The Lincolns enter the White House

April 27, 2013

Chip Horr

Contributing Columnist

On March 5, 1861, the day after his inauguration as the 16th President of the United States, Abraham and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln began to explore their new home.

“When they entered the front entrance to the Executive Mansion,” writes biographer David Donald, “they were overwhelmed by the size of their new residence with its 31 rooms. The East Room alone was about as large as their entire Springfield (Ill.) house. After a quick inspection, Lincoln, who was totally indifferent to his physical surroundings, concluded that the mansion was in good shape, and was ready to settle down to work. But Mrs. Lincoln came up with a very different verdict. Accompanied by her cousin Elizabeth Grimsley, who was visiting her from Springfield, she went from room to room, finding the furniture broken down, the wallpaper peeling, the carpeting worn, the draperies torn, the eleven basement rooms filthy and rat-infested; the whole place had the air of a run-down, unsuccessful, third-rate hotel.”

“Unattended for years, the White House has become to look like an old and unsuccessful hotel” remembers William Stoddard, assistant secretary for the new President.

Grimsley was stunned to find that the “family apartments were in a deplorable shabby condition as to furniture which looked as if it had been brought in by the first President.”

Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodman wrote “while initially thrilled to move into the White House, Mary soon found herself in the compromising situation of having one full brother, three half-brothers and three brothers-in-law in the Confederate Army. From the start, she was not fully trusted in the North. As the wife of President Lincoln, she was vilified in the South. As a Westerner, she did not meet the standards of Eastern society. Feeling pressure on all sides, she was determined to present herself as an accomplished and sophisticated woman; in short, the most elegant and admired lady in Washington. Driven by the need to prove herself to society, Mary Lincoln became obsessed with recasting her own image and renovating that of her new home.

The new first lady determined to refurbish it with a $20,000 appropriation from Congress. In May she traveled to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York with her cousin Elizabeth and others. By August 1861, her shopping sprees included a new carriage, expensive carpets, new furniture, and elegant drapes. In September she purchased a fine porcelain dining service of 190 pieces, with the Arms of the United States on each piece. The spring bell system of the President’s office was expanded, so that from cords over his desk Lincoln could signal the reception room, as well as his secretaries.

By late 1861, she had overspent her budget by $6,858. The first lady tried to hide the budget overrun from her frugal husband and she was successful for a couple of months. But when the President found out about cost overruns, he was infuriated. Mrs. Lincoln summoned Major Benjamin French, Commissioner of Public Buildings, to the White House. He recorded in his diary “she sent for me and demanded that I get her out of trouble. If I would do it, she said she would never get into such difficulty again. I have a bill of $6,700 over the appropriation, and the President will not approve it. She wants me to see Mr. Lincoln and tell him that it is common to overrun appropriations — tell him how much it costs to refurnish.”

The President was not moved. According to French “he swore he would never approve the bills for flub dubs for that damned old house! It was furnished well enough when we came — better than any house we have ever lived in. I suppose Mrs. Lincoln must bear the blame, let her bear it. I swear I won’t.”

Although the President was infuriated by the overspending, French later arranged a deficiency appropriation from Congress of $4,500 and to shift funds from other Washington projects to cover Mrs. Lincoln’s spending spree. Does this sound familiar?