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First-Person Accounts: The Washington Years

George Washington to his secretary Tobias Lear, September 5, 1790.

tobiaslear
Tobias Lear
"The house of Mr R. Morris had, previous to my arrival, been taken by the Corporation [the city of Philadelphia] for my Residence. — It is the best they could get. — It is, I believe, the best Single house in the City; yet without additions, it is inadequate to the commodious accommodation of my family. — These, I believe will be made.

"The first floor contains only two public Rooms (except one for the upper Servants). — The second floor will have two public (drawing) Rooms & with the aid of one Room with a partition in it, in the back building, will be sufficient for the accommodation of Mrs Washington & the children & their maids — besides affording me a small place for a private study & dressing Room. — The third story will furnish you & Mrs Lear with a good lodging Room — a public Office (for there is no place below for one) and two Rooms for the Gentlemen of the family [Washington's office staff]. — The Garret has four good Rooms which must serve Mr and Mrs Hyde [the steward and his wife] (unless they should prefer the Room over the wash House), — William [Osborne, Washington's valet] — and such Servants as it may not be better to place in the addition (as proposed) to the Back building. — There is a room over the Stable (without a fireplace, but by means of a Stove) may serve the Coachman & Postillions; — and there is a smoke House, which possibly may be more useful to me for the accommodation of Servants, than for the Smoking of Meat. — The intention of the addition to the Back building is to provide a Servants Hall, and one or two (as it will afford) lodging Rooms for the Servants, especially those who are coupled. — There is a very good Wash House adjoining the Kitchen (under one of the Rooms already mentioned). — There are good Stables, but for 12 Horses only, and a Coach House which will hold all of my Carriages...

"In a fortnight or 20 days from this time, it is expected Mr Morris will have removed out of the House. — It is proposed to add Bow Windows to the two public Rooms in the South front of the House, — But as all the other apartments will be close & secure the sooner after that time you can be in the House, with the furniture, the better, that you may be well fixed and see how matters go during my absence."

Tobias Lear (Washington's secretary) to George Long

"[Washington's] negroes are not treated as blacks in general are in this Country, they are clothed and fed as well as any labouring people whatever and they are not subject to the lash of a domineering Overseer — but still they are slaves."

Viscount de Chateaubriand, Voyages en Amérique (Paris, 1828)

"September 14, 1791 — A small house built in the English style, and resembling the other houses in its neighborhood, was the palace of the President of the United States; no guards, not even footmen. I knocked, a young servant girl opened the door. I asked her if the general was at home; she said that he was. I told her I had a letter to hand him. The girl asked my name, difficult to pronounce in English, and which she did not succeed in retaining. She then told me gently, 'Walk in, sir,' and she led the way through one of those narrow corridors which serve as vestibules in English houses, introduced me into the parlor and begged me to wait the general's coming."

Diary of John Quincy Adams, July 11, 1794

"By the invitation of the President, I attended the reception he gave to Piomingo and a number of other Chickasaw Indians. Five Chiefs, seven Warriors, four boys and an interpreter constituted the Company. As soon as the whole were seated the ceremony of smoking began. A large East Indian pipe was placed in the middle of the Hall. The tube which appeared to be of leather, was twelve to fifteen feet in length. The President began and after two or three whiffs, passed the tube to Piomingo; he to the next chief, and so all around ..."

Recollections of Supreme Court Justice John B. Wallace

"Washington received his guests, standing between the windows in his back drawing-room. The company, entering a front room and passing through an unfolding door, made their salutations to the President, and turning off, stood on one side."

William Sullivan, Familiar Letters on Public Characters and Public Events (Boston, 1834), 89-90

"[Washington] devoted one hour every Tuesday, from three to four, to these visits.... The place of reception was the dining room in the rear, twenty-five of thirty feet in length, including the bow projecting into the garden. At three o'clock, or at any time within a quarter of an hour afterwards, the visiter was conducted to this dining room, from which all seats had been removed for the time. On entering he saw the manly figure of Washington clad in black velvet; . . . holding a cocked hat with a cockade in it, and the edges adorned with a black feather about an inch deep. He wore knee and shoe buckles; and a long sword, with a finely wrought and polished steel blade, and appearing from under the folds behind. The scabbard was white polished leather.

The visiter was conducted to him, and he required to have the name so distinctly pronounced, that he could hear it. He received the visiter with a dignified bow, while his hands were so disposed of as to indicate that the salutation was not to be accompanied with shaking hands. As visiters came in, they formed a circle around the room. At a quarter past three, the door was closed, and the circle was formed for the day. He then began on the right, and spoke to each visiter, calling him by name, and exchanging a few words with him. When he had completed his circuit, he resumed his first position, and the visiters approached him in succession, bowed and retired. By four o'clock this ceremony was over."

Henry Wansey and His American Journal, David John Jeremy, ed., (Philadelphia, 1970), 99-100

"Friday, June 6 [1794]. Had the honor of an interview with the President of the United States, to whom I was introduced by Mr. Dandridge, his secretary. He received me very politely, and after reading my letters, I was asked to breakfast....

Mrs. Washington herself made the tea and coffee for us. On the table were two small plates of sliced tongue, dry toast, bread and butter, etc., but no broiled fish, as is the general custom. Miss Custis, her grand-daughter, a very pleasing young lady, of about sixteen, sat next to her, and her brother, George Washington Custis, about two years older [sic, younger] than herself. There was little appearance of form: one servant only attended, who had no livery; a silver urn for hot water, was the only article of expense on the table."

Theophilus Bradbury (Congressman from MA) to his daughter Harriet, December 26, 1795

Christmas Dinner 1795: "In the middle of the table was placed a piece of table furniture of wood gilded, or polished metal, raised only about an inch, with a silver rim round it like that round a tea board; in the centre was a pedestal of plaster of Paris with images upon it, and on each end figures, male and female, of the same. It was very elegant and used for ornament only. The dishes were placed all around, and there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch. We took our leave at six, more than an hour after the candles were introduced. No lady but Mrs. Washington dined with us. We were waited on by four or five men servants dressed in livery."

Isaac Weld, Jr., Travels through the States of North America during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (London, 1799)

Philadelphia, February, 1796. — On General Washington's birth-day, which was a few days ago, this city was unusually gay; every person of consequence in it, Quakers alone excepted, made it a point to visit the General on this day. As early as eleven o'clock in the morning he was prepared to receive them, and the audience lasted until three in the afternoon. The society of the Cincinnati, the clergy, the officers of the militia, and several others, who formed a distinct body of citizens, came by themselves separately. The foreign ministers attended in their richest dresses and most splendid equipages. Two large parlours were open for the reception of gentlemen, the windows of one of which towards the street were crowded with spectators on the outside. The sideboard was furnished with cake and wines, whereof the visitors partook. I never observed so much cheerfulness before in the countenance of General Washington; but it was impossible for him to remain insensible to the attention and compliments paid to him on this occasion.

The ladies of the city, equally attentive paid their respects to Mrs. Washington, who received them in the drawing-room up stairs. After having visited the General, most of the gentlemen also waited upon her. A public ball and supper terminated the rejoicings of the day.

Recollections of Robert E. Gray

"[Washington] always smiled on children! He was particularly popular with small boys.... [A]fter his great dinners he used to tell the steward to let in the little fellows, and we, the boys of the immediate neighborhood, who were never far off on such occasions, crowded about the table and made quick work of the remaining cakes, nuts and raisins."

Thomas Twining, Travels in India a Hundred Years Ago with a Visit to the United States (London, 1893), 419-20

"May 13, 1796: [I] was shown into a middling-sized, well-furnished drawing room on the left of the passage. Nearly opposite the door was the fireplace, with a wood-fire in it. The floor was carpeted. On the left of the fireplace was a sofa, which sloped across the room. There were no pictures on the walls, no ornaments on the chimneypiece. Two windows on the right of the entrance looked into the street."

Recollections of Mrs. Elizabeth Bordley Gibson

"Mrs. Washington was in the habit of retiring at an early hour to her own room, unless detained by company, and there, no matter what the hour, Nellie attended her. One evening, my father's carriage being late in coming for me, my dear friend invited me to accompany her to grandmama's room. There, after some little chat, Mrs. Washington apologized to me for pursuing her usual preparations for the night, and Nellie entered upon her accustomed duty by reading a chapter and a psalm from the old family Bible, after which all present knelt in evening prayer; Mrs. Washington's faithful maid then assisted her to disrobe and lay her head upon the pillow; Nellie then sang a verse of some sweetly soothing hymn, and then, leaning down, received her parting blessing for the night, with some emphatic remark on her duties, improvements, etc. The effect of these judicious habits and teachings appeared in the granddaughter's character through life."

George Washington Parke Custis, Private Memoirs of Washington, Benson J. Lossing, ed. (New York, 1859), 129-30

"On the great national days of the fourth of July and twenty-second of February, the salute from the then head of Market street (Eighth street) announced the opening of the levee. Then was seen the venerable corps of the Cincinnati marching to pay their respects to their president-general, who received them at headquarters and in the uniform of the commander-in-chief.... [Each veteran] gave in no name — he required no ceremony of introduction — but, making his way to the family parlor, opened the general gratulation by the first welcome of Robert Morris.

"A fine volunteer corps, called the light-infantry, from the famed light-infantry of the Revolutionary army, commanded by Lafayette, mounted a guard of honor on the national days. When it was about to close, the soldiers, headed by their sergeants, marched with trailed arms and noiseless step through the hall to a spot where huge bowls of punch had been prepared for their refreshment, when, after quaffing a deep carouse, with three hearty cheers to the health of the president, they countermarched to the street, the bands struck up the favorite air, "forward" was the word, and the levee was ended."

Recollections of Bishop William White

"On the day before his [Washington's] leaving of the Presidential chair a large company dined with him. Among them were the foreign ministers and their ladies, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, Mr. Jefferson, with the other conspicuous persons of both sexes. During the dinner much hilarity prevailed; but on the removal of the cloth it was put an end to by the President: certainly without design. Having filled his glass, he addressed the company, with a smile on his countenance, as nearly as can be recollected in the following terms: 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is the last time I shall drink your health as a public man. I do it with sincerity, and wishing you all possible happiness.' There was an end of all pleasantry. He who gives this relation accidentally directed his eye to the lady of the British minister, (Mrs. [Robert] Liston) and tears were running down her cheek."

George Washington to Frederick Kitt, January 10, 1798.

(Hercules, a slave from Mount Vernon, was the primary cook at the President's House during the almost six-and-a-half years that Washington lived in Philadelphia. He escaped to freedom in March 1797, and reportedly settled in New York City.)

"We have never heard of Hercules our Cook since he left ... but little doubt remains in my mind of his having gone to Philadelphia, and may yet be found there, if proper measures were employed to discover (unsuspectedly, so as not to alarm him) where his haunts are.... If you could accomplish this for me, it would render me an acceptable service as I neither have, nor can get a good Cook to hire, and am disinclined to hold another slave by purchase."

Prince Louis-Philippe of France, Diary of My Travels in America, 32. 1797.

"The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."
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