Posts Tagged ‘1809’

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

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The death of Meriwether Lewis is generally considered by modern scholars to have been a suicide.  There have been accusations of foul play, but eyewitness accounts don’t seem to bear that out.  Still, there’s just enough uncertainty with his final hours to give some small amount of room for speculation.

Lewis, along with William Clark, had received the adulation and gratitude of the young nation for their exploration of the Louisiana Territory and the Pacific Northwest, which lasted the better part of three years.  Upon his return, Clark was given 1,600 acres by Congress and, in 1807, he settled in St. Louis as President Jefferson’s first governor of the Louisiana Territory.

And that was about as good as things got.

As governor, he was drawn into the world of power-hungry political ambition, feigned loyalty, and rampant back-stabbing. Meriwether Lewis was still in his early 30’s, and simply didn’t have the political savvy of those around him and the pressure began to wear him down.  Depression set in.

In early September of 1809, Lewis packed up and headed to Washington, D.C., to resolve some contested payments he was due from Congress.  By this time, his companions had set up a suicide watch.  As his boat journeyed up the Mississippi River, he was saved from taking his own life on at least two different occasions.

On September 11, 1809, Lewis put his last will and testament to paper.  By this time, Lewis was drinking heavily, using snuff heavily, and acting and speaking erractically.  He was clearly no longer himself.  He and his two traveling companions left the river and took to the Natchez Trace, arriving at Grinder’s Stand (today about an hour’s drive from Nashville) on the evening of October 10th.  And shortly after sunrise on October 11, 1809, Lewis was dead.

The mystery remains as to what happened in his room that night.  In his book “Undaunted Courage“, Ambrose shows us a man almost completely unhinged by his depression and worries about the money issues he faced.  Having finally gained access to some gunpowder (his companions worked hard to keep it away from him), he loaded his pistols in the wee hours of the morning and shot himself twice.  The first shot, aimed at his head, barely scratched him.  The second, fired at his chest, did the mortal damage.  His servants found him still alive, cutting himself with a razor and begging them to finish him off, which neither proceeded to do.  Lewis died as the sun rose.

The Lewis family, however, contended that Meriwether was the victim of foul play.  But so little evidence existed that no suspects were ever arrested and no trial ever given.

Meriwether Lewis was just 35 years old.

Recommended Reading: Undaunted Courage

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