This woodcut image appears on the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier’s antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains.” The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England. Library of Congress
The Small Staff of the Adams White House Includes No Slaves
By the time John and Abigail Adams became the first residents of the White House in November 1800, they had employed a steward, John Briesler, for nearly two decades. As the 1790s gave way to the 1800s, Briesler and his wife, Esther, formed the core staff of the White House.
Including the Brieslers, there were only four servants. Mrs. Adams calculated that she could have easily used thirty to run the "castle," but the government did not pay for the president's domestic help: John Adams was responsible for the workers' wages. And compared to George Washington's uniformed servants at the Presidential residence in Philadelphia, the Adams staff appeared neither adequate nor elegant.1
Washington had brought slaves to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon, his Virginia home.2 President Adams and Mrs. Adams were opposed to slavery. John Adams wrote in 1801, "[M]y opinion against it has always been known... [N]ever in my life did I own a slave."3 A letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, written in 1776, gives her views: "I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs."4
1 William Seale, The President's House (Washington: The White House Historical Association, 1986), 86.
2 Ibid., 5.
3 Letter from John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley, January 24, 1801, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), vol. IX, 92-93.
4 Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Read more: Dennis J. Pogue, "George Washington and the Politics of Slavery,” Historic Alexandria Quarterly (Spring/Summer 2003): 1–10.
One of the two revolving serving devices at Adena, near Chillicothe, Ohio, built 1806-7. Benjamin Henry Latrobe planned this house for Senator Thomas Worthington, one of Thomas Jefferson’s frequent dinner guests. The senator may have based the design of these rotating shelves on those he admired at the President’s House. Ohio Historical Society
Dumbwaiters in Place of Servants
Thomas Jefferson entertained informally, he ordered five small serving stands to be placed at strategic points around the room. These "dumbwaiters" were small tables, equipped with shelves placed at varying heights. Some might hold salads and wine; others would accommodate cutlery and serving utensils. Servants brought in hot food, but did not remain in the room during the meal. Conversation could flow freely, without the possibility that workers might overhear sensitive information and repeat it outside the White House.1
Margaret Bayard Smith visited both the White House and Jefferson's Virginia home, Monticello, during the first decade of the 19th century. She writes that the dumbwaiter "contained everything necessary for the progress of the dinner from beginning to end, so as to make the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary."2
Smith also describes an apparatus that Jefferson installed at both Monticello and in the White House:
"A set of shelves were so contrived in the wall, that on touching a spring they turned into the room loaded with the dishes placed on them by the servants, . . . and by the same process the removed dishes were conveyed out of the room."3
1 William Seale, The President's House (Washington: White House Historical Association, 1986), 104-105; Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard), From the Collection of Her Grandson, J. Henley Smith, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: Scribner, 1906), 388.
2 Ibid., 387.
Read more: Robert L. Self and Susan R. Stein, “The Collaboration of Thomas Jefferson and John Hemings: Furniture Attributed to the Monticello Joinery,” Winterthur Portfolio 33 (1998): 231–248. Stuart D. Hobbs, “The Adena Dumbwaiters: A Glimpse into Jefferson’s Executive Mansion?” White House History 17 (2006): 44–49.
Benjamin Latrobe. White House Collection
Benjamin Latrobe expresses his indignation to Dolley Madison about her servants
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Architect of the Capitol and Surveyor of Public Buildings under Jefferson, had advised the Madisons about changes to the White House even before they arrived in 1809.1 He continued to consult with Mrs. Madison about her household until about 1813.2
Latrobe once visited the White House in Mrs. Madison's absence, to make sure that the curtains had been laundered. He discovered that they had not, and demanded to know why. He wrote to Mrs. Madison that a housekeeper, Mrs. Swiney, "told me, that on attempting to obey me she was informed, that you are so displeased with my conduct . . . that you intended I should do nothing more for you. . . . As this information could only come from your servants, I ought to presume that it was false. . . .[It] would be an insult to you to suppose . . . that such intelligence would be conveyed to a man of character, . . . at second hand, by a servant."3
Dolley Madison replied, "I shall be strict in my examination of the servants, when I return, as I wish to know those, who have taken the liberty to mis-represent me."4
1 William Seale, The President's House (Washington: White House Historical Association, 1986), 119.
2 Benjamin Henry Latrobe to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 27 August 1813, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
3 Benjamin Henry Latrobe to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 8 September 1809, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
4 Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 12 September 1809, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
Detail of an early map of the city of Washington. The Tiber Creek extends east from the Potomac River, a few blocks south of the White House. Library of Congress
The President and his steward meet with a calamity
John Quincy Adams hired Antoine Michel Giusta as his valet after they met in Belgium in 1814. Giusta was a deserter from Napoleon's army. During the time John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams were living in London, Giusta married Mrs. Adams's maid. Antoine and his wife had managed the Adams' households from the time the Adamses returned to the United States in 1817.1
The Adamses moved into the White House in March 1825. In June, Antoine Giusta, now the White House steward, accompanied the President on what was to have been a pleasant excursion on the Tiber Creek. Their canoe was not in good condition, however, and was soon half full of water. A northwest wind kicked up, and Adams and Giusta jumped overboard, losing hold of the canoe. They swam to the opposite shore. Giusta had already shed his clothes, but the President gave his own wet garments to Giusta, who went in search of help. Adams and Giusta each lost several items of clothing, as well as the canoe, but they returned to the White House unharmed.
John Quincy Adams recorded the day's adventures in his diary entry for June 13, 1825:
"I attempted to cross the river with Antoine in a small canoe, with a view to swim across it to come back. He took a boat in which we had crossed it last summer without accident. The boat was at the shore near Van Ness's poplars; but in crossing the Tiber to the point, my son John, who was with us, thought the boat dangerous, and, instead of going with us, went and undressed at the rock, to swim and meet us in midway of the river as we should be returning. I thought the boat safe enough, or rather persisted carelessly in going without paying due attention to its condition; gave my watch to my son; made a bundle of my coat and waist-coat to take in the boat with me; put off my shoes, and was paddled by Antoine, who had stripped himself entirely naked. Before we had got half across the river, the boat had leaked itself half full, and then we found there was nothing on board to scoop up the water and throw it over. Just at that critical moment a fresh breeze from the northwest blew down the river as from the nose of a bellows. In five minutes' time it made a little tempest, and set the boat to dancing till the river came in at the sides. I jumped overboard, and Antoine did the same, and lost hold of the boat, which filled with water and drifted away. We were as near as possible to the middle of the river, and swam to the opposite shore. Antoine, who was naked, reached it with little difficulty. I had much more, and, while struggling for life and gasping for breath, had ample leisure to reflect upon my own indiscretion. My principal difficulty was in the loose sleeves of my shirt, which filled with water and hung like two fifty-six pound weights upon my arms. I had also my hat, which I soon gave, however, to Antoine. After reaching the shore, I took off my shirt and pantaloons, wrung them out, and gave them to Antoine to go and look out for our clothes, or for a person to send to the house for others, and for the carriage to come and fetch me. Soon after he had gone, my son John joined me, having swum wholly across the river, expecting to meet us returning with the boat. Antoine crossed the bridge, sent a man to my house for the carriage, made some search for the drifted boat and bundles, and found his own hat with his shirt and braces in it, and one of my shoes. He also brought over the bridge my son's clothes with my watch and umbrella, which I had left with him.
"While Antoine was gone, John and I were wading and swimming up and down on the other shore, or sitting naked basking on the bank at the margin of the river. John walked over the bridge home. The carriage came, and took me and Antoine home, half dressed. I lost an old summer coat, white waistcoat, two napkins, two white handkerchiefs, and one shoe. Antoine lost his watch, jacket, waistcoat, pantaloons, and shoes. The boat was also lost. By the mercy of God our lives were spared, and no injury befell our persons."
-- The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794–1845, edited by Allan Nevins. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951: 348–359. Previously published as Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, edited by Charles Francis Adams.
1 William Seale, The President's House (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1986), 166.
Notes on this text: Adams describes his waterlogged sleeves as "56-pound weights." This is probably a reference to the 56-pound weights used in Celtic/Scottish athletic events that date to the 16th century.
James Silk Buckingham, by Edwin Dalton Smith. National Portrait Gallery, London
A British traveler’s observations
Martin Van Buren was sometimes criticized for his kingly airs, but during his administration the White House was sparsely staffed. The 1840 census of Washington, D.C., indicates that only two or three white servants, and about five free “colored persons,” resided in the Executive Mansion, although others may have lived elsewhere.1
The British writer James Silk Buckingham (1786–1855), a former Member of Parliament, toured the United States during the 1830s. His account of a White House reception in 1838 suggests that the President's House was not at all regal, and his recollections seem to confirm that, at least on the night of March 8, Van Buren had only a small contingent of aides: "there were neither guards without the gate or sentries within nor a single servant or attendant in livery anywhere visible," Buckingham wrote.2
Buckingham found that the few servants he saw were polite and agreeable, even as they helped nearly 3,000 guests to their carriages at the end of the evening. He did not hear "any angry word . . . exchanged between the drivers and servants in attendance.”3
Read more of Buckingham's account:
“On Thursday, the 8th of March, we had an opportunity of attending the first drawing-room held by the President since his accession to office. . . .
“ . . . The official residence of the President is a large and substantial mansion, on the scale of many of the country-seats of our English gentry, but greatly inferior in size and splendour to the country residences of most of our nobility. . . . The whole air of the mansion and its accompaniments, is that of unostentatious comfort, . . . and therefore well adapted to the simplicity and economy which is characteristic of the republican institutions of the country. . . .
“The President received his visitors standing, in the centre of a small oval room.
. . . The introductions were made by the City-marshal. . . . The President, Mr. Van Buren, is about 60 years of age, is a little below the middle stature, and of very bland and courteous manners; he was dressed in a plain suit of black; the marshal was habited also in a plain suit: and there were neither guards without the gate or sentries within nor a single servant or attendant in livery anywhere visible. . . .
“. . . [W]hen the parties retired, which was between eleven and twelve o’clock, there was not half so much bustle in getting up the carriages, which were very numerous, as is exhibited at a comparatively small party in England; nor was any angry word, as far as we could discover, exchanged between the drivers and servants in attendance.”
—James Silk Buckingham, America, Historical, Statistic, and Descriptive (London & Paris: Fisher, son, & co., ), 285–288.
1 William Seale, The President’s House (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1986), 212.
2 James Silk Buckingham, America, Historical, Statistic, and Descriptive (London & Paris: Fisher, son, & co., , 287.
3 Ibid., 288.
This plateau, purchased by President Monroe, is likely the same one referred to in the Nelsons’ anecdote about Mrs. Polk and her servants. Photo by Bruce White, © WHHA
Mrs. Polk receives unwelcome advice about her servants
James K. Polk and Sarah Childress Polk lived in the White House from 1845 to 1849.
Anson and Fanny Nelson, admirers of Mrs. Polk, published this story many years later:
"An elderly lady, who had been present at [a White House] dinner-party, called on Mrs. Polk and said, 'May I take the liberty [to] make a suggestion to you, Madame?' The dining-table at the White House was adorned with a long mirror, . . . called the plateau, reflecting the light of the candelabra. . . . The table extended about a foot beyond the plateau, and this space was covered with a long napkin, which upon the removal of the dishes for dessert was rolled up by the servants, and formed a bulky bundle of linen. The lady’s suggestion was that the long napkin should be cut into short pieces, for the convenience of the servants. 'I seldom noticed these things,' said Mrs. Polk, 'and did not know when the napkin was rolled up and taken off, being engaged in conversation; . . .' [Mrs. Polk] said that the servants knew their duties, and she did not undertake the needless task of directing them."
—Anson and Fanny Nelson, Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk, Wife of the Eleventh President of the United States (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph Co., 1892), 110–111.
« White House History Timelines