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As America's head of state, the president of the United States welcomes guests from across the country and around the world to the "people's house." For many foreign leaders, the White House is their introduction to the United States, and the experience these visitors have at the President's House may be critical to establishing relations between governments. This was especially true in the 19th century, when rules of protocol were strict. Therefore, White House ceremonial events are a mix of the personal and political. Guests must enjoy themselves, while feeling respected and honored in the home of the president, and - if all goes well - depart with a positive view of America and Americans. World leaders who visit may have very little exposure to our nation's citizenry and so the president and the first family, in essence, represent all Americans.

For his fellow citizens, a president's invitation to the White House is special. A White House event is often a time for the president to honor his American guests — such as the winners of the Medal of Freedom or the Olympic athletes. Above all, the White House represents the cultural link of home. The president welcomes visitors to his home — whether they hail from the Far East or from just down Pennsylvania Avenue and the halls of Congress. But by extension, the president's home is the people's home. The people have allowed the president temporary occupancy, and they expect him to be the most gracious of hosts.

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Early Years

George Washington conceived the role of the White House, as it was being built in the 1790s, as a place that would command respect at home and abroad. The young republic was an experiment in self-government and Washington believed that foreign diplomats, especially, needed to regard the United States as a formidable and permanent nation.

Washington died before the completion of the White House. The second president, John Adams, was the first chief executive to occupy the structure then known as the "President's House." John and Abigail Adams welcomed the public to the first New Year's Day reception on January 1, 1801, a tradition that would last until the 1930s. The White House was unfinished when they moved in, and the room that was to be the largest and grandest space for parties and ceremonies - the East Room - was used by Mrs. Adams to dry her laundry.

The People's House

In the first half of the 19th century, "Washington was the one and only American city where, on a few annual occasions, any properly dressed man and woman could enter its grandest and most famous house, walk through its elegantly furnished reception rooms, and sip lemonade or Madeira and eat cake and ice cream with distinguished personages. Fashionable hobnobbing made people feel good about themselves and optimistic about their country." [Barbara Carson, "Social Seasons and Rituals of Entertainment," in Our Changing White House, 56-57]

The open houses held on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July were important because they promoted the idea that the people had ready access to their leader, who was in fact the foremost public servant in the country. According to the author of A Description of the Etiquette at Washington City (1829), "At these levees any citizen of a fair character, and of suitable appearance for such a place, may . . . ultimately succeed in being introduced to any individual that attends the levees and parties at Washington . . . . Strangers not particularly distinguished are introduced to [the president] at his levees." [Carson, 71-72] This offended some Europeans, who were accustomed to a rigid societal hierarchy. The wife of the British prime minister during Jefferson's administration (1801-1809) was shocked to find herself introduced to her tailor at one party, as if they were of the same social station. Jefferson's response summed up his thoughts on the issue of who should be welcomed at the White House: "When brought together in society all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office."

Depending on the president and first lady, and their personal preferences, the White House was more or less accessible to the public. Dolley Madison (James Madison, 1809-1817), an exuberant hostess, brought the waltz to the President's House. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe (1817-1825) preferred smaller dinners rather than well-attended evening receptions called levees or drawing rooms. In 1828-29, crowded White House events were relieved with the completion of the East Room.

One of the wildest public occasions in White House history was the reception following the inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829, when thousands of well-wishers from all walks of life converged on the White House. They made themselves at home, sipping lemonade and eating ice cream. The scene became so overwhelming, Jackson spent the night at a nearby hotel. The first president to hail from the American frontier, Jackson enjoyed a popular appeal throughout his two terms in the White House.

With expansion of government and those associated with it, coupled with the growth of the Washington population, public functions were curtailed, but New Year's Day receptions and Fourth of July open houses were still held into the 20th century. In 1933, however, President Herbert Hoover cancelled the New Year's Day open house after he shook hands with 6,000 guests. Until then it was the most democratic of the White House events. After World War II and during the Cold War, and especially in response to recent terrorist activities, access to the White House has become very restricted. Gone are the days one could wander over to the front door, knock, and receive a tour of the president's home. This does not mean, of course, that Americans do not attend special activities and dinners. The house acts as a museum, as well.

The State Visit

While economic and political business may be at the core of the visit, the state visit is also a social occasion, with the president and first lady as official hosts of a nation. Foreign heads of state - kings, queens, presidents - and other important representatives from around the world are invited to share the home of their counterpart.

Just before the Civil War, President James Buchanan (1857-1861) brought to the White House his experience as a minister to Russia and Great Britain, where he learned the courtly manners of Europe's receptions. Buchanan was the only bachelor president, but protocol dictated that the White House must have a hostess, and so he turned to his niece, Harriet Lane. The first diplomatic visit from Imperial Japan in 1860 caused a stir, as the public gathered outside the White House to catch a glimpse of the entourage, numbering more than 60, and their exotic outfits. Later in the same year, Queen Victoria's son Albert, Britain's Prince of Wales, stayed at the White House. A Washington, D.C., newspaper reporter covered the public reception with the prince and captured the frenzy, as all ranks of society came to meet the man who would one day be crowned King of England: "The rush at the doors was terrible. People clambered in and jumped out of windows. Confusion reigned. The Royal party have certainly seen Democracy unshackled."

The first ruling monarch came to the White House in 1874, when President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the guest of Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) on more than a few occasions, and during World War II the allies worked as often as they socialized.

Today, the first lady and White House Social Office work with the Protocol Office of the State Department to plan state visits.


By completing this lesson and activities, students will:

  1. Understand the symbolic importance of the White House — "the people's house," a ceremonial setting in which American citizens and foreign dignitaries are welcomed by the nation's leader.
  2. Utilize modern media resources, as well as primary and secondary sources, to identify national and world leaders and how they have attempted to influence the president of the United States.
  3. Comprehend the concepts of foreign relations and protocol.
  4. Identify some of the world's most famous historical figures during the past two centuries, and their connection to the White House.

Students Tour the White House.

Bill Fitz-Patrick

The first invitation to dinner at the White House.

Andrew Jackson's crowded inaugural reception. Painting by Louis S. Glanzman, 1960.

Abraham Lincoln greets citizens at a reception. Harper's Weekly, January 25, 1862.

Citizens help devour an enormous cheese.

Perley's Reminiscences

Easter egg roll during Grover Cleveland's presidency. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, April 23, 1887.

Section 1. The People’s House

Have you ever been to the White House? If so, you probably toured the state rooms that are open to the public. Every year, hundreds of thousands visit the White House. They walk through eight rooms and three halls, learning how presidents and first ladies have furnished, entertained, and lived in the most famous house in the nation, and probably the world. It is the only home of a nation’s leader that is open free to its citizens on a regular basis. The White House is a symbol, and it is important that all visitors receive a friendly White House welcome. If you do tour the house, you will probably not meet the president. He works in the Oval Office in the West Wing of the house, and he lives with his family on the top two floors. To respect the president’s privacy, of course, these spaces are off limits to the public. To see the president in his office you must make an appointment.

However, for many years after the White House was first occupied by John and Abigail Adams in 1800, Americans came to White House public receptions, met the president, enjoyed cake and lemonade with the first lady, danced, chatted, and even wandered around a bit. Customs changed with time. The Adamses had very formal receptions. President John Adams (1797-1801) invited only gentlemen to afternoon affairs. He would exchange bows and say just a few words. When all the gentlemen were greeted, Adams would bow once again, and they would depart. In the evenings, Mrs. Adams would hold a less formal reception called a levee. Men and women arrived without a formal invitation, but they were expected to dress and act in a proper manner. They drank tea, coffee, wine, or cold punch, and ate small cakes and fruit. From time to time, President Adams would invite guests to dinner, using a card that he could fill in the day, time and the guest’s name.

A president’s inauguration was also an opportunity to pay a visit to the White House. After taking the oath of office and giving a speech at the Capitol, the president, congressmen and other citizens would travel by foot, horse, or carriage about a mile and a half to the White House. When the popular war hero Andrew Jackson was inaugurated in 1829, a mob of people forced their way into the White House, looking for food and drink, standing on furniture with muddy boots, and pushing their way through the rooms hoping to congratulate President Jackson. Dozens of glasses, cups, and plates were broken in the commotion, and Jackson actually escaped the crowd and had to spend the night in a nearby hotel - and few even noticed that he had left! The crowd spilled out onto the lawn and continued to drink punch from large tubs.

One of the stranger events at the White House occurred shortly before President Jackson left office. An admirer from New York sent Jackson a huge cheese weighing 1,400 pounds, and Jackson invited the public to come help themselves to a bite — which they did. It only took a few hours for the crowd to devour it, but bits of cheese were ground into the carpet and smelled for a long time after that. In the 20th century, the crowds at the New Year’s Day reception grew larger and larger, as the population of the city of Washington and the number of government employees grew. Finally, the number of visitors at open houses overwhelmed the president. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) ended the New Year’s Day open house in 1933 after shaking hands with 6,000 guests in just a few hours.

But there is still one event every year that is open to the public, especially children, and it began in 1878. A new law forbid children and their parents from using the land near the United States Capitol as a playground. This disappointed thousands, because they used a large hill in front of the Capitol building to roll their Easter eggs. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) came to the rescue! He invited the children to use the White House lawn for the Easter egg roll. Ever since then (except in wartime) the White House has opened its gates for this occasion.

Section 2. From Around the World — The State Visit

The White House is the place where leaders from other countries come to meet the leader of the United States. This is called a state visit. They can discuss the serious business of living together in a larger world. They might talk about working together by trading farm products, machinery, or technology. In times of war, they might discuss plans to combat enemies, and imagine what the world might look like after the war is ended and how power would be shared. They might exchange ideas about immigration policies, and how people move from being the citizen of one nation to another. Generally, discussions like these are known as foreign relations, and the president of the United States often speaks for our entire nation on these matters.

Because the White House is also a home, the president can greet a king, queen, or president as a guest, too. Special dinners and entertainment are provided to make the foreign leader feel as if he or she is an honored guest. In 1860, just before the Civil War, President James Buchanan (1857-1861) hosted the first representatives, or envoys, from Imperial Japan. Two royal princes and a dozen noblemen came with dozens of their servants. They were dressed in silk robes of their native land, and the citizens of Washington stood outside the White House gate to get a look at them. They walked down Pennsylvania Avenue carrying a box that contained a commercial treaty that would be exchanged with similar documents from the United States.

Later that year, Buchanan greeted Albert, the Prince of Wales and the future King of England. Albert stayed overnight at the White House.

The first ruling king to visit the White House was King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii). President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) offered a dinner with many courses for the king, but before the monarch would take a bite, three gentlemen from the islands stepped forward and tasted the food first. President Grant was known to like his meat cooked well done, even crunchy. Rare beef or pork upset his stomach, and he refused to eat chicken or duck. Whether Grant served King David charred beef or French food, as was the White House custom, the food-testers probably would have examined the dishes in either case. This was a cultural tradition from the islands. This is one of many examples of how international cultures mixed at the President’s House.

The rules of entertaining have always been important, even though they have changed over time. These social rules, called protocol, help make sure that guests receive their proper place of honor at the dinner table, that guests from friendly nations sit next to one another, that enemies are seated apart, that ladies and gentlemen understand how they should dress. Even the order in which guests enter the room is written down before an event.

But in the past the rules were sometimes confusing. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) faced several problems when Prince Henry of Prussia, the brother of Germany’s emperor, came to visit in 1902. Who would be presented first to guests, the president of a democratic nation or a royal prince? Roosevelt made a decision. He arranged for both of them to enter the oval Blue Room at the same time, from doors on opposite sides of the room. They shook hands, introduced one another, and then allowed the guests to enter the room. Roosevelt also wondered if he or Prince Henry should accompany Mrs. Roosevelt to dinner. "How do we do it anyhow?" he asked. His solution was to have a reception just for ladies, followed by a dinner for gentlemen only. It’s not surprising that the Roosevelts later became the first president and first lady to hire an official social secretary to help arrange dinners and parties. Later President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) established a Protocol Office in the State Department to handle visits from foreign dignitaries. Today, this office has more than 70 staff members to plan state visits.

Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) and his wife Eleanor loved to entertain. In one particular year, they had 323 guests stay overnight in the White House, served meals to 4,729 people, and welcomed over 14,000 to teas or receptions! One of their famous guests now has a bedroom in the White House named after her: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth stayed in what is now known as the Queen’s Bedroom. Queens from other countries have also stayed in this room.

In the 20th century, as air transportation brought many more visits from foreign leaders, it became too difficult to put up guests for the night. A building across Pennsylvania Avenue, called the Blair House, became the guest quarters. But the White House continues to be the setting for dinners and other events involving leaders from around the world.

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