Nowadays, presidential inaugurations in the U.S. take place on Jan. 20 and include parades, speeches and several sedate balls. Nothing like Andrew Jackson's inauguration, when complete mayhem allegedly broke out in 1829.
American presidential inaugurations used to be held in March, a full four months after the election. On March 4, 1829, a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands descended on Washington, D.C., to witness Andrew Jackson take the oath of office on the portico of the Capitol. The white-haired war hero known as "Old Hickory" gave a speech (which nobody could hear), kissed the Bible and bowed to the adoring throng.
Jackson was America's first populist president, a straight-talking "outsider" candidate who vowed to represent the people, not the Washington elite. (He was the first president to win by appealing to the masses.) When the inauguration ceremony was over, the crowd broke through the barriers and rushed up the Capitol steps to shake hands with "the peoples' president."
"The living mass was impenetrable," wrote Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington socialite and author. "Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, women and children, black and white. Carriages, wagons and carts all pursuing him to the President's house."
But what happened next is the only thing that most Americans know about Jackson's inauguration. Following a tradition established by George Washington, Jackson held a "levee" back at the White House, an "open house" of sorts where regular citizens could mingle with the new First Family. And that's when things allegedly got out of control. Way out of control.
"This is the iconic event that everybody knows about today, when thousands of people — 'dirty' people with mud on their boots who, according to the genteel, should not have been there — stormed the White House and created total chaos," says Daniel Feller, an emeritus history professor at the University of Tennessee and editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson. "People standing on chairs to get a better view, grabbing for food and drinks to the point that tables are overturned and being shattered. This is the story that you've probably heard."
The Source of the 'Melee at the Levee'
For almost two centuries, Andrew Jackson's inauguration blowout has been cited as the wildest party ever thrown at the White House, but historians like Feller believe we should take the colorful accounts with a grain of salt, if not a 5-pound bag of it.
The most vivid descriptions of the melee at Jackson's levee were nearly all based on the writings of one person: Margaret Bayard Smith, the socialite and prolific letter-writer quoted above. Far from being a witness, Smith actually showed up late to the March 4 party, long after the events she described had allegedly taken place. Feller also notes that Smith was not a fan of Jackson's populist politics, which undoubtedly colored her opinion of the day's events.
"I don't want to undercut this too much," says Feller. "I don't think Smith would have made it up out of whole cloth. But you have to recognize that her account is basically the only one that portrays what happened at the White House in such extreme terms. It's not an eyewitness account, and it's very likely a jaundiced account."
Reading Smith's account of Jackson's inauguration day, it's easy to understand why so many contemporary newspapers and later historians jumped on the story of how Jackson's uncouth rabble ransacked the White House and almost trampled the president to death. In a letter to her daughter, Smith wrote of the majesty and pomp of the inaugural itself and how her visit to the White House had been delayed by rumors of overwhelming crowds. Sometime after 3 p.m., she and her crew finally made it to the party.
"But what a scene did we witness!" wrote Smith. "The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity!"
You can almost hear Smith clutching her pearls at the scene she found at the White House, where previous presidents had always opened their doors to the public, but not this kind of public, surely.
"Among people like Smith, if you go to the White House, you should be presentable, gentlemanly or ladylike," says Feller. "And to her, there were clearly some people at Jackson's levee who didn't look like they belonged there. How much of that was her perception and how much was reality? Undoubtedly some of both."
Smith reported that the crowd at the White House was estimated at 20,000 people, although she admitted, "I think the number exaggerated." She didn't hesitate, though, to pass along secondhand accounts of women fainting, men "seen with bloody noses" and expensive glassware "to the amount of several thousand dollars" broken in the mad rush for refreshments.
Other Views of the 'Monstrous Crowd'
Of course, Smith wasn't the only attendee of Jackson's inaugural to write about the experience. Daniel Webster, then a senator from Massachusetts, was also no fan of Jackson's politics, but he came away with a different opinion of the "monstrous crowd of people" who descended upon the city.
"I never saw anything like it before," wrote Webster. "Persons have come 500 miles to see General Jackson and they really seem to think that the Country is rescued from some dreadful danger."
Instead of describing the inaugural audience as uncivilized rabble, though, as Smith had, Webster blamed the crush of humanity on "thousands of expectants for office who throng the City, & clamor all over the Country."
In Webster's eyes, the impressive crowds at Jackson's inaugural weren't just members of the president's adoring public, but also political aspirants looking for a cushy government job with the new administration.
"Throwing 'office-seeker' into the mix undercuts the idea that the outpouring of people into Washington was somehow pure and noble and un-self-interested," says Feller, who also thinks it's notable that in Webster's long description of the day's events, he doesn't even mention the allegedly shameful party. "If it had been that riotous scene that Smith reports, you'd think [Webster] would have mentioned it."
It should be noted that Smith's account, while widely quoted, isn't the only evidence that something ugly may have happened at the White House on March 4, 1829.
Newspapers functioned differently in the early 1800s, explains Feller. In a "small town" like Washington, D.C., it was expected that everyone would already know the local news, so city papers were usually stuffed with national or international headlines. That explains why the Washington papers didn't waste ink on the inaugural party, but why one of the most colorful accounts showed up a week later in the New York Spectator.
"Here was the corpulent epicure grunting and sweating for breath," wrote the Spectator, "the dandy wishing he had no toes, the tight-laced Miss, fearing her person might receive some permanently deforming impulse, the miser hunting for his pocket-book, the courtier looking for his watch, and the office-seeker in an agony to reach the President."
In 1978, the Tennessee Historical Society dug up a few more contemporary accounts of the infamous inaugural bash for one of Tennessee's most famous sons. "Sheer bedlam" was how the Historical Society characterized the party at the White House. Rep. Charles Miner from Pennsylvania offered a description that may have been the inspiration for Smith's own account.
"Orange punch by barrels-full was made," wrote Miner, "but as the waiters opened the door to bring it out, a rush would be made, the glasses broken, the pails of liquor upset, and the most painful confusion prevailed. To such a degree was this carried, that wine and ice-creams could not be brought out to the ladies. . ." Miner was also shocked to see "men, with boots heavy with mud, standing on the damask satin-covered chairs, from their eagerness to get a sight of the President."
It's clear from these corroborating accounts that lots and lots of people showed up at the White House on inauguration day, some to shake Old Hickory's hand, some to ask him for a job, and some presumably to get free punch and ice cream. Indeed the crush forced Jackson to retreat to the National Hotel for his safety.
But was it the carnival that Smith so dramatically described or an overblown legend that fits a convenient political stereotype? Sen. James Hamilton of South Carolina, who was a Jackson supporter, described the inaugural event as a "regular Saturnalia," but added that most of the damage was minimal.
"You might be surprised at how often this happens with history," says Feller. "One particular quotation or anecdote gets picked up as being absolute truth, then it becomes of much greater importance than it was at the time, because it just seems to fit."