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A Cabinet Dinner at the Republican Court


AFTER the close of the Revolutionary War, General Washington observed with infinite concern the development of the infant republic, although until he became its President he did not participate actively in public affairs. He wrote to a friend: “Having happily assisted in bringing the ship into port, and having been fairly discharged, it is not my business to embark again on the sea of troubles.”

His desire to retire to private life was well known, yet from the moment of the adoption of the Federal Constitution, all eyes were turned to him as the one man capable of occupying the highest office in the new nation. A distinguished Maryland patriot wrote to him, “We cannot do without you.” Of him it might have been said, as it was said of Abraham Lincoln, that he was

The nation's only soul
For whom wrought ever since the race began
The subtle energies of thought and power
Toward the predestined goal.

The struggle between duty and inclination was long and severe, but at the first election held under the Constitution, Washington was the unanimous choice of the people to be their President. It was his wish to avoid ostentation, but as we know his triumphal march to New York was one long ovation. At Trenton the young women and the matrons met to do him honor as he passed across the Delaware. On the twenty-third of April, 1789, he reached New York, and was received by Governor Clinton with military honors among a vast concourse of people.

Despite the fact that a rigid simplicity was insisted upon, complaints were soon heard that we were adopting monarchical customs - establishing a “Republican Court” - and even the Society of the Cincinnati was criticised by a few over-zealous “patriots,” who thought that they discerned in its organization an attempt to plant in the virgin soil of the republic the seeds of an order of nobility.

Macaulay says that it is the duty of the historian “to make the past present, to bring the distant near, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners and garb; to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old wardrobes.” Let us fancy that we are entering the house of President Washington on some Thursday afternoon in the year 1789, and are unseen spectators at one of his Cabinet dinners. Naturally, our first attention should be given to the host and the hostess.

In describing General Washington we think at once of Houdon's profile, with Stuart's canvas for the full face and Trumbull's portrait for the figure. We are all familiar with the fact that his presence was imposing, and that his stature was lofty, rising to six feet and three inches. His favorite dinner, dress was a coat of black silk velvet, with embroidered satin waistcoat, and his shoe and knee buckles were of gold. His hair was powdered and gathered behind in a large silk bag. He received his guests with a stately bow, but avoided shaking hands, even with his closest friends. His manner was grave, almost sad, and inspired a feeling of awe rarely experienced in the presence of any man. He spoke slowly and deliberately, not searching for fine words but choosing those best fitting his subject. He was one upon whom

Every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.

Mrs. Washington - or Lady Washington, as she was generally called, - belonged to the Virginia order of aristocracy and, as Miss Dandridge, had been a belle in the Colonial Court at Williamsburg. As Mrs. Custis, the beautiful young widow, she had reigned supreme among the chivalrous Virginians; and now it is as the wife of the Commander-in-Chief and the President of a new nation that we acknowledge her gracious sway and bend to do homage to this fair gentlewoman.

We have all read of how Colonel Washington lost his heart to the charming widow, - for she was lovely to look upon and her manners were most engaging. It was not his first appearance in the train of Cupid, for at fifteen he had become enamored of a maiden who bore the name of Frances, and to whom he indited an acrostic; at seventeen he loved “a lowland beauty,” as he called her; and later he transferred his affections to the Misses Sallie and Molly Cary, and to Betsy Fauntleroy, all handsome Virginia ladies; but it was not until 1758 that the hero was conquered by the bright eyes and fascinating manners - and, some are wicked enough to say, the broad estates - of the young widow Custis.

The arrival of Lady Washington at headquarters at the close of each campaign was a much anticipated event, and when her carriage was driven up, with her servants in scarlet and white livery, it seemed as if a ray of summer sunshine were piercing the clouds, particularly in the dreary days of Valley Forge and Morristown. She was often known to say that it had been her fortune “to hear the first cannon at the opening, and the last at the closing, of all the campaigns of the Revolutionary War.”

As she stands by the side of her husband, greeting their distinguished guests, we are reminded of Woolaston's picture - with her steinkirk or neck-cloth of sheerest linen, its ends tucked into the bodice of her satin- brocaded gown.

First in order among those guests we see the Vice-President and Mrs. Adams. That eminent and successful lawyer, John Adams, was well versed in the etiquette of “loops and buttons,” and we are tempted to fancy that court dress and court ceremonial pleased him well. His wife, Abigail, is worthy of a longer look. She was a woman of great personal beauty and high intellectual endowments. She was born in 1744, a descendant of the early Puritan settlers, and in 1764 she married Mr. Adams. When he went to England on his difficult mission she accompanied him, and did much to represent the colonies socially. Again, when her husband became second in position to Washington, her womanly grace and dignity added not a little distinction to his high office. One great charm of Mrs. Adams's conversation was the perfect sincerity apparent in all that she said. Her ready tact and her practical knowledge of life sustained her husband in many of the most trying cares of his position. Can we not almost see her to-day - having studied the Boston portrait - as she stands there in her dinner gown of celestial blue paduasoy over a white satin petticoat, with a large gauze kerchief crossed demurely over her bosom? Her hair is drawn back over a roll, à la Pompadour, and on her head is a puff of gauze and a wreath of artificial roses.

Next we see Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. We are as familiar with Stuart's portrait of him as we are with that of Washington. We know how highly Washington esteemed this man, when he asked him to become a member of his Cabinet, and said: “I was naturally led to contemplate the talents and dispositions which I knew you to possess and entertain for the service of your country.”

Mrs. Jefferson was a widow when he married her, a Mrs. Martha Skelton, but she was only twenty-three, beautiful, and greatly admired. The story goes that, as two of her numerous suitors were approaching her house one evening they heard her playing on the harpsichord, accompanied by Jefferson's voice and violin. Some note in the voices seemed to tell them of the hopelessness of their wooing, and they sadly turned back.

Jefferson was devoted to the violin. When his house was burned he asked a servant if all of the books had been destroyed, and the man answered: “Dey is, massa, but we saved de fiddle!”

During the brief period of their married life Mrs. Jefferson made Monticello an earthly paradise for her young husband. Their daughter Martha married Thomas Mann Randolph, and John Randolph once called her “the sweetest young creature in Virginia.”

But who is the handsome man whom the President greets so cordially? Is it not Alexander Hamilton, restored to the favor of Washington after that singular incident at Morristown in 1781, when Hamilton, resenting a hasty reproof from his General, resigned his position as aide-de-camp on General Washington's staff? All of this unpleasantness is forgotten, and he holds the most important place in the Cabinet - that of Secretary of the Treasury. This man of thirty-two is expected to bring order out of chaos, to put the shattered finances of the nation on a sound basis, - an herculean task. Washington knew and appreciated his great talents. Robert Morris, one of the greatest financiers of America - who had been first selected for the office - approved the choice, and Hamilton's ability saved the country from ruin. As was said of him, like Moses of old he smote the barren rock of the national finances with the rod of a magician, and golden streams issued forth.

Although under middle size, he was very erect, courtly, and dignified in his bearing. His hair was combed back from his forehead, powdered, and worn in a queue. His complexion was delicate and fair, his voice musical, and his manner frank and impulsive. As he stands before us in his blue coat with gilt buttons, black silk small-clothes, and white silk waistcoat, we cannot but think of that fatal twelfth of July, 1804, when, after the duel with Burr, he passed from earth - one of the most illustrious men who ever figured upon the stage of human affairs.

Mrs. Hamilton was born Elizabeth Schuyler, the second daughter of General Philip Schuyler and a granddaughter of John Van Rensselaer, the patroon. Among the distinguished men who visited her father's house there were many admirers of Miss Elizabeth, but the young West Indian bore away the prize. She was a beautiful and charming woman, and there have been few marriages more congenial than that of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler.

Chatting with Mrs. Hamilton is the Secretary of War, Henry Knox, a soldier who commands our highest esteem and admiration. It was Knox who suggested the idea of perpetuating the memory of the toils and friendships of the war, and thus was founded the Society of the Cincinnati, whose vice-president he was through life. The general, we are told, was a large man, above middle stature, and slightly bow-legged. He wore his hair short in front, powdered and queued, and below his somewhat low forehead his small, dark eyes shone brilliantly. He had been wounded in the left hand, which he kept covered by a black silk handkerchief to conceal its mutilation. In every line of his strong face he showed his sturdy Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Mrs. Knox had been a Miss Lucy Flucker, daughter of a loyalist. She was a remarkably fine looking woman, with blooming complexion and brilliant black eyes. Although she was not tall, her dignity of manner - which some called hauteur - gave her a commanding presence. Stuart, who painted a portrait of Knox, began one of her but became dissatisfied and would not finish it. Mrs. Knox and Mrs. Washington were dear friends, and the wife of the Secretary of War occupied a post of honor at the new “Court.” It is said that Washington was not averse to listening to her wise and witty counsels, and that, with all her friendship for Mrs. Knox, Mrs. Washington was a bit jealous of the charming Lucy. It may not be amiss to quote the description of her headdress, recorded by a New England clergyman. “Her hair in front is craped up at least a foot high, much in the form of a churn, bottom upward, and topped off with a wire skeleton in the same form, covered with black gauze. Her hair behind is in a large braid, turned up and held by a large comb. She reminded me of the monstrous cap worn by the Marquis de Lafayette's valet, commonly called “the Marquis's devil!”

Of Edmund Randolph, the Attorney General, and Mrs. Randolph, I have been able to find little of personal reminiscence, although they undoubtedly attended the Cabinet dinners.

Mr. Lear and Mr. Lewis, Washington's private secretaries, were always present. Mr. Lewis's mother was Washington's sister and some of his descendants are now living in New Jersey.

At four o'clock promptly, no guest ever being waited for longer than five minutes - “My cook,” Washington would say, “never asks whether the company has come but whether the hour has come” - this small gathering of distinguished men and women is ready to be ushered into the dining-room, a room which might perhaps seem homely to us had not a revival of the colonial style of furniture made us familiar with its quaint charm. In one corner stands a closet with glass doors, through which may be seen china and glassware, a conspicuous object being a great punch-bowl. Other china is decorated with figures of birds - doves, hawks and swallows - while the old sideboard bears a precious load of cut glass decanters, wine glasses and brandy glasses and “egg-nogg” bowls. Another corner is occupied by a tall clock which reaches nearly to the ceiling, while around the room are ranged small mahogany “tea-boards” or side-tables, which stand upright, like expanded fans, when not in use. Afterwards, at Mount Vernon, Washington had a separate room for the Sèvres and other china not in common use. One set was presented by the officers of the French army and was of dull white china, with a band of deep blue, and on each piece was the Order of the Cincinnati painted in delicate colors.

Happily the colonial fashion of arranging the table has not come down to us, who so willingly follow most of the leadings of our distinguished fore-mothers. We shudder in contemplating the mythological figures and artificial flowers with which the festal board was decorated on such occasions.

The President and Mrs. Washington always sat opposite each other on either side of the table, and the guests were arranged in the order of precedence, Mrs. Adams sitting on the right of the President, and the Vice- President on the right of Mrs. Washington. Next came Mr. Jefferson and the beautiful Mrs. Hamilton, and the others placed in due ceremonial order. The two private secretaries always sat one at either end of the table.

The ménu was seldom varied, and consisted of soup; a boiled fish, followed by meats, game or fowls; the dessert, apple pies, puddings of various kinds, iced creams and fruit, with no “relèves,” “entrées,” “sorbets,” or “salades” to lighten its heaviness. It was indeed a solemn feast, apparently unrelieved by anything resembling the famous “life saving station” of the dinners of President Hayes, made immortal by Mr. Evarts. Nor can I, without too great a strain upon my imagination, regale you with the brilliant bon mots which passed gaily from mouth to mouth - for I fancy the mirth was not hilarious. Not until the cloth was removed was a toast drunk. Then, with formal courtesy, the President drank to the health of each one by name, and “Health, sir,” “Health, madam,” and “Thank you, sir,” “Thank you, madam,” went around the table. Our ancestors, like the English, took their pleasures sadly.

When, after another dreary silence, Mrs. Washington and the ladies withdrew, the same solemn and decorous stillness continued, save, perhaps, for an occasional witticism. Whether in these days the men preserve a like decorum after the departure of the dames I cannot tell for reasons which do not require any elucidation.

An amusing custom of Washington at these state dinners has been preserved for us in memoirs. He always retained a fork in his hand after the removal of the cloth, and with this he continued to toy, striking the edge of the table from time to time. Of course no human being can explain why he found pleasure in such a performance, but great men seem to be addicted to odd table customs. General Scott had a way of leaning his left elbow on the table and pouring wine from one glass into another. I am told by a friend that a learned and distinguished Federal judge, who tells a story very attractively, usually rises at the conclusion, deliberately walks around his chair, and then resumes his seat. A volume might be written about the way of a man with his dinner, but I do not know that women have any peculiar custom on those occasions unless it be that of dropping gloves and handkerchiefs, and compelling corpulent dinner companions to go on hands and knees to recover them.

Up-stairs the ladies are drinking their after-dinner coffee, gossiping right merrily over the latest Paris fashion, at least three months old when it reaches them. The gentlemen join them, and here we leave them, the brave and courtly men and the beautiful women who graced the Cabinet dinners of the Republican Court in the days of simple dignity, of courtesy, refinement, and honorable life, the unstrenuous days when we had no multi-millionaires to emulate in their feasts the prodigalities and the enormities of Lucullus and of the emperors who disgraced the imperial city in its time of decadence and extravagance.


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