1/13/09 - inaugural receptions

In today's excerpt - on Andrew Jackson's Inauguration Day, in 1829, crowds of well-wishers overwhelmed the White House reinforcing the idea that—for better or worse—the United States was truly becoming a democracy. The Founding Fathers had intentionally crafted the Constitution to be a republic, but not a complete democracy with only members of the House of Representatives directly elected by the people. Further, there were property and religious voting tests in many jurisdictions. But by 1828 that was all beginning to crumble away, and Jackson a 'westerner', and the first President elected who was not from either Massachusetts or Virginia, was widely viewed as a product of this newer, more democratic spirit, as he defeated John Quincy Adams to take the presidency:

"Angry with Adams for the attacks on [his recently deceased wife] Rachel during the campaign, Jackson had refused to call on his predecessor, and so President Adams had moved out the night before and made no public appearances on Inauguration Day. ... It is possible that Jackson's failure to communicate directly with Adams helped lead to the disaster that followed, a legendary scene in American history that has forever linked Jackson with the image of a crowd trashing the White House. 'No arrangements had been made,' [local socialite Mrs. Smith] noted, 'no police officers placed on duty, and the whole house [was] inundated by the rabble mob.'

"The reception Jackson had planned turned chaotic, with his enthusiastic followers filling the house past capacity. 'The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negroes, women, children scrambling, fighting, romping' replaced it, said Mrs. Smith. ... The household staff's attempts to serve the guests only made things worse. 'Orange punch by barrels full was made, but as the waiters opened the door to bring it out, a rush would be made,' said a congressman from Pennsylvania, 'the glasses broken, the pails of liquor upset, and the most painful confusion prevailed.'

"Standing in the mansion, Jackson was nearly crushed by the visitors. His aides formed a protective ring around the president and spirited him back to Gadsby's Hotel. Mrs. Smith thought of the sacking of Versailles—an excessive allusion, for the worst damage she could detect, she admitted, was that 'the carpets and the furniture are ruined.' The cost of the destruction was limited to a few thousand dollars, but the scene was further proof, if any were needed, that the armies of democracy were pitching their tents in Andrew Jackson's White House.

"[Jackson's niece and unofficial First Lady] Emily Donelson, was apparently horrified. The melee was the kind of thing that embarrassed Emily, who, as a newcomer to the highest levels, was, like her uncle, sensitive to making a good appearance and leaving the rougher elements of frontier life—even life in the frontier aristocracy—where she believed they belonged: back on the frontier, not in Washington. ... [She] knew that the sight of a crowd climbing through the windows of the White House for cups of spiked punch was the last thing her family needed."


Jon Meacham


American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2008 by Jon Meacham


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