The President's House by George Munger, 1814-15.

At home in the White House: how different presidents adapted to life in office

“The president was drinking. He said he was resigning.”
September 14, 2017

John Adams

On 1st November 1800, John Adams, the second President of the United States, took up residence in the still unfinished White House. Although his salary was $25,000 a year, all state entertainments and the like were the president’s financial responsibility, as were the servants and administrative staff. Many early presidents left office out of pocket. His wife Abigail wrote:

“The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about 30 servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables; an establishment very well proportioned to the president’s salary. The lighting from the kitchen to parlors 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. To assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house. This is so great an inconvenience that I know not what to do… The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since our servant Briesler came…”

Paul Jennings

During the War of 1812 (1812-15) between the US and UK, the British invaded Washington and burnt the White House on 24th August 1814 (see painting above). Paul Jennings, a slave and the body servant of President James Madison, recalled:

“Even that very morning General Armstrong assured Mrs [Dolley] Madison there was no danger. She ordered dinner to be ready at 3pm, as usual. I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider and wine and placed them in the coolers, as all of the cabinet and several military gentlemen were expected. While waiting, at just about three… James Smith, a free coloured man who had accompanied Madison to the battle at Bladensburg, galloped up to the house, waving his hat, and cried out ‘Clear out! Clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!’ All then was confusion. Mrs Madison ordered her carriage, and passing through the dining-room, caught up what silver she could crowd into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into her chariot… People were running in every direction… Although the British were expected every minute, they did not arrive for some hours, in the meantime, a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner and drank the wines that I had prepared for the president’s party.”

Nan Britton

In June 1921, 24-year-old Ohio secretary Nan Britton made her first visit to the White House. The previous year she had given birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, fathered by Warren Harding, then a senator and now president. Harding was a friend of her father, married and 30 years her senior:

“Harding opened the door, a door immediately behind his Cabinet Room chair. He greeted me cordially and I preceded him into his private office. Once in, he turned and took me in his arms and told me what I could see in his face—that he was delighted to see me. No more delighted than I was to see him...He introduced me to the one place where, he said, he thought we might share kisses in safety. This was a small closet in the ante-room, evidently a place for coats and hats, but entirely empty most of the times we used it, for we repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House and in the darkness of a space no more than five feet square the president of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.”

Henry Kissinger

On 7th August 1974, the night before announcing his resignation as president, Richard Nixon retired alone to the Lincoln Sitting Room. He summoned Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Final Days, give Kissinger’s account: 

“The president was drinking. He said he was resigning. It would be better for everyone. They talked quietly—history, the resignation decision, foreign affairs. Then Nixon said he wasn’t sure he would be able to resign. Could he be the first president to quit office? Kissinger responded by listing the president’s contributions, especially in diplomacy. ‘Will history treat me more kindly than my contemporaries?’

“Certainly, definitely, Kissinger said. When this was all over, the president would be remembered for the peace he had achieved. The president broke down and sobbed… How had a simple burglary, a breaking and entering, done all this?

“Kissinger kept trying to turn the conversation back to all the good things. Nixon wouldn’t hear of it. He was hysterical. ‘Henry,’ he said, ‘you are not a very orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray.’

Nixon got down on his knees. Kissinger felt he had no alternative but to kneel down too. The president prayed out loud, asking for help, rest, peace and love. How could a president and a country be torn apart by such small things? Kissinger thought he had finished. But the president did not rise. He was weeping… ‘What have I done? What has happened?’ Kissinger touched the president, and then… tried to bring rest and peace to the man who was curled on the carpet like a child. Kissinger again tried to reassure him… Finally the president struggled to his feet. He sat back down in his chair. The storm had passed. He had another drink.”