President Jefferson in the White House

She was a new bride in the fall of 1800. Immediately following her wedding in Philadelphia Margaret Bayard Smith and her husband traveled to Washington to make a new home. He had just started the Washington Intelligencer newspaper. Mr. Smith and his newspaper supported Thomas Jefferson in his bid for the presidency in the election of 1800. After his election and throughout his eight years as President, Jefferson often invited the Smith’s to the White House or visited their home on Capitol Hill.

Portrait of a Founding Father
When he took up his residence in the President’s House, he found it scantily furnished with articles brought from Philadelphia and which had been used by General Washington. These, though worn and faded, he retained from respect to their former possessor. His drawing room was fitted up with the same crimson damask furniture that had been used for the same purpose in Philadelphia. The additional furniture necessary for the more spacious mansion provided by the government, was plain and simple to excess.

The large East Room was unfinished and therefore unused. The apartment in which he took most interest was his cabinet; this he had arranged according to his own taste and convenience. It was a spacious room. In the centre was a long table, with drawers on each side, in which were deposited not only articles appropriate to the place, but a set of carpenter’s tools in one and small garden implements in another from the use of which he derived much amusement. Around the walls were maps, globes, charts, books, etc.”

Jefferson’s Pet Bird
In the window recesses were stands for the flowers and plants which it was his delight to attend and among his roses and geraniums was suspended the cage of his favorite mocking-bird, which he cherished with peculiar fondness, not only for its melodious powers, but for its uncommon intelligence and affectionate disposition, of which qualities he gave surprising instances. It was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours. Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. After flitting for a while from one object to another, it would alight on his table and regale him with its sweetest notes, or perch on his shoulder and take its food from his lips. Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains. How he loved this bird!

Introduction of the Dumbwaiter
The same fanciful disposition characterized all his architectural plans and domestic arrangements; and even in the President’s House were introduced some of these favorite contrivances, many of them really useful and convenient. Among these, there was in his dining room an invention for introducing and removing the dinner without the opening and shutting of doors. A set of circular shelves were so contrived in the wall, that on touching a spring they turned into the room loaded with the dishes placed on them by the servants without the wall, and by the same process the removed dishes were conveyed out of the room. When he had any persons dining with him, with whom he wished to enjoy a free and unrestricted flow of conversation, the number of persons, at table never exceed four, and by each individual was placed a dumb-waiter containing everything necessary for the progress of the dinner from beginning to end, so as to make the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary, believing as he did, that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive listeners.

Dinner with the President, Introduction of the round dinner table.
At his usual dinner parties the company seldom or ever exceeded fourteen, including himself and his secretary. The invitations were not given promiscuously, or as has been done of late years, alphabetically, but his guests were generally selected in reference to their tastes, habits and suitability in all respects, which attention had a wonderful effect in making his parties more agreeable, than dinner parties usually are; this limited number prevented the company’s forming little knots and carrying on in undertones separate conversations, a custom so common and almost unavoidable in a large party. At Mr. Jefferson’s table the conversation was general; every guest was entertained and interested in whatever topic was discussed.

One circumstance, though minute in itself, had certainly a great influence on the conversational powers of Mr. Jefferson’s guests. Instead of being arrayed in strait parallel lines, where they could not see the countenances of those who sat on the same side, they encircled a round, or oval table where all could see each others faces, and feel the animating influence of looks as well as of words. Let any dinner giver try the experiment and he will certainly be convinced of the truth of this fact. A small, well assorted company, seated around a circular table will ensure more social enjoyment, than any of the appliances of wealth and splendor, without these concomitants.

White House Improvements, Bears in the garden.
He was very anxious to improve the ground around the President’s House; but as Congress would make no appropriation for this and similar objects, he was obliged to abandon the idea, and content himself with enclosing it with a common stone wall and sewing it down in grass. Afterwards when the Grisly Bears, brought by Capt Lewis from the far west, (where he had been to explore the course of the Missouri,) were confined within this enclosure a witty federalist called it the President’s bear-garden. How the federalists delighted to turn all Mr. Jefferson did or said into ridicule!

In planning the improvement of these grounds, it was Mr. Jefferson’s design to have planted them exclusively with trees, shrubs and flowers indigenous to our native soil. He had a long list made out in which they were arranged according to their forms and colours and the seasons in which they flourished. To him it would have been a high gratification to have improved and ornamented our infant City. But the only thing he could effect, was planting Pennsylvania Avenue with Lombard Poplars, which he designed only for a temporary shade, until Willow oaks, (a favorite tree of his) could attain a sufficient size. But this plan had to be relinquished as well as many others from the want of funds.”

The Private President – “Why is not this libelous journal suppressed?
Alexander von Humboldt was a German baron renowned as a naturalist, explorer and philosopher. When he visited the United States he made a point of calling on President Jefferson who was well known in Europe as a man of letters. The two became close friends. Margaret Smith describes Baron Humboldt’s visits to the White House:

“One evening he called about twilight and being shown into the drawing room without being announced, he found Mr. Jefferson seated on the floor, surrounded by half a dozen of his little grandchildren so eagerly and noisily engaged in a game of romps that for some moments his entrance was not perceived. When his presence was discovered Mr. Jefferson rose up and shaking hands with him, said, ‘you have found me playing the fool Baron, but I am sure to you I need make no apology.’

Another time he called of a morning and was taken into the Cabinet; as he sat by the table, among the newspapers that were scattered about, he perceived one that was always filled with the most virulent abuse of Mr. Jefferson, calumnies the most offensive, personal as well as political. “Why are these libels allowed?” asked the Baron taking up the paper, ‘why is not this libelous journal suppressed, or its Editor at least, fined and imprisoned?’

Mr. Jefferson smiled, saying, Put that paper in your pocket Baron, and should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of our press, questioned, show this paper, and tell where you found it.’

Baron Humboldt was fond of repeating these and other similar anecdotes of the man he so much admired.”

~ References ~
Margaret Bayard Smith’s account appears in: Smith, Margaret Bayard, The First Forty Years of Washington Society (1906); Seale, William, The President’s House vol. 1 (1986).

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