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When George Washington arrived in New York City in April of 1789, his task was clear: he needed to invent the American presidency. The means of achieving this, however, were undefined. Washington's challenge and dilemma were in setting precedents in almost every political and social aspect of the new office.
The Washington's new home at 3 Cherry Street must have seemed like the center of the universe even though geographically speaking it was not even the center of New York City. Located uptown facing the East River, it was just a few long blocks away from the countryside. Three stories high and five windows wide, former presidents of Congress had previously called it home. Congress ordered the owner of the house, Samuel Osgood, to put the house and the furniture in proper condition. Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary, preceded his employer to make further preparations and hire household servants.
Hiring servants and retaining them was a top priority. Lear assembled fourteen servants: a coachman, porter, cook, valet de chambre, maids, footmen, laundresses, and the steward of the house who would supervise them all, Samuel Fraunces. In addition to this staff, seven slaves traveled north with the Washingtons, including Billy Lee, Washington's personal body servant since the 1760s.
The first family included George and Martha Washington, and two of Martha's grandchildren, Eleanor Parke (Nelly) and George Washington Parke (Washy) Custis. In addition, twenty-one servants and five secretaries resided in the household. Lear acted as senior secretary. Other members of the household included Washington's former aide-de-camp, David Humphreys, ex-assistant Secretary at War William Jackson, son of a former Virginia governor, Thomas Nelson, and Washington's nephew, Robert Lewis. They kept Washington's account books, penned and organized the president's correspondence and acted in various social capacities.
The first floor of the home provided room for an office, a large dining room for formal dinners and receptions, and a smaller dining room in the rear to be used as a sitting room or a second room for crowded dinners. The second floor contained a drawing room and bedrooms for the family. The secretaries had two bedrooms on the third floor, with the remaining servants occupying the rest of the third floor and part of the attic.
Washington decided to maintain one levee on Tuesday afternoon and extend invitations to official dinners, usually held on Thursdays. Washington's levee was a formal affair, an opportunity for official characters and individuals of distinction to call on the president. At exactly three o'clock, the large dining room was opened and Colonel Humphreys announced the gentlemen individually. They bowed, then eventually formed a circle around the room. Washington then spoke with each visitor for a few moments and by four o'clock it was over.
Martha Washington lent a gracious balance to her husband's formality. She arrived in New York on May 27 amidst great celebration. At the end of the Revolutionary War, she had looked forward to being left to grow old in solitude and tranquility with her husband. However, Friday evenings were set aside for Martha Washington's receptions. These were more amiable affairs that lasted several hours, allowing her husband to relax somewhat. "Respectable" ladies and gentlemen attended her receptions without invitation and were served tea, coffee, lemonade, cake, and ice cream.
In spite of his busy schedule, George Washington managed to pursue many of his favorite interests while living in New York. "Exercising" by taking a ride in the coach or on horseback in the morning was a favorite leisure, as was a walk in the afternoon, particularly to the Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan Island. A farmer at heart, Washington always made it a point to examine the horticultural and agricultural techniques applied in the various parts of the country. In New York, he visited several gardens and nurseries. As he had in Williamsburg, Philadelphia and Alexandria, Washington enjoyed the theatre. The President invited several congressmen and their wives and other city notables to plays at the John Street Theatre.
Decatur, Stephen, Jr. Private Affairs of George Washington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.
Smith, Thomas E. V. The City of New York in the Year of Washington's Inauguration, 1789. New York: Anson D. F. Randolph and Company, 1889.
The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.