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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  The White House as Home and Symbol to John and Abigail Adams: Letters from 1800
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Enrichment and Expansion:

  1. Great fanfare greeted President John Adams when he took his first trip to Washington in June 1800. He was met at the city's border with a military salute and received an escort by men on horseback. Throughout his short visit he was honored and entertained by various factions of the Washington community. At one dinner he received seventeen toasts. He visited most of the city's buildings under construction and addressed audiences as he went. Aware of the importance of his visit and the pending move, Adams addressed his hosts with enthusiasm in regard to the future of the Federal City.

    By contrast, John Adams's move into the President’s House in November 1800 went virtually unnoticed. No major social events were held in his honor in the first few days. The few newspaper accounts simply record his return to the city and his move into the residence. It is hard to imagine that in today's world the arrival of a head of state in a similar situation would go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

    Read the following brief notice that appeared in at least two newspapers, The Universal Gazette, Washington, D.C., November 6, 1800, and The Boston Gazette, November 13, 1800:

    "On Saturday last the PRESIDENT of the United States arrived in this city, and took up his residence in the house appropriated to him by the [federal district's] commissioners. Though not entirely finished, the part which is completed will afford ample accommodation."

    • Describe your reaction to this article. Do you think this is an appropriate or adequate amount of press coverage for this particular event? What information is the reader supposed to gather from this article?

    • Imagine you are a newspaper reporter. Write an article about the arrival of the Adamses in Washington. Include the condition of the President's House in your article. Take the challenge and write the article from the point of view of a political supporter or opponent of President Adams.

  2. The three letters in this lesson focus on the physical condition of the President’s House at the time of the arrival of its first residents. Both John and Abigail Adams recognized that although the house was lacking in furnishings and other physical amenities, in time the house would be grand and beautiful. How has the physical nature of the White House changed over the years? Do further research on the various changes that have been made over time. You can find an overview of "Building the White House" and a Technological Timeline on this site. How has the role of the White House changed over the years? Or has it?

  3. Communicating through letters is not an uncommon practice between presidents and their wives. Read some of these letters. What issues of concern or importance characterize the information in these letters? Describe the circumstances - such as world or national events and political climate - under which the letters were written. Can you characterize the relationship between the president and the first lady through the letters? Cite examples to support your opinion. What other sources might you use to obtain a better understanding of this relationship? What other means of communication did these presidents and their wives have besides letters?

Some sources for additional research on letters between presidents and first ladies:

Eisenhower, Dwight D. Letters to Mamie. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1978.

Ferrell, Robert H., editor. Dear Bess: The Letters From Harry Truman To Bess Truman, 1910-1959. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Reagan, Nancy and Ronald Reagan. I Love You, Ronnie. New York: Random House, 2000.

Links to resources at Presidential Libraries:

Bibliography and Links:


Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.

Jensen, Amy. The White House and Its Thirty-Five Families. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1958.

Leish, Kenneth W. The White House: A History of the Presidents. New York: Newsweek, 1972.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Mitchell, Stewart, editor. New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947.

Seale, William. The President's House, Volume I. Washington, D. C.: White House Historical Association, 1986.

The White House: The History of an American Idea. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute of Architects, 1992.


Gelles, Edith B. "The Paradox of High Station: Abigail Adams as First Lady." White House History, Number 7. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, (Spring 2000), 4-13.

Seale, William. "The White House in John Adams’s Presidency," White House History, Number 7. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, (Spring 2000), 26-35.


The Massachusetts Historical Society

Library of Congress

Return to PRIMARY DOCUMENT LESSON: "Letters from 1800"

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