President Andrew Johnson in the East Room 1866
For more than a century, New Year’s Day was marked by a large reception held at the White House. Foreign ambassadors and members of the US government were invited, but attendance wasn’t restricted to a guest list. Astoundingly, anyone could wait on line, enter the White House, and shake the hand of the president.
The tradition of the New Year’s reception, or levee, as it was often called, began with George Washington, before the White House was built. The first occupant of the White House, John Adams, took up residence in the unfinished mansion in November 1800, and hosted its first New Year’s reception on January 1, 1801.
A history of the White House published a century ago noted that John and Abigail Adams hosted a “very formal affair”:
The President and his wife did the honors alone that New Year’s Day, and it does not seem to have occurred to them to call on the Cabinet families to assist them. The President’s wife sat in state in her brocades and velvets, while the President stood beside her in knee-breeches, gaily colored waistcoat, high stock collar, and his powdered hair tied in a neat queue. After each guest had paid his respects to them, he passed on and was served with refreshments by a waiter.
Thomas Jefferson Sets the Tone
John Adams would only spend one New Year’s Day in the White House, as Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in March 1801. Jefferson continued the tradition of the New Year’s Day levee, though his personal style was hardly formal.
It was Jefferson who began the tradition of shaking hands with each and every visitor. He would stand in the oval reception room at the center of the White House (known today as the Blue Room). The line of visitors would pass by, and Jefferson would take delight in exchanging friendly greetings.
It was customary for foreign diplomats to attend the New Year’s reception in distinctive dress. In Jefferson’s day it was noted that the French ambassador was “decked in gold lace,” while an ambassador from North Africa wore silk slippers, a turban, and a scarlet jacket “embroidered with precious stones.” Native Americans would also attend, and it was written that they sported feathers in their hair and wore blankets and deerskin moccasins.
The White House Burns But Tradition Endures
Following the burning of the White House by British troops in 1814, the New Year’s Day levees were held in the rented houses used by presidents James Madison and James Monroe.
The White House receptions resumed on January 1, 1818, hosted by Monroe in the rebuilt mansion. At that time it was decided to hold an earlier reception for the foreign diplomats and government officials, so they wouldn’t be subjected to the crush of people in the public reception.
Customarily, anyone waiting on line outside would be admitted. After greeting the president in the Blue Room, the crowd would be directed into the enormous East Room. A temporary wooden bridge would be positioned in one of the large front windows of the East Room, and the guests would exit through the window onto the White House lawn.
Shaking Hands and Making History
A marathon of handshaking became a footnote to a momentous event on January 1, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln intended to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on that day, but first he had to shake thousands of hands.
When he finally sat down in his upstairs study to sign the historic document, he told Secretary of State William Seward that his right hand was swollen.
Lincoln suspected this particular signature might be examined closely in years to come, and he didn’t want it to appear weak. He was later quoted as saying, “The signature looks a little tremulous, as my hand was tired, but my resolution was firm.”
The following year, the New York Timesprinted the following dispatch, dated January 2, 1864, from the Associated Press:
Years ago had any colored man presented himself at the White House, at the President’s levee, seeking an introduction to the Chief Magistrate of the nation, he would, in all probability, have been roughly handled for his impudence. Yesterday four colored men, of genteel exterior and with the manners of gentlemen, joined in the throng that crowded the Executive mansion, and were presented to the President of the United States.
Lincoln’s final New Year’s Day reception was described in the New York Timesof January 4, 1865:
The gala event of our New Year’s celebration was the annual reception of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. The White House was thrown open at 12 o’clock, and the Cabinet Ministers, the Diplomatic Corps, the Judges of the Supreme Court and the Court of Claims, and the army and navy officers, paid, in the order of precedence, the compliments of the season to the President and his wife.
At 1 o’clock the citizens at large were presented. The Marine Band during the hours of reception discoursed excellent music, and the whole affair passed off with brilliancy, no less than five thousand people having gained admittance to the reception.
The President was in the best of spirits, and received the greetings of his friends in the most genial manner.
The New Year’s Day receptions continued for decades after Lincoln’s time. In the years before White House Christmas trees became the focus of holiday entertaining, the visit to the president’s house on the first day of the year was the beginning of the social season in Washington.
Thanks to the White House Historical Society for the information and photos.