When President Washington took the oath of office for the first time, political parties didn’t really exist. Well, they sort of did, in the sense that groups of people (and therefore, groups of politicians) held different views of how this infant governmental experiment should work.
By the time John Adams had taken office, there were two pretty well-defined parties, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. What’s rather humorous is that members of each party still believed there was only one party…their own. The other party was considered to a break-away faction, a group of naughty boys that needed a good spanking to be brought back in line.
When Jefferson’s tenure as President ended, members of the two parties pretty much wouldn’t talk to each other about their differences. The divide was growing more pronounced. These days, Republicans and Democrats in Congress squawk at each other from the relative safety of the microphone and dais. In Jefferson’s day, opposing politicians occasionally fought each other with fists, and “pistols at 20 paces” wasn’t out of the question.
Against this backdrop, James Madison took office as the fourth President.
The First Lady, Dolley, wasn’t much into the whole fighting thing. In fact, she wasn’t a fan of conflict at all. But she liked to entertain and, apparently, she liked to decorate as well. And both of these came together quite nicely on this day in history. When the Madisons moved into the White House, it was entering its second decade of service to the First Family. They decided the place could use some sprucing up.
The process of redecorating began and, as the end of May approached, enough progress had been achieved for Dolley to plan something of a party. On May 31, 1809 (which happened to be a Wednesday), guests were treated to the first White House “drawing rooms” gathering.
In his biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketcham described the occasion. “Congressmen and their wives, socially prominent Washingtonians, visiting belles, and foreign emissaries crowded the White House rooms for a glimpse of the new furnishings and the new presidential pair. Military music filled the house, and the guests helped themselves from buffets loaded with punch, cookies, ice cream, and fruit.”
Here, members of opposing political viewpoints actually put their differences aside to engage in pleasant conversation while listening to music and eating their favorite goodies. It helped to build a bit of camaraderie between highly volatile factions. In her biography of the fourth First Lady, Catherine Allgor goes so far as to say, “If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government.” That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly, men were more civilized in their dealings with each other.
The event was a tremendous success, and Dolley was roundly praised for her elegance and hospitality. The Wednesday “drawing rooms” became a regular occurrence. A single room came to be the State Dining room and the attached parlor (today’s Red Room) along with another room. Over time, attendance mushroomed to several hundred guests and a new, possibly more appropriate name – “Wednesday Squeezes” – came into being.
The Wednesday event continued until the White House was burned by the British…on a Wednesday. The story goes that Dolley was awaiting the arrival of guests when word came that the list be dominated by a gaggle of British soldiers. She grabbed what she could, left the dinner on the table, and got out.
Recommended Reading: A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation