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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

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

Footnotes & Resources

  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.

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