JEFFERSON'S WHITE HOUSE
Monticello on the Potomac (audiobook)
By James B. Conroy
Read by Donald Corren
Available on 01/14/2020
Jefferson’s White House: Monticello on the Potomac, is the first book devoted to the President’s House in Jefferson’s time, the people who passed through it -- male and female; friend and foe; high and low; white, black, and native American -- and Jefferson’s use of the house to lead the country through a critical turn. In a deeply divided time, powerful, privileged forces were attacking democracy itself, building a political plutocracy, and promoting a radical cutback on immigrants’ paths to citizenship, strict limits on the right to vote, and an army prepared to subdue dissent. Resisting all of these things as a culture war pulled the country apart, Jefferson used the President’s House to pull it back together, strip the presidency of its regal trappings, reverse a trend toward oligarchy, and restore civility, democratic values, and a sense of common purpose to the American body politic.
As eclectic as Jefferson himself, Jefferson’s White House displays his talents as an amateur architect and a professional politician, his uneven character, his invincible charm and exquisite taste, and his artful use of stunning food and wines to disarm his enemies and bond with his friends. Having worked in his youth to chip away at slavery as “a moral and political depravity,” his conversion of the mansion’s staff to a hybrid of free labor and the mildest form of slavery was a cultural evolution. As the first president ever to serve a full term in the White House, let alone two, Jefferson shaped the mansion, literally and figuratively, more than any other president. Jefferson’s White House sheds a vivid light on the house, the rustic capital, and its people in a time much like our own.
On a cold December day in 1804, a young British diplomat, quick with a pointed thought and new to his post in America, sent a letter to his stylish mother, the daughter of an earl and a longtime guest of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. He was glad to let her know he was safe in Washington City, “but such a place,” he wrote, “you can have no imagination of it.”
Steeped in the Enlightenment at Oxford, London, Paris, and Berlin, fresh from the Kingdom of Naples, and fully unprepared for the strange Yankee capital in the woods, Augustus John Foster had just been presented at the President’s House, a magnificent Georgian mansion on a frozen field of weeds enclosed by a split rail fence. The house was a work of art. A plain New Hampshire senator had called the rustic fence “unfit for a decent barnyard.” A picture book village of neat homes and shops was spreading east and west of the great white house and its weeds, with little to the north but played out grain and tobacco fields and ancient, sunless woods. To the south there was nothing at all but the wide Potomac River, its tributary streams, a freshwater wharf, and a vast malarial marsh. Conceived in 1790 in a dodgy political deal and christened in 1800, the infant capital of the United States was a space chopped out of nowhere, a place, a novelist wrote, “where frogs make love in a most sonorous and exquisite strain, and bellow forth their attachments as if they were determined to make no secret of it.”
The land between the President’s House and the Capitol Hill was as wild as Kentucky, a travel book said, except that the soil was no good. On the ride into town on the Baltimore stage, a ten-hour trek through a forest, you passed the occasional hut and bounced and pitched for miles on a bad dirt road without catching sight of a soul. Many weary passengers got out at an open space, asked how far they were from Washington City, and were told that they were in it.
Few Americans and fewer Europeans who did not have to go there did. So poor were the roads in and out of the place that the people’s representatives risked broken wheels and bones on their way to and from their posts. On the three-day expedition from Philadelphia, from which the capital had been moved in 1800, coachmen would shout to their passengers to lean left or right as they dodged rocks and pits. From many legislators’ homes, the ride in a jolting stage, elbow to elbow and knee to knee with lightly bathed companions, took a week over unpaved roads and unbridged streams that cut the path in two. When a river could be crossed at all, depending on the rains, the driver lashed his horses through the current and prayed for good footing. At the Bladensburg Run on the outskirts of Washington City, a former senator was told he was lucky that the water only washed the horses’ bellies. As the coachman urged them across, he pointed under the wheels to the spot where a team had drowned and consoled his wide-eyed client with a nod toward the tree where “all the passengers but one were saved. Whether that one was gouty or not,” the senator wrote, “I did not inquire.”
On the bruising ride from anywhere, the typical accommodation offered miserable food and a sketchy bed often shared with a new associate. In response to a complaint, the keeper of a Charlottesville inn defended its dirty sheets “on account of the number who had slept in them.” To keep a stranger out of his bed, a Mr. Turpin falsely claimed he had the itch, an affliction spread by lice, but the man climbed in and gave Turpin the itch.
A common first impression on arrival in Washington City was a disorienting sense of oddity. The palatial President’s House and the less than half-built Capitol stood on rough dirt roads with nothing much else around but striking natural beauty, piles of spoil and debris, and what Foster dismissed as “a heap of human abodes calling itself a city.” The banks of the Potomac had been thick for a thousand years with sweeping drifts of wildflowers, azaleas, and fragrant wild grapes, and the view from the hills was bucolic. Through much of the socalled city ran a wandering country stream filled with perch, shad, and herring, lined by graceful sycamores with their roots intertwined on its banks “in which turtles concealed their nests.” The city fathers called it the Tiber, and it widened beneath the President’s House on its way to the Potomac. Hiking down houseless roads on a hot summer’s walk in 1803, an English writer cooled off in the woods along the Tiber, a name too portentous to believe. When a group of black children came along to fill pitchers and pails, he asked a little boy what the stream was called. “Goose Creek,” the boy replied. “Where is the Tiber?” the Englishman asked. The boy had never heard of it.
Scornful English wit was common in Washington City, but George III’s thin-skinned minister to the United States, regrettably named Anthony Merry, had no sense of humor at all, and Merry called the American capital “a space of wild country, six miles square.” Most of its lettered or numbered streets and crosscutting avenues named for the seventeen states existed only on maps or as stump-studded swaths through the fields. The rest, Merry said, were unspeakable in winter and dangerous anytime. Apart from the Pennsylvania Avenue, newly graveled between the Capitol and the President’s House, none of the streets were paved, none of them were lit, and all of them were laced with tooth-breaking holes. After a week of heavy rain, several men caught on the flash-flooded avenue “would have gone in the river if they had not grabbed onto some tree branches near Young’s house and been rescued by some horsemen.”
Augustus Foster, Anthony Merry’s only aide, unfailingly polite, unimpressed as a rule with Americans, and contemptuous of democracy, looked hard at Washington City with fresh foreign eyes. Just turned twenty-four, raised in Ireland on his father’s estate, educated at Oxford, groomed in London by his fashionable mother, at ease since his teens in the best European society, he had chatted with the likes of Goethe, Schiller, Napoleon, and his sidewinding foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, more frugally known as Talleyrand, “a shocking ugly fellow,” Foster had found him to be. But the young man found himself now “a sad distance to be at from all the civilized world” with “an immense swell of sea between me and it.”
For Foster’s presentation to the president, he and Merry came by carriage in the cold from their K Street embassy, a barely habitable brick shell compared to what they were used to. Having safely reached the President’s House, they crossed the wooden ramp to its door, sheltered by nothing at all, much less by a pillared portico, and were shown to an elegant room with a neoclassical frieze along the edge of its double height ceiling, furnished in the style of Louis XVI. The pastoral view was lovely, but for the dug up grounds and the workmen’s sheds. After a little while, a door opened suddenly and Thomas Jefferson walked in.
Smiling kindly at his British guests, strikingly tall at six feet two and a half, youthfully fit at sixty-one, world famous since his early thirties, the president wore his full head of copper-gray hair loose over the ears and longish in the back, “neglected,” Foster thought, at a time when younger men were cutting theirs and fastidious older men tied their queues with black silk ribbons. A hot revolutionary in 1776 when he drafted a screed against their king, Jefferson welcomed his envoys now with the poise of a born aristocrat in the clothes of a simple farmer on a Sunday in his pew. In this there was no surprise, for no one knew better than Merry that the president “affected to despise dress.” His garments were chosen for comfort alone, insulation in a poorly heated house. Foster considered them amusing enough to record—an unremarkable blue coat; a waistcoat of rough gray wool with a dated red vest lapping underneath; old fashioned green velveteen knee britches, pearl buttoned above the calf where silver buckles should be; a tradesman’s spun yarn stockings over slippers down at the heels.
He “behaved very civilly to me in general,” Foster told his mother, but with no hint of ceremony. “He thrust out his hand to me, as he does to everybody, and desired me to sit down. Luckily for me I have been in Turkey and am quite at home in this primeval simplicity of manners.” Whatever they thought of his politics, nearly everyone agreed with a book dealer named Whitcomb that Jefferson was invincibly likeable face-to-face. Putting his guests at ease from the moment he walked in, he spoke with a gentle voice in an animated, effortless mix of casual Virginia gentry, European chic, and dry wit. Having lived for five years in Paris, “he shrugs his shoulders when talking,” Whitcomb said, “has much of the Frenchman,” and he liked to chat lounging on one hip. As he chatted with the king’s men now, he spoke of Samuel Chase, an instinctively waspish signer of the Declaration of Independence and a justice of the Supreme Court about to face an impeachment trial for shameless partisanship on the bench. Chase’s acquaintance, the president said, was best left alone. Then he turned to the joy of bare feet. He stripped and bathed his feet several times a day, he said, “in order to keep off colds,” and “expressed his wonder that feet were not as often washed as hands.” Looking back when he knew the president well, Foster suspected he would have endorsed “a still greater degree of nakedness” if he could, “so fond was he of leaving nature as unconfined as possible in all her works.”
Foster wrote no more of his first taste of Thomas Jefferson, but he never stopped abusing Washington City: “It is an absolute sepulcher, this hole.” With a social life spoiled by the miserable roads and carriages, one of which overturned and dumped him in a gully, he was wasting life’s best years, he wrote, with “absolutely nothing, not even books to be had. I shall forget almost how to be cheerful in this sink of imagination.” In Foster’s expert view, wit was neither spoken nor understood in Washington City, and the arts were next to unknown, fixed as the locals were on politics and money.
There were so few buildings in town that none of them had a street number or needed one. It was enough to post a notice that a house for sale on Delaware Avenue could be found near the one Mr. Carroll owned, rented to Mr. Dalton across the street from General Dearborn. In the capital of the United States, there was not so much as a public garden, a puzzling thing in a place overrun with green. Even for Jefferson, a country boy hostile to cities on paper and fond of them on foot, there was too much rudely fenced land “worn down with Indian corn.” Gentlemen carried sticks to pole their way through the mud and fend off feral dogs. Foster complained about speculators who bet their money on vacant lots and left them to crack in the sun, “so that the whole place has a deserted dry appearance.” After several months, he wondered how Merry and his wife bore “the horrors of a Washington residence. I admire at my own endurance of it.”
Few Americans were as snide as that, except for the rare sophisticate. A simple New England senator who had never been to London saw his country’s infant capital as the very sort of place he had known all his life, “a little village in the midst of the woods.” It was more like four separate villages than one, and it was risky to travel between them on roads thick with mud when wet, cut by raincarved ravines when dry. The bridges over streams were laid with loose planks, and there was no bridge at all for miles up the Potomac. Directly from Washington City, its riverfront neighbor Alexandria could only be reached by boat or ferry.
There was good snipe and partridge hunting on the slopes of the Capitol Hill, whose crest held the smallest village, just a few simple buildings, mostly brick, scattered around a construction site. The Capitol’s Senate wing was not quite finished, its House wing had barely risen off the ground, and its dome existed only on paper. Both houses of Congress met in the habitable wing, which reminded a Maryland farmer of “one of our Dutch barns, with an end blown down and the roof off.” Some muddy-booted congressmen started the day with a bird gun and a spaniel and strolled into the chamber with their hats on their heads and their dogs at their heels. Not a single senator or congressman owned a house in Washington City, which they occupied less than four months a year. A handful rented separate lodgings, and the rest lived in boardinghouses near the Capitol, the lot of them served by “one tailor, one shoemaker, one printer, a washing woman, a grocery shop, a pamphlets and stationery shop, a small dry goods shop, and an oyster house.”
Washington’s second little community had grown up around the Navy Yard on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, overlooked by “a very large but perfectly empty warehouse.” Most of the navy’s workforce and some officers lived there, a place known for “tippling shops and houses of rendezvous for sailors and their doxies, with a number of the lowest orders of traders.”
It was fashionable to live and shop in the third, largest village, which had grown up around the President’s House. Advertisements for nice new homes often noted their proximity to the grandest house in America, which was only partly habitable. A dozen years after its cornerstone was laid, just a few of its thirty-six rooms were finished. Craftsmen and unskilled laborers were always at work on the house and its grounds, painting or gilding moldings; varnishing forty-three mahogany doors; crafting ornamental plaster pediments over the doors and classical friezes along the edge of the ceilings; hauling away debris; digging and walling two wells; nailing up lathing for ceilings and walls; troweling on a skillful mix of water, plaster of Paris, sifted sand, pulverized lime, beeswax, olive oil, and hog bristles bought by the keg.
Two identical executive office buildings of elegant stone-trimmed brick stood 450 feet from either end of the President’s House on attractive white stone bases rising to a tall man’s height, complementing the whitewashed mansion—the Treasury Department’s building to the east, the State, War, and Navy Departments tripling up in its twin to the west, where Secretary of State James Madison received foreign ministers in a commonplace room. Nothing connected the executive buildings to the President’s House but footpaths worn through the weeds, with mud so thick when it rained that the superintendent of the District of Columbia thought a simple bluestone path would make a reasonably frugal accommodation for the president, his executive council—sometimes called his cabinet, English-style—and their callers.
On the other side of the rutted dirt road that passed in front of the President’s House, the President’s Square had been part of the mansion’s grounds until Jefferson had it ceded to the city, too ostentatious for a republican front yard. Now it was a vacant lot, recently cleared of workmen’s shacks, as empty as a pasture and half as neat. Rhodes Tavern and a handful of common buildings stood around its rim with unfilled blanks in between.
Not far west of the President’s House on the Pennsylvania Avenue stood the Seven Buildings, a row of connected brick houses between Nineteenth and Twentieth Streets and a similar block, called the Six Buildings, between Twenty-First and Twenty-Second. The adjacency was defensive, the city having burglars but no police. Beyond them was a half mile of nothing on the way to the M Street bridge, raised for masted vessels running up and down Rock Creek past George Town, sometimes written as Georgetown and half a century older than the rest of Washington City. Abigail Adams had called it in 1800 “the very dirtyest hole I ever saw for a place of any trade or respectability of inhabitants”; but by 1804 it was known for its shops, a decent grocery where the president’s staff bought his vegetables and meats, and a chance to buy a look at the odd itinerant elephant. The Catholic College of George Town, founded in 1789, overlooked the Potomac in a fine brick building on high ground. “It appears that the situation is very healthy,” a man of science would soon suggest, for no student had yet died there.
Capital society, “determined rather than brilliant,” was composed of the ranking local families, foreign diplomats, senior military officers, the cabinet, and the leading senators and congressmen of the day, almost all of whom left their wives at home, producing a shortage of couples and female company. During the Revolution, America’s political and social paragons had generally been one and the same, gentry, by and large, similar in dress and manners and led by extraordinary men, “an assembly of demigods” Jefferson called them in 1787. Assembled in Washington City in 1804, congressmen and senators varied widely in taste and talent. A noble émigrée who had fled the French Revolution found society “very inferior just now!” The cabinet and most of Congress were Jefferson men, “and for the most part people of low extraction,” leaving her no option but to “employ my leisure hours in reading.”
For less selective folk, there were daytime visits; dinner parties followed by music, cards, or chess; afternoon teas for the ladies; evening billiards for the gentlemen; modest balls in winter; the occasional visitor from civilization; and little by way of scandal, though Vice President Aaron Burr, a small, polished man with magnetic eyes, had lately made a splash by killing Alexander Hamilton.
Early in Jefferson’s presidency, two brick houses had been put up for sale “on the Pennsylvania Avenue near the President’s House” with attractive parlors, fenced-in yards, walkways paved to the street, and flexible terms: “A family of slaves will be taken in part payment, or lots will be exchanged for slaves.” Several slave pens thrived in the capital of American liberty, where men, women, and children were bought, sold, and stored. Slaves led in chains through the streets were a novelty for many tourists and even shamed a few.
There was not much else to see but the picturesque falls above Georgetown, two thriving garden nurseries, the jail’s public whipping post and pillory, Alexandria’s riverfront wharves, miles of wilderness in every direction, and the foul-smelling marsh that spread from the Potomac to the foot of the Capitol Hill to the lowlands below the President’s House, spawning plagues of mosquitos in summer and adhesive mud all year, which ran into the streets and sucked the shoes from pedestrians. And “there sits the President,” a Philadelphian said, “like a pelican in the wilderness.”
“James B. Conroy is a gifted writer and historian. There is something almost magical
about the way he transports us back into the world of Thomas Jefferson by recreating,
through telling detail, the President’s House as it was in the beginning,
new and raw but elegant and worldly, as contradictory as its brilliant occupant.” Evan Thomas, historian, journalist,
and best-selling author of First: Sandra Day O’Connor
“This well-researched and colorfully written book deftly humanizes Jefferson and reveals the traits that endeared him to family and friends and disarmed potential political enemies. It is a significant contribution to Jefferson scholarship.” John Boles, author of Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty
“[A]n invaluable contribution to our understanding of a controversial figure at a critical time in the new American nation’s history . . . sympathetic yet unsparing . . . An ambitious, enlightening, and brilliantly realized project.” Peter S. Onuf, Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas Jefferson Professor of History Emeritus, University of Virginia, and coauthor of Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination
“Jefferson’s White House opens the door to an amazing world. One can feel from the first pages the force of Jefferson’s determination to create a truly democratic space in that elegant, unfinished house, making dinner guests fresh from the wilderness the equal of the British ambassador. The reader meets the amazing collection of people who crowded his presidency, while Jefferson is discovered as he wished to present himself, leading the emerging American democracy, but also displaying his flaws with his hallmark of equality. Mr. Conroy gives us a true and unvarnished portrait of this controversial man, totally at home in the lovely Irish-Palladian white palace set in the mud and muck of the bucolic capital.” Patrick Phillips-Schrock, author of The White House, an Illustrated Architectural History
"Jefferson’s White House vividly captures the third president’s time in America’s most iconic home. James Conroy goes into incredible architectural and aesthetic detail, highlighting not only how Jefferson understood and used these spaces to project his political and ideological beliefs, but also how visitors, dignitaries, peers, and enslaved persons experienced them firsthand. For anyone interested in Jefferson’s presidency and the relationship between politics and place, this is a must read.” Matthew Costello, Senior Historian at The White House Historical Association
"In his engaging narrative, Conroy surrounds his pivotal figure, Thomas Jefferson, with the vivid characters that formed the presidential sphere, from political friends, foes and family members to the free and enslaved staff that insured the President’s House functioned properly. A strength of the book is the ample number of direct quotations from this wide array of characters, evincing the research that supports this compelling story of Jefferson and his use of the presidential mansion to promote his ideas of true republicanism. Jefferson’s White House engages the reader with an inside view of the President’s House from the architecture and furnishings to the array of people that passed through the doors during the Jefferson era. This very special House set against the backdrop of the raw, rough City of Washington, then under construction and fraught with political tensions, offers insights into our common history and national character. Conroy supports his compelling narrative of City and House with strong primary research that allows the characters to often speak for themselves." G. S. Wilson, author of Jefferson on Display: Attire, Etiquette and the Art of Presentation
“Impressively informative, detailed and documented, Jefferson's White House: Monticello on the Potomac is an extraordinary and deftly scripted study that is especially and unreservedly recommended for both community and academic library collections.” Midwest Book Review