“I never in my life,” he said, “felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb… now this signature is one that will be closely examined… If they find my hand trembled they will say, ‘he had some complications.’ But any way it is going to be done.” Seale observes that while the signature did betray a tremor, with it, three million slaves were freed.
For much of its history, the front door of the White House was open to hundreds of daily visitors, who arrived in the foyer with the objective to see the president and spent the rest of the appointed visiting hours lolling there.
Charles Dickens, on his tour of America, described this perennial crowd.
We entered a large hall, and, having twice or thrice rung a bell which nobody answered, walked without further ceremony through the rooms on the ground-floor, as divers other gentlemen (mostly with their hats on, and their hands in their pockets) were doing very leisurely. Some of these had ladies with them, to whom they were showing the premises; others were lounging on the chairs and sofas; others, in a perfect state of exhaustion from listlessness, were yawning drearily. The greater portion of this assemblage were rather asserting their supremacy than doing anything else, as they had no particular business there, that anybody knew of. A few were closely eyeing the movables, as if to make quite sure that the President (who was far from popular) had not made away with any of the furniture, or sold the fixtures for his private benefit.
At various points, the White House’s south grounds were open to the public in seasons of warm weather. Seale recounts a story in which one man approaches Franklin Pierce, and asks, “Mr. President, can’t I go through your fine house? I’ve heard so much about it that I’d give a great deal to see it.” Pierce replies, “Why my dear sir, that is not my house, it’s the people’s house, and you shall certainly go through if you wish.” With that, he summoned a doorman to give the man a personal tour.
The assassination of several presidents and the event of two World Wars caused the end of this era of open entertaining. The Fourth of July and New Year’s Receptions were permanently ended, and the Egg Roll temporarily suspended by wartime president’s Wilson and Roosevelt, only to be brought back by Harding and Eisenhower twice, after WWI and II.
The business of presidential entertaining is rooted in the questions George Washington posed earnestly in letters he wrote Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and John Adams, to ask if the President should live in constant communication with “all kinds of company” or in “total seclusion from society?”
“Would it be sufficient to receive publicly one day a week, or would even so limited a public exposure not merely invite impertinent applications and embarrassing situations insulting to the office of the President? Many things which appear of little importance,” Washington continued, “may have great and durable consequence for their having been established at the commencement of a new general government.”
As the Trumps prepare to welcome a decidedly smaller crowd to today’s egg roll, Washington’s question seems more relevant than ever—how open should a White House be? How many people might call on the president at various stages of the year? And which part of White House history should the Trumps be seeking to emulate as they move through the events that “appear of little importance?”