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Presidents as Horsemen

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Major General Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, engraved by James B. Longacre after painting by Thomas Sully c. 1820. Jacksons favorite horses were not warhorses but racehorses. He was the only president to maintain a racing stable at the White House.

Library of Congress

The nineteenth century might be called the golden age of the horse. Horsepower pulled plow, canal boat, and wagon to market; horse-drawn stages linked towns; and omnibuses and carriages conveyed people to work within cities, to shop, or to the train station, which, a decade after the Civil War, emerged as the hub of a transcontinental transportation system. Before automobiles, the residents of the White House, like most of humankind, depended essentially on horses for transportation and the movement of goods and services. The president’s stables, long demolished and largely forgotten today, were once integral to the operation of White House.

The Sequence of Stables

The primacy of the horse at the White House ended in 1909 when President William Howard Taft converted the carriage room into a garage for his giant steam-powered cars. The Taft family cow, Pauline Wayne, remained the sole inhabitant of the stable until the structure was razed in 1911. Horses remained available to the White House at nearby army stables for recreational riding into the late twentieth century. It was not until 1951 that Congress struck an expenditure from the White House budget for horses and stables.1

The various executive stables that were built on the White House Grounds over a period of a century were never intended to be great architecture. Public interest was keen simply because they were the president’s stables. The first executive stable was a distance away from the White House, a Georgian-style brick structure erected by builder William Lovell on the southeast corner of 14th and G Streets, NW, in 1800. Six years later President Thomas Jefferson designed a stable and carriage house in new wing dependencies flanking the White House on the east and west. The west wing housed the coach house and tack room, and the stable with a cowshed were in the east wing.2

After the British burned the White House in 1814, a temporary frame stable was appended to the end of the rebuilt east wing. President James Monroe moved the stable to the west wing in 1819 for greater convenience to the coach house. James Hoban, who had built and rebuilt the White House, prepared plans and directed the construction of the new stable, turning it toward the south where it made an ell to the existing wing. The colonnades of the stable and wing created a stately enclosure for a brick-paved courtyard, but the location below the windows of the State Dining Room was not ideal.3

President Andrew Jackson, a passionate horseman, stabled not only workhorses at the White House but also thoroughbreds that raced at courses in Washington and Baltimore. His horses so overflowed the Monroe stable that wooden shanties had to be built for further housing along the west fence of the grounds. Eventually Jackson persuaded Congress to fund the construction of a freestanding neoclassical brick stable trimmed with Aquia sandstone about 100 yards east of the east wing of the White House. Washington builder William P. Elliot erected the structure at a cost of about $3,600.4 In 1834, the National Intelligencer reported that “a fine stable, having a handsome picturesque appearance, calculated to accommodate about ten horses” had been completed.5 Tall and wide, the stuccoed brick stable had a porch on the south side with six round columns of plastered brick with stone bases. A brick wall with a flagstone courtyard enclosed it. The flagstone continued into the stable’s center hall, which was bordered by two ranges of stalls. Grooms fed the horses from the passage without entering the stalls. A feed and tack room and a space for coaches and other smaller vehicles also flanked the hall and extended into an ell to the side. On the second level were a hayloft and living quarters for grooms and a coachman.6 According to the public gardener James Maher, Jackson told him: “Plant me a tree of rapid growth to protect my stable from a northwester.” Maher planted silver maples calculated to create a shade canopy of 425 square yards.7

Andrew Jackson’s stable was razed in 1857 to make way for the present south wing of the Treasury Department. Workers salvaged the stone and bricks and used them to erect a new structure on the east grounds, south of the Treasury. The project was planned and directed by Edward Clark, superintendent of construction work then under way at the Patent Office extension and an assistant to Thomas U. Walter, architect of the Capitol. Costing approximately $8,000, the new stable was slightly larger and wider than Jackson’s stable. The areas along its central passage accommodated twelve horses, the White House carriages, and feed and tack, and upstairs were bedchambers for the grooms. The brick building was stuccoed and whitewashed and had a painted tin roof.8 Fire consumed this building in 1864, destroying the Lincoln children’s ponies, Mary Todd Lincoln’s black carriage horses, and John Nicolay’s saddle horse. Abraham Lincoln witnessed the tragedy and in his determination to save the pony of his son Willie, who had died, had to be restrained by guards from rushing into the blazing stable.9

Once again workmen salvaged bricks and stone and, with additional new materials, erected the replacement stable on the west grounds. Designed by Walter, this utilitarian structure cost $12,000. Illustrated in Harper’s Weekly in 1869, the two-story stable appears to have had a side-gable roof with a wide porch supported by thin Tuscan columns sheltering the carriage entrance. Functionally, it mirrored its predecessor in providing spaces for the care and feeding of the horses, a carriage room, and second floor living quarters. In 1871, this structure made way for the excavation of the foundation for the imposing State, War and Navy Building (today’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building).10

Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, the president’s son, posed on his pony, c. 1865.

Library of Congress

The last White House stable, a High Victorian mansard-roofedstructure, was completed during the Ulysses S. Grant administration in 1872.Funds for construction were drawn from the appropriation allotted for the newExecutive Office Building amounting to $27,025.15.11 Alfred B. Mullett,supervising architect of the Treasury Department, the chief architect for thefederal government, had charge of the design. He became renowned for hismassive granite Second Empire-style post offices and federal courthouses builtin major cities across the United States.12 In 1890, the Army Corps ofEngineers expanded Grant’s stable substantially by adding new stalls and roomsfor the grooms to the rear of the building. The project also covered the areawithin the two wings with glass.13

Mullett gave the executive stables a formal gateway entrancethat faced 17th Street. At the center of the U-shaped building was an openasphalt courtyard enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. The stable, carriage, feed,tack, and harness rooms, and a cozy sitting room for the coachmen and stablehands, were located on the first floor. An apartment for the coachman and hisfamily was in the second story. A reporter for The Evening Star described the WhiteHouse stables in 1889: A few rods south of the southern entrance to the greatState, War, and Navy buildings is a grove of young trees, from above theverdant tops of which peep out an odd-looking continuation of mansard roof. . .. The uninformed stranger wonders what manner of mansion it is which is thussecluded and finds that it is the White House stables. The stables areextensive enough to contain twenty-five horses and twelve vehicles. Nothing buta pass from the President’s private secretary will secure admission to thesacred precincts where Albert Hawkins is king.14

The official White House fleet with drivers and motorcycle police in 1909 at the time the White House stable became a garage.

Smithsonian Institution

The Coachmen

Albert Hawkins was a coachman who began his service under Ulysses S. Grant. By the 1880s, he was among the most celebrated of Washington’s African American community. Tall and well built, the smartly uniformed Hawkins was considered the “beau ideal” of a coachman. He served the White House until 1889, when his eyesight began to fail.15 Occasional anecdotes about the White House stables appeared in newspapers and magazines, providing a profile of the reserved coachman. One of the best stories highlighted his sense of humor. First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, the bright and beautiful young wife of President Grover Cleveland, was in high demand on the social scene. Mrs. Cleveland devised a novel way to set aside several hours a week for French lessons. Her teacher joined her for a carriage ride, driven by Hawkins, one morning a week. In the privacy of the carriage, the first lady could take her lessons undisturbed. Mrs. Cleveland became so absorbed that she would often direct Hawkins in French. With a grin and a nod, Hawkins smartly replied, “Oui, Oui Madame.”16

What is known about the grooms, coachmen, outriders, and other horsemen is episodic, like much of what is known about Hawkins, and comes from surviving documents in the public building commissioner’s records, newspapers, and periodicals of that time. The coachman, conspicuous in formal livery on the box of the president’s carnage, was always the most recognized member of the domestic staff. William Willis, an expert horseman, succeeded Hawkins in 1889. He was of mixed African American descent and described by reporters as “mulatto.” Prominent in African American society, Willis was a Freemason and Odd Fellow and was invited to work at the White House by Colonel William H. Crook, disbursing agent of the office staff, who appointed him the driver of the carriage for the president’s private secretaries.17 A widower, Willis lived in the stables with his daughter and mother until he suffered a sudden stroke and died in 1895. Another well-known White House coachman was Charlie Lee, the driver for Theodore Roosevelt. His livery consisted of a blue coat, white doeskin trousers, high boots, and a top hat with a red white and blue cockade. Lee, the last White House coachman, was among the employees who moved with the Roosevelts to the White House from their home in Oyster Bay, New York.18

During the nineteenth century, it was customary to employ a coachman and a few grooms to care for the horses and manage the White House stables. In 1889, The Evening Star reported that the president’s stables had four employees, including coachman Hawkins, who managed the operations. By 1901, the stable staff included a foreman or manager of the stables, three coachmen, four grooms, and a general laborer. The president paid for his coachman from his personal funds. Two drivers for the executive and domestic staff and three grooms were paid out of the executive budget. The remaining workers with the White House horses were employees of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps assigned to presidential stable duty.19

Portrait of First Lady Frances Cleveland by Frances B. Johnston, 1886.

Library of Congress

The Horses and Carriages

The U.S. government maintained the stable and paid the salaries of most of the staff, but it did not furnish horses or carriages for the president’s personal use. This policy began during the Thomas Jefferson administration. President John Adams had purchased a carriage and horses with government funds allocated for the White House household and offered them to his successor. Jefferson elected not to keep them, believing that the president should avoid any regal trappings of office by providing his own carriage and horses.20

By the late 19th century a traditional division of the president’s and the government’s horses was well established. “A great many people think,” said Colonel Crook, “that the expense of keeping the president’s horses [is] borne by the government. Such is not the case. The government keeps up the office stable, of course, but all those horses on the north side [of the stable] are the president’s own property, and their keeping is paid for by him. There are practically two distinct stables. When Albert [Hawkins] needs feed he buys it from a private firm, while the feed for the government horses comes from the quartermaster’s department.”21

Presidential horses received the most attention and occupied larger box stalls, while the government horses had smaller open stalls. However, all the White House horses earned their oats and were on call twenty-four hours a day. Years of pounding the asphalt streets of Washington would take a toll on the hoofs and legs of these horses, so they required and were given the best of care. Messengers, secretaries, clerks, and the housekeeper used the government horses for daily business and for hauling produce and goods. The White House stables became a hub of activity as messengers on horseback and horse-drawn carriages conveying executive and domestic staff came and went.22

Before the twentieth century the president’s vehicles were neither armored-plated nor specially built. Their carriages were similar to those of citizens of wealth. Often they were gifts from admirers. George Washington had the most elaborate turnout of the presidents for state occasions—a cream-colored carriage drawn by six matched horses “all brilliantly caparisoned.” Coachmen and footmen wore livery trimmed with white and brilliant red-orange that Washington had selected long before for his racing silks. President Franklin Pierce preferred an informal coach and often rode through Washington in an “unpretentious one-horse shay.” Chester A. Arthur was far more conspicuous in his stylish dark green landau, drawn by two perfectly matched mahogany bays with flowing manes and tails. The harness was mounted with silver, and the horse blankets were dark green kersey ornamented with the president’s monogram.23

President Grover Cleveland and First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland kept fine matched brown horses in the White House stable for their carriages. Their favorite was the open landau that was taken out for drives in the Rock Creek valley and the surrounding hills of Washington. Andrew Johnson, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley also greatly enjoyed such relaxing excursions with their wives and families. Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes were the most avid enthusiasts of driving. No matter what the purpose, presidential style always was on display in carriages, equipage, and livery.24

The horses, carriage, and livery of the president added beauty and spectacle to state events, inaugural parades, and official ceremonies. Horse-drawn vehicles ceremoniously conveyed the president to and from the White House to the Capitol until Warren G. Harding’s inaugural parade in 1921, when automobiles took over. Nineteenth-century presidential funerals were pageants, with elaborate horse-drawn funeral cars and long processions. In the twentieth century, the president’s flag- draped casket has been carried on an artillery caisson drawn by six matched horses followed by a riderless horse.25

Military heroes who risked their lives in devotion to the nation have long been attractive presidential candidates. The image of a uniformed officer on a warhorse was once a powerful symbol of leadership and executive ability. Military heroes, such as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Benjamin Harrison, were fine riders. However, Washington, Jackson, and Grant stand out as the most ardent of presidential horsemen. It is no surprise that Jackson and Grant have monumental equestrian statues in the nation’s capital and that some of Washington’s finest portraits are equestrian. These men formed a recognized bond with the horse that became a part of their presidential image and defined them as men.26

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson took immense pride in their horses and bred them to improve the bloodlines of saddle, work, carriage, and racehorses. Early presidents loved horse racing, the most popular sport in America at that time. Considered essential to the improvement of the speed and stamina of the American horse, racing created more excitement, enthusiasm, and interest in the colonial period and the early republic than any other sport. Considered by his peers the best horseman of his era, Washington helped organize races in Alexandria, Virginia, and frequently attended race meetings throughout the region. Jefferson rarely missed the meets at the National Race Course in Washington, which opened just outside the city boundary two miles north of the White House in 1802. The best horses in the country competed at the National Race Course into the 1840s, and the Jockey Club dinner and ball, a highlight of the Washington social season, concluded the meeting.27

“Come on Boys!” General Benjamin Harrison on his mount at the battle ofResaca, Georgia, 1864

Library of Congress

Andrew Jackson’s renowned passion for horseracing was accompanied by an inclination to gamble. A wager sparked one of his duels. Jackson was a fierce competitor and wagered large sums on his horses. Once he lost a hefty bet at the Washington races and to his chagrin had to pay off wagers of almost $ 1,000 when his favored horse was beaten in an upset.28

Jackson bred racehorses at The Hermitage, his home in Tennessee, and operated a racing stable from the White House during his presidency. It was an open secret that he entered runners in the name of his nephew and private secretary, Andrew Jackson Donelson. Jackson stabled his filly Bolivia and the colt Busiris, owned by his friend General Callender Irvine of Philadelphia, at the White House.29 One day at the National Race Course, President Jackson took Vice President Martin Van Buren to watch Busiris train. When the horse on the track became unruly, Jackson shouted, “Get behind me, Mr. Van Buren. He will run you over!” Although Van Buren was an accomplished rider, for a long time afterward newspapers and cartoonists used this incident to ridicule Van Buren’s reliance on Jackson’s fatherly political support.30

Ulysses S. Grant was the last president actively interested in horse racing. While a presidential candidate, Grant held the ribbons of the great champion trotter Dexter owned by Robert Bonner. Quite an event was made of it, commemorated by Currier and Ives in a popular print. As president, Grant bred trotters and, in the late 1870s, Arabians. He loved mounting a sulky and driving at high speed down Pennsylvania Avenue, often in a race with his friend and neighbor, General Edward Beale of Decatur House on Lafayette Square. Once Grant engaged in a friendly race on the streets of Washington with a butcher’s wagon and was amazed when the horse pulling the wagon outpaced his horse. Subsequently, he sent a representative around to the butcher’s shop and eventually bought the horse. Butcher’s Boy became his favorite trotter.31

Jacqueline Kennedy takes Sardar over a jump in Middleburg, Virginia in 1962.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The last true horseman to use the White House stables was Theodore Roosevelt. His love of fine horses was legendary and played a part in shaping his vigorous personal image and advocacy of the “strenuous life.” Roosevelt had been a rancher in the Dakota Territory, and his volunteer, mounted Rough Riders emerged as national heroes after the famous charge at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt brought his image as a rugged outdoorsman and war hero very successfully to the presidency.

The Roosevelt family loved horseback riding and driving and did both often in the public eye. Late in his tenure, Roosevelt’s presidential schedule included daily rides to Potomac and Rock Creek parks with his military aide, Archie Butt, a superb horseman. Roosevelt, with three companions, once rode more than ninety miles in one day through sleet and snow between the White House and Warrenton, Virginia, to prove that the test ride for army and naval officers was not too difficult. The Roosevelts were the last family to fully utilize the White House stables. When offered an automobile, the president refused, saying that the Roosevelts were horse people.32

With the invention of photography and the popularity of illustrated magazines and newspapers by the late nineteenth century, images of the chief executives and their families on horseback became familiar subjects for news photographs. Presidents William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt as first lady regularly rode horses for exercise and relaxation in public both in the city parks of Washington and on vacation. Many modern presidents and first ladies have had a casual interest in horseback riding, particularly as a vacation sport. Most notable were Jacqueline Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Mrs. Kennedy was a skilled rider with a passion for jumping and hunt riding. She stabled ponies, Macaroni and Tex, at the White House for her children to learn to ride. Ronald Reagan was the last president who might be considered an accomplished rider and horseman. His career in films had demanded that he ride well. As president, he was comfortable in the saddle or simply working with his horses.

American presidents throughout history have admired the grandeur and appreciated the utility of the horse. George Washington regarded horses as a source of pardonable pride, and his warhorses were of great importance to him as loyal companions and symbols of his leadership. Many presidents since his time have enjoyed the beauty and skill of these uncomplaining public servants for work, sport, and leisure. Everyday use of horses at the White House has long passed, but at special ceremonies and state occasions the horse regains the stage.