloons of the capital — they wanted to shake Jackson’s hand and pay a visit to his swank new home, the President’s House, which had recently been painted a glossy white. The scenes of debauchery that ensued would make the city’s genteel, fashion-obsessed locals blanch.
Scoring an Invitation: Until this time, inauguration receptions had been discreet and civilized affairs. Straight-laced members of the American aristocracy would gather at the President’s House and offer their formal congratulations over coffee and biscuits, while quietly rejoicing that power was remaining in the hands of the land-owning elite. 1828 would change all that. Jackson was the first truly popular president: Leading a faction that would later become the Democratic Party, he swept into power by taking advantage of new laws that almost tripled the numbers of registered American voters from 365,000 to a million, and. He himself was one of the country’s fabled self-made men, a poor autodidact from the Tennessee frontier who served in the Revolutionary War as a teenage foot soldier and rose in the ranks to become a successful general in the War of 1812 (he had a dent in his skull from a British sword). He was so popular that any man who had cast a ballot for Jackson in the 1828 election felt that he had been extended a personal invitation to attend the inauguration. What’s more, the election of 1824 had been “stolen” — Jackson had swept the popular vote but had not gained a majority in the Electoral College — and his supporters wanted to make sure they finished the job.
Pre-party Planning: Ever since the British burned Washington to the ground 16 years earlier, successive mayors had been trying to make the capital presentable. It was an uphill job. The artificial city was still a ramshackle and provincial affair, far from the fine metropolis envisioned by designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant — “a parody upon all the other capitals that were ever actually built up and inhabited since the beginning of the world,” scoffed the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Monthly. The city had only one decent thoroughfare, Pennsylvania Avenue, which ran between Congress and the Presidential House, while the rest was bleak swamp and sand. In fact, Washington was completely unprepared for the hordes, wild-haired or otherwise, that arrived upon it. The hotels filled up days beforehand, as did those in nearby Georgetown and Alexandria, so innkeepers happily tripled their room rates and rented space on their kitchen floors. Thousands simply camped out under the open sky. For the coarse Jackson supporters, mostly outdoorsmen of sorts, this was no hardship: They were simply bivouacking as if they were on a hunting trip in the Adirondacks. Many of them had never seen a real city before, so even Washington was an awe-inspiring site.
What to Wear: Unwashed hayseeds they may have been, but on the big day it would be Sunday best — every man with his beaver-skin hat, every woman with a bonnet.
Party Progress: At dawn, a 13-cannon salute woke the city, and crowds began to gather outside the modest hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue where Jackson himself had taken a suite. At 11 a.m., the gaunt, white-haired object of the peoples’ affections emerged dressed in funereal black (he was mourning his beloved wife, who had died after his election), to ear-splitting huzzas. In this era before Presidential assassinations, Jackson walked to the Capitol on foot with fans surging all around him, some on horseback, some in carriages, a bevy of pretty girls in a wagon alongside. At the Capitol, he took his oath of office and gave an inaudible speech. No sooner had he finished than things began to get out of hand. The crowd had become a sea covering every available space, and it now surged through the barriers and mobbed the new President. Jackson’s friends had to force a way for him back along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where he and his men had prepared some modest refreshments for his supporters.
This “reception” went awry from the start. When the staff opened the doors to bring out the first barrels of orange and rum punch, the exultant crowd burst in and knocked several over, soaking the floor in sticky booze and smashed glasses. The guests were, said eyewitness Margaret Bayard Smith, “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping… Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion as is impossible to describe.” The crowd quickly took possession of the White House: So many people were squeezed inside that the building itself creaked and shuddered dangerously. A bodyguard of loyal friends had to form a ring around the scarecrow figure of Jackson so he wouldn’t be crushed to death or asphyxiated by well-wishers. The strangers behaved if they were in a Mississippi saloon, standing in mud-caked boots on the damask chairs for a better view. But it wasn’t all riff-raff. Even some of the stuffy D.C. toffs got into the anarchic spirit. “Everyone from the highest and most polished,” marveled one attendee, Joseph Story, an associate judge of the Supreme Court, “down to the most vulgar and gross of the nation,” wanted their slice of the action. There are numerous accounts from well-to-do white observers who were shocked to see free African-Americans in the throng, including bevies of children and one “stout black wench” (noted Senator James Hamilton Jr. with disdain) who sat by herself in a back room, “eating in this free country a jelley with a gold spoon in the President’s House.” Some compared the crowd to the barbarians in Rome.
It was too crowded to get through the front door, so anyone who wanted to leave had to crawl out a first floor window. At 4 p.m., friends managed to spirit Jackson back to his hotel, but the party continued at the White House for hours. At around dusk, servants struck upon the idea of passing barrels of liquor and ice cream out the window in order to get the revelers out onto the lawn, where they could do less damage. It worked.
High Points: Despite the chaos, even the most dubious observers admitted that something “sublime” had occurred at Jackson’s party. There was no doubt that a new era of American democracy had begun. “It was the People’s day, and the People’s President, and the People would rule,” wrote Margaret Smith.
The After-Party: When the dust settled on the evening, the White House looked like a war zone. Thousands of dollars worth of china and glassware had been smashed or taken as souvenirs, the carpets were shredded, the upholstery ruined. Jackson was not abashed. He took the near-riot as an opportunity to have Congress allocate enough money to actually finish the President’s abode to the original design of Benjamin Latrobe. He got $50,000 to refurbish it, acquiring sumptuous new furniture, elegant dining ware, and no less than 20 spittoons for the East Room. • 30 September 2008
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Brands, H.W., Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, (New York, 2005); Remini, Robert, Andrew Jackson, vol. 2: The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832, (Baltimore, 1999).