During George Washington's presidency, receptions and other social gatherings that he and his wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, hosted were usually called "levees." In part because this word previously referred to receptions at a king's court, the Washingtons' gatherings were controversial. A notable first attempt to establish ceremonies and etiquette for the American republic, Washington's levees undermined his reputation in the eyes of many citizens in the politically volatile 1790s.
President Washington knew that he had to be accessible to the public, but worried that a constant stream of curious guests would interfere with his ability to do his job effectively. In May 1789, after consulting with his advisors, Washington decided that weekly receptions, which he called "levees," would give citizens sufficient access while allowing him to use carefully scripted social rituals to project a dignified public image of both the presidency and the newly-installed United States government. In so doing, he consciously adapted the monarchical customs of the colonial period to the more egalitarian political culture of post-revolutionary America.1
The presidential home in Philadelphia
(Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
In New York and then later in Philadelphia--the first seats of government under the Constitution--the Washingtons occupied a series of grand houses, where they received members of Congress, officials, foreign dignitaries, and other prominent people according to a standing weekly schedule. During his eight years as president, George Washington hosted levees for men only on Tuesday afternoons between 3:00 and 4:00. Martha Washington received guests of both sexes on Friday evenings, between 8:00 and 10:00. The Washingtons also held weekly dinners on Thursdays for government officials and their families.2
While George's levees were stiffly formal, Martha's receptions were more sociable. At his Tuesday levees, the president did not shake hands but rather received guests with a formal bow; he wore a black velvet suit with a white vest and yellow gloves, breeches, silver knee and shoe buckles, and carried a ceremonial sword and cocked hat. At Martha's receptions, by contrast, George presented himself as a "private gentleman," dressed more plainly, and conversed freely, especially with the women, while his wife formally welcomed visitors. "This is a ceremonious business in which the Company make their Bow to her," one guest explained, while "the Ladies seat themselves and the Gentlemen are standing about the Room in a heap or in smaller Circles." Fashionable women who wore expensive dresses and extravagant hairstyles attended Martha's receptions. She dressed simply, but elegantly, and provided coffee, tea, cake, ice cream, and lemonade as refreshments.3
Daniel Huntington, Lady Washington's Reception (Republican Court), 1861. A regal Martha Washington stands on a platform to greet her fashionable guests. The artist idealized the social rituals of a seemingly harmonious ruling elite on the eve of the Civil War, but in the 1790s many Americans deemed them anti-republican. (Brooklyn Museum of Art).
From the start, critics condemned these gatherings as elitist and wasteful. One Virginian complained that "there was more pomp and ceremony" at the president's house than at the court of Britain's King George III, while others noted the president's regal manners and the fact that people called his wife "Lady Washington."4 Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania considered levees "a feature of royalty . . . [and] certainly anti-republican." He and others viewed sociability as an unnecessary expense that distracted men from their official and civic duties.5 "Ideas of foreign pomp, parade and luxury," one critic asserted, "are rather to be spurned, than courted and fostered by a young republic."6
Others disagreed, maintaining that levees were pleasant, harmless, and perhaps even useful for conducting political business. Members of Congress conferred with each other, and with the president, in this cordial social environment. Foreign diplomats also attended.7 Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams, defended the Washingtons' receptions, observing, "I do not know how they could be visited in any other way . . . consistant with the Rank they hold." Washington himself claimed that he sought to strike "a just medium between too much state and too great familiarity" when officials and private citizens alike visited the president's house.8
In the early 1790s, the Democratic-Republican party formed to oppose many policies of Washington and his Federalist supporters. As Federalists became increasingly hostile toward the French Revolution--whose radical leaders executed France's king and queen in 1793--Democratic-Republicans accused Federalists of being pro-monarchy and anti-republican. One contributor to the leading opposition newspaper, the National Gazette, condemned Washington's levees as "the legitimate offspring of inequality, begotten by aristocracy and monarchy by corruption." The president, another Democratic-Republican writer insisted, "in his . . . levee room . . . has exactly copied the style of monarchs . . . [and] has in short only differed from kings in wanting a kingdom, which his friends were seeking to provide for him."9
Although the Washingtons considered the president's "levees" public functions and Martha's gatherings--usually called tea parties, drawing rooms, or "routs"--private, the latter received the most vitriol from political opponents. To many Democratic-Republicans, the presence of so many women at these receptions was appallingly reminiscent of Europe's royal courts and aristocratic salons. They regarded Martha's stately demeanor and her custom of receiving guests seated atop a raised platform as unacceptably queenly.10
The National Gazette was established in 1791 as a rival to the staunchly pro-administration (and pro-Federalist) Gazette of the United States. Published by the poet Philip Freneau, the National Gazette became the leading voice of the Democratic-Republican opposition and its leaders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, criticizing President Washington's levees and most of his other policies.
The Washingtons and their Federalist successors, John and Abigail Adams, however, continued to hold levees and receptions. Simultaneously, an elaborate salon culture flourished among Federalist women and men in Philadelphia. But when the Democratic-Republican leader Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, both levees and women were banished from the austere ceremonial culture of the rustic backwater of Washington, D.C., the new American capital.
The Washingtons' levees and receptions constituted an initial attempt to create politically appropriate social rituals for the American capital. President Washington did not want to be king, so he sought to adapt the traditional ceremonial culture of monarchy to the new republican political order. Many citizens thought that the changes were insufficient. As he approached retirement, Washington wearied from partisan attacks on his levees and other policies, and he worried about his legacy. In 1796, as he neared retirement, he observed defensively that "Malignity . . . may dart its shafts, but no earthly power can deprive me of the consolation of knowing that I have not, in the whole course of my Administration . . . committed an intentional error."11
Cynthia A. Kierner
George Mason University
1. "From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [5 May 1789]," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 5, June 1788 – November 1789, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 335–337; "From George Washington to John Adams, 10 May 1789," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789 – 15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 245–250; "To George Washington from John Adams, 17 May 1789," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 312–314.
2. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Republican Court: Or, American Society in the Days of Washington (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1856), 165, 269-70; "Joshua Coit to Nancy Coit, July 21, 1794," Joshua Coit Correspondence, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division.
3. "Abigail Adams to Cotton Tufts, 6 February 179," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 9, January 1790 – December 1793, ed. C. James Taylor, Margaret A. Hogan, Karen N. Barzilay, Gregg L. Lint, Hobson Woodward, Mary T. Claffey, Robert F. Karachuk, and Sara B. Sikes. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 184–186; "Joshua Coit to Nancy Coit, July 21, 1794;" Memory of Washington: Comprising a Sketch of his Life and Character; and the National Testimonials of Respect (Newport, R.I.: Oliver Farnsworth, 1800), 221; Stephen Decatur, comp., Private Affairs of George Washington, from the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), 65, 171.
4. "To James Madison from Edmund Randolph, 23 July 1789," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 12, 2 March 1789 – 20 January 1790 and supplement 24 October 1775 – 24 January 1789, ed. Charles F. Hobson and Robert A. Rutland (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979), 306; "To George Washington from David Stuart, 2 June 1790," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996) 458–464; Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, 77, 267.
5. Edgar S. Maclay, ed. Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), 69, 351.
7. Senator Maclay, who disliked the levees, knew that members of Congress and others conducted political business on these occasions, which is why he attended (Maclay, Journal of William Maclay, 227, 364).
8. "Abigail Adams to Cotton Tufts, 6 February 179," Founders Online; "From George Washington to David Stuart, 15 June 1790," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 523–528.
10. "Joshua Coit to Nancy Coit, July 21, 1794;" Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, 43-46. In his diary, Washington called his Tuesday afternoon receptions "levees," but he rarely used that term to refer to his wife's Friday evening gatherings. "From George Washington to David Humphreys, 12 June 1796," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington.
11. "From George Washington to David Humphreys, 12 June 1796," Founders Online, National Archives, Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington.
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