Besieging the Presidential Doors – New Year’s Day at the White House

January 1, 1864 (Friday – New Year’s Day)

Lincoln's getting a bit fancy.

Lincoln’s getting a bit fancy.

It was a cold start to the New Year. A nor’easter had poured its rains upon the capitol the night previous, and temperatures plummeted, even freezing water pipes. The morning blew bright. Each January 1st found the Lincolns greeting a plethora of guests at the White House. With each passing year, the gathering grew to the almost riotous proportions of 1864.

President and Mrs. Lincoln arrived, he in a suit, she in a purple velvet dress with white satin flutings. The president had contracted a slight case of what was then called varioloid – a mild form of small pox. In truth, he his malady was likely full-blown, but reported to the public as almost trivial. Now, however, he was in fine shape.

Reporter and friend, Noah Brooks, noted “his complexion is clearer, his eyes less lack-luster and he has a hue of health to which he has long been a stranger.”

Beginning at 11am, Lincoln was greeted by foreign ministers, “covered with stars, garters, and medals of honor,” as Brooks reported. “The rush for a glimpse of these gay birds was very great, and Secretary [William] Seward looked very like a molting barnyard fowl among peacocks, in such illustrious company.” Then came General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and 500 officers of the Army and Navy, decked in the brass and polished to perfection.

Some, like Orville Browning, arrived, but found the line too long, the place too packed, and “such a mob around the door we did not try to enter.” Others, including one very impatient (yet unnamed) lady entered the White House through a window forced open. A long number of men and children followed her, but before long, the police ruined their fun.

Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, wrote that this year’s open house was larger than any before it, describing the “interminable crowd which is besieging the Presidential doors.” Brooks, however, maintained that this was merely business as usual: “The rush of the great multitude was as great as in former years; and the crushing and jamming of bonnets and things was fearful.”

Ohhh... perhaps.

Ohhh… perhaps.

Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, who had seen his fair share of such events, hardly stayed an hour. “The house was full when we left,” he wrote in his diary, “a little before twelve.”

Two years after the war, a story was told of the open house by Isaac Arnold in his book The History of Abraham Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery. The conversation took place between on of Lincoln’s “most devoted friends” and the President:

“I hope, Mr. President, one year from today, I may have the pleasure of congratulating you on the consummation of three events which seem now very probable.”

“What are they?” said Mr. Lincoln.

“First, that the rebellion be completely crushed. Second, that slavery may be entirely destroyed, and prohibited forever throughout the Union. Third, that Abraham Lincoln may have been triumphantly re-elected President of the United States.”

“I would be very glad,” said Mr. Lincoln, with a twinkle in his eye, “to compromise, by securing the success of the first two propositions.”

But even after the open house drew to a roaring close, Lincoln’s day was far from over. That night, a diplomatic reception was held at the White House portico. It was once more politics as usual, but now on a world scale. Though smiles and handshakes abounded, there was intrigue and suspicion beneath.

Count Adam Gurowski, from Poland, had been hired as a translator at the State Department – he spoke at least eight languages. He had become a very radical Republican, publishing his diary in 1862, which had few kind words to say about the Lincoln administration. More than anything, he was an eccentric, dressing in a long coat, large hat, and a blue veil over blue-tinted glasses.

A much less eccentric Count Adam Gurowski.

A much less eccentric Count Adam Gurowski.

Due to his book, he was fired from the State Department and was furious over the whole thing. Rumor even had it that he was planning on assassinating Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s body guard, Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln suspected it too. “Gurowski is the only man who has given me a serious thought of a personal nature,” Lincoln was supposed to have confided. “From the known disposition of this man, he is dangerous wherever he may be. I have sometimes thought that he might try to take my life. It would be just like him to do such a thing.”

But the strange Count went through the motions like any other dignitary, though he hung close to Lincoln, skulking in his way, listening to gossip he could use against the administration. This was how he heard the President ask the Mexican minister how the war against France was shaping up. When the minister told him that it was going well, Lincoln said he was “very glad. I wish you may have the best of the invaders.”

With this juicy bit of news, Count Gurowski sauntered off, hoping to do whatever damage he could. Meanwhile, Lincoln still had to figure out what to do about Mexico. He honestly hoped that France would beg off, but feared the opposite would come true. He could not, however, force the issue. France had nearly sided with the South, would his feelings push them into the arms of the Confederacy? It was a thin line.

But one for another day. This was a more or less informal meeting, and with Lincoln’s son, Tad, playing with a whistle in the background, and not one where much could be accomplished anyway.1

  1. Sources: With Lincoln in the White House by John Nicolay; History of Abraham Lincoln, and the Overthrow of Slavery by Isaac Arnold; The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein; A Diplomat in Carpet Slippers by Jay Monaghan; Diary by Adam Gurowski; Diary by Gideon Welles; Washington in Lincoln’s Time by Noah Brooks. []
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Besieging the Presidential Doors – New Year’s Day at the White House by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International