The Art of Throwing a Presidential Inauguration Kegger
Five lessons on how to throw a White House party, from Andrew Jackson, America’s first populist.
On March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson raised his right hand and swore to uphold the constitution et cetera, et cetera as the seventh president of the United States.
The moment was historic in many ways—this was the first swearing-in held outside the chambers of the U.S. Capitol building. (He stood before a vast crowd of well-wishers gathered in front of the east portico.) And Jackson really helped usher in modern politics, in part by being the first true populist president, elected by rough-edged farmers, backwoodsmen, blacksmiths, barge hands, and coopers, who banded together to upend a half-century’s worth of stuffed-shirt politics-as-usual. As his big day neared, ardent fans flooded Washington eager to see their hero take the reins of state.
Immediately following the formal passing of power, Jackson mounted a white horse and rode to the White House, working his way slowly through teeming crowds along Pennsylvania Ave. Upon arrival at the People’s House, the doors were flung open for a public reception, and Jackson kicked off what was without doubt the most raging kegger held to date at the White House—a party that helped define Jackson’s Democratic party and leaving it with something of a lasting hangover.
I’ve seen estimates this week that perhaps a million celebrants will descend on Washington for the inauguration of Donald Trump—our shiny, new gold-plated populist. A lot is at stake in having the inaugural festivities come off without a hitch—it would convey steely control, and uphold all that law and order palaver trotted out on the campaign.
So, here are five lessons from the Jacksonian era that this year’s inaugural committee might find worth their attention.
Be prepared for crowds, especially those who may not know the ways of Washington.
For the first 50 years of the republic, presidents hosted low-key receptions at the White House following official ceremonies. These soirees were attended by local notables and distinguished visitors. Many attendees already knew one other; most were familiar with the niceties of Washington, and deployed the tight smiles and slow head nods of polite company everywhere.
Not so with Jackson’s followers. Washington found itself amid an influx of “unusual creatures from the out-of-the-way places to whom the city was not accustomed,” as one historian put it in 1928.
Even the sheer numbers were startling. The mass of people flowing from the Capitol toward the White House seemed nearly endless to some—one bystander reported that it took a full half hour for the crowd to file past, and “like a never failing fountain the Capitol pouring forth its torrents.”
“I never saw such a crowd here before,” added Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. “They really seem to think the country is rescued from some dreadful danger.”
It’s helpful to maintain cordial relations with your predecessor.
The crowd followed Jackson and surged toward the White House. One noted chronicler of Washington life, author and politician Margaret Bayard Smith, watched with growing amazement and not a little horror as the mob hounded after Jackson. “Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, woolen and children, black and white… [and] carriages wagons and carts all pursuing him to the President’s house.”
The president’s house, it turned out, was not in the least prepared for them. In fact, practically no one was there. Jackson’s predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had slighted Jackson’s wife, Rachel, during the campaign, then she died of an illness several months before the inauguration. Jackson never forgave Adams, and declined to pay the traditional courtesy visit to the sitting president the day before the inauguration. This peeved Adams, and he responded by vacating the premises without a word the night before, essentially leaving the key under the doormat.
Without any communication or advance planning, the change in residence was an invitation to disorder. Jackson showed up, opened the door, and thousands of people came flooding in, clamoring for food and drink. As Jon Meacham wrote in American Lion, his wonderful biography of Jackson: “It is possible that Jackson’s failure to communicate directly with Adams helped lead to the disaster that followed, a legendary scene in American history that has forever linked Jackson with the image of a crowd trashing the White House.”
No constables were on the White House grounds to secure it after Adams departed. (Hey, it was a different era!) And only a handful of servants were on hand when the rabble showed up. They were charged with providing refreshments to visitors, but were swiftly overrun, like Major General Edward Pakenham was by Andrew Jackson on the plains of Chalmette during the Battle of 1812.
“Orange punch by the barrel full was made, but as the waiters opened the door to bring it out, a rush would be made,” noted a congressman from Pennsylvania who was present. “Glasses [were] broken, the pails of liquor upset, and the most painful confusion prevailed.”
Unruly conditions prevailed. “There the unwieldy mob, in carnival mood, hundreds only accustomed to the rough life of the frontier, stormed the mansion, fighting, scrambling, elbowing, scratching,” wrote historian Claude G. Bowers in 1928. “Waiters appearing with refreshments were rushed by the uncouth guest, resulting in the crash of glass and china. Men in heavy boots, covered with the mud of the unpaved streets, sprang upon the chairs and sofas to get a better view of the hero of the hour. Women fainted, some were seen with bloody noses.”
“The noisy and disorderly rabble,” wrote Mrs. Smtih, “brought to my mind descriptions I have read of the mobs in the Tuileries and at Versailles.”
Keep the windows open.
Once on the White House grounds, thousands of people jockeyed to get inside angling for liquor and perhaps a glimpse of the president. The entrances and egresses were soon bottled up, with no one able to either enter or leave. Pickpockets, according to one account, made small fortunes. Inside, a cordon of “gentlemen” hastily formed around Jackson to prevent him from being crushed. “But it was the People’s day, and the People’s President and the People could rule,” wrote Mrs. Smith. “God grant that one day or other, the People do not pull down all rule and rulers.”
The servants did manage to deploy punch to the main floor, but the room was so congested that the wine and ice cream was never mustered for service. After the prim, stolid rule of the Adams presidency, the scene was something wholly different. “It was like the inundation of the northern Barbarians into Rome,” wrote biographer James Parton in 1861.
People who couldn’t get into the house through the doors opened the windows and clambered through. Those trapped inside did likewise, throwing open additional sashes to extricate themselves. As historian Donald Cole wrote, “the windows were thrown open, and the torrent found an outlet, which otherwise might have proved fatal.”
Keep the kegs outside.
It was never recorded what the new president thought of finding himself overrun, even at risk of bodily harm, in his brand-new home. But with some assistance from others, he slipped out the back and made his way back to the National Hotel, where he had been staying in a suite for a couple weeks prior to the inauguration. He sagely waited for order to return before returning to his official residence.
The people, still downing drink, were loath to leave. So, White House staff came up with an ingenious plan. They hurriedly seized tubs of orange punch and other refreshment, and hustled them out on to the White House lawn. Thirsty revealers followed as ducks to crumbs. As the ground floor rooms started to empty, doors were slammed and bolted behind the ebbing rabble.
In time, a semblance of calm resumed, and staff could start to calculate the losses—which came to several thousand dollars worth of damage to china and furniture, and this at a time when you buy an acre of land for a couple of bucks.
The republic was saved. Let the record show that Jackson, who would make more history, much of it reviled, began his eight-year term with a party that college fraternity houses across the nation have long since sought to top, but as yet have failed to achieve.