Monday, November 27, 2023

Open Access to the White House

Starting this week, my aim is to be back to blogging regularly--I hope! Today I'd like to share a very interesting fact I learned many years ago when I read Destiny of the Republic, a meticulously researched account of the shooting and eventual death of President James A. Garfield by Candice Millard.

You may think that the reason the Secret Service was created was to protect the president of the United States. However, that is incorrect. According to Wikipedia:

With a reported one third of the currency in circulation being counterfeit at the time, Abraham Lincoln established a commission to make recommendations to remedy the problem. The Secret Service was later established on July 5, 1865, in Washington, D.C., to suppress counterfeit currency. Chief William P. Wood was sworn in by Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch. It was commissioned in Washington, D.C. as the "Secret Service Division" of the Department of the Treasury with the mission of suppressing counterfeiting. At the time, the only other federal law enforcement agencies were the United States Customs Service, the United States Park Police, the U.S. Post Office Department's Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations (now known as the United States Postal Inspection Service), and the United States Marshals Service. The Marshals did not have the manpower to investigate all crime under federal jurisdiction, so the Secret Service began investigating a wide range of crimes from murder to bank robbery to illegal gambling.

After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Congress informally requested that the Secret Service provide presidential protection. A year later, the Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for presidential protection.

But before that, anyone could just walk into the white House. Check out this article from the Washington Post, "People Used to be Able to Walk into the White House. Legally," by Katie Zezima:

...once upon a time it was possible for just about anyone to stroll into the president's home during an open house and partake in the free-flowing booze. Like that time people nibbled on a 1,400 pound block of cheese and ground the crumbs into the upholstery. Seriously.

Let's take a look at White House access through the years:

The White House opened in 1800. John Adams was the first president to live inside the mansion. But it was Thomas Jefferson who saw the White House as the "people's house" and opened it to the public. He built a stone wall around part of the mansion's perimeter, but it was to corral livestock that grazed on the lawn, not people.

For decades, people were allowed to stroll the White House grounds during the day and enter the mansion. Jefferson, who was instrumental in ensuring the White House was a house for and of the people, not a grand mansion, started the practice. He put taxidermied bears on the lawn and displayed artifacts from the Lewis and Clark exhibition, said William Bushong, Chief Historian for the White House Historical Association.

"In the time of Jefferson you could go walking up, look at the artifacts from the Lewis and Clark exhibition," Bushong said.

Jefferson and subsequent presidents, along with their wives, would greet visitors in the East Room around lunchtime. People were not allowed in during the morning, when the president was sleeping, or while he was out of town. People were, however, allowed to have essentially unfettered access to the White House grounds.

Jefferson also started the practice of inviting people back to the White House for a post-inauguration open house. Things got a bit out of control in 1829, when thousands of people descended on the mansion after Andrew Jackson was sworn into office. People swarmed into the mansion and crushes of people attempted to greet Jackson, many standing on furniture to catch a glimpse.

At the end of his presidency, Jackson opened up the White House to the public so they could help him eat a 1,400 pound block of cheese he was given as a gift years earlier. Pieces of cheese fell on the White House carpet and guests ground them into the upholstery with their shoes. The White House smelled like cheese for the next year, Bushong said.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote about a man who visited the White House during the presidency of James Monroe. “I have known a cartman leave his horse in the street and go into a reception room to shake hands with the President," he wrote.

Wow! How times have changed. Could you imagine doing that today? For the complete article, click here. And I highly recommend Destiny of the Republic! If you love history, you'll love that book! 

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!