The first capital of the United states under the Constitution was New York City. After his inauguration, the President and MARTHA WASHINGTON moved into a mansion on Cherry Street. George Washington, concerned to project a dignified public image of the presidency and the new government, held a formal reception for men only on Tuesday afternoons. Lady Washington, as she was called by many, adopted the practice of holding her own reception, called a levee, every Friday evening. It was a more informal affair. ABIGAIL ADAMS described one that she attended in a letter of August 9, 1789, to her sister Mary Cranch.
[Mrs. Washington] has fix’d on every fryday 8 oclock. I attended upon the last. . . . I found it quite a crowded Room. the form of Reception is this, the servants announce—& col [David] Humphries or mr [Tobias] Lear—receives every Lady at the door, & Hands her up to mrs washington to whom she makes a most Respectfull curtzey and then is seated without noticeing any of the rest of the company. the Pressident then comes up and speaks to the Lady, which he does with a grace dignity & ease, that leaves Royal George far behind him. the company are entertaind with Ice creems & Lemonade, and retire at their pleasure performing the same ceremony when they quit the Room.
William Maclay (see previous post), a senator from Pennsylvania, kept a journal or diary of what transpired during each meeting of that legislative body. A committed Anti-Federalist, Maclay’s feelings are clearly apparent in his writings. He was appalled that certain practices more associated with European monarchies were being adopted by the new republic. One of these was the levee. Here is what William Maclay had to say on the subject in his entry for June 5, 1789, a Friday.
About two o’clock the words “levee” and “adjourn” were repeated from sundry quarters of the House. Adjourn to Monday? The Vice-President caught hold of the last. “Is it the pleasure of the House that the adjournment be to Monday?” A single “No” would not be heard among the prevailing ayes. Here are the most important bills before us, and yet we shall throw all by for empty ceremony, for attending the levee is little more. Nothing is regarded or valued at such meetings but the qualifications that flow from the tailor, barber, or dancing-master. To be clean shaved, shirted, and powdered, to make your bows with grace, and to be master of small chat on the weather, play, or newspaper anecdote of the day, are the highest qualifications necessary. Levees may be extremely useful in old countries where men of great fortune are collected, as it may keep the idle from being much worse employed. But here I think they are hurtful. They interfere with the business of the public, and, instead of employing only the idle, have a tendency to make men idle who should be better employed. Indeed, from these small beginnings I fear we shall follow on nor cease till we have reached the summit of court etiquette, and all the frivolities, fopperies, and expense practiced in European governments. I grieve to think that many individuals among us are aiming at these objects with unceasing diligence.