The Presidents House

Washington became the capital of the United States in the summer of 1800. In November of that year President John Adams and his wife Abigail took up residence in that city and the house built for the president. Abigail described her new surroundings in a letter to her daughter Nabby.

Washington, 21 November, 1800city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot[tage], without a glass window, interspersed amongst the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being. In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them.

The [President’s] house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables; an establishment very ill proportioned to the President’s salary. The lighting the apartments, from the kitchen to parlours and chambers is a tax indeed; and the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues is another very cheering comfort. … if they will … let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had because people cannot be found to cut and cart it? … We have, indeed, come into a new country.

You must keep all this to yourself, and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished. … We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience-room I made a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter. Six chambers are made comfortable; two are occupied by the President and Mr. Shaw*; two lower rooms, one for a common parlour, and one for a levee-room. Upstairs there is the oval room, which is designed for the drawingroom, and has the crimson furniture in it. It is a very handsome room now; but, when completed, it will be beautiful. If the twelve years, in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government, had been improved, as they would have been if in New England, very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it. …
Affectionately, your mother
* William Smith Shaw, the son of Abigail Adams’s sister Elizabeth, was the president’s private secretary.

In early November John, already in Washington, sent a note to Abigail expressing the hope that “none but honest and wise men [shall] ever rule under this roof.”

The letter appears in The White House: A History of the Presidents by Kenneth W. Leish, pages 138-139. The painting is by William Birch ca. 1800.

posted October 25th, 2012 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail, Adams, John, Capital of the United States


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