The White House has seen a lot of big parties, but nothing compares to March 4, 1829, when Andrew Jackson’s open house sparked a mob scene that almost destroyed the president’s house. Or so we think.
Jackson before the party.
The party was so big that the courageous, battle-tested President Jackson fled the scene (out a back door or through a window) as a huge crowd drank heavily, destroyed furniture and china, and even ground cheese into the carpets with their boots on the White House carpet.
Only the promise of more free liquor drew the rabble out of the executive mansion.
That’s the popular myth surrounding the open house at the White House on that inauguration day in 1829, and while key parts seem true (based on contemporary accounts), the “wildness” part could be exaggerated.
To set the scene, President Jackson had been involved in two nasty presidential campaigns against John Quincy Adams. Jackson lost the 1824 race in a runoff election in the House; he won the 1828 presidential campaign in one of the dirtiest, meanest campaigns in American history.
Both sides were ruthless in the campaign, including charges from Adams’ side (which weren’t new) about the character of Jackson’s wife, Rachel. A month after the election, Rachel Jackson died, and the president blamed his political enemies and their rumors for her death.
Jackson had a huge, popular following, and his inauguration was a sea change for American politics.
A crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 people showed up at the Capitol for the inauguration, some traveling from 500 miles away for the event. The sight stunned Washington society and Jackson’s political enemies, who already feared “mob rule” under Jackson.
The 61-year-old Jackson gave his inaugural address and promised to do the best job for the people. But the first crowd control problem happened after his speech. A cable snapped that held back the crowd in front of the president, who was on the Capitol’s steps.
His team ushered President Jackson back inside the Capitol for his own protection. But then the president mounted his own horse, and he rode through the crowd to the White House.
Another crowd was already outside and inside the mansion, as the tradition of the day made inauguration day an “open house” for the White House. In theory, anyone could show up, shake the president’s hand, and maybe have some punch and dessert.
The popular story is that Jackson entered the White House, and a mob scene broke out, with the rabble ransacking the White House and Jackson fleeing for safety.
One source for that story was a memoir written by Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington society figure.
“But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob. We came too late,” Smith wrote in her later years. She also thought the reported figure of 20,000 at the inauguration scene was exaggerated.
James Hamilton Jr., a representative from South Carolina, wrote the next day to Martin Van Buren and called the event a “Saturnalia.”
But two historians, David and Jeanne Heidler, wrote in 2004 about other contemporary accounts that play down the drunken-brawl aspects of the open house.
The Heidlers point out that Hamilton, the Jackson supporter from South Carolina, called the damage from the event “trivial.”
The crowd at the White House was mixed. The first arrivals were the people who made up Washington society. The second crowd that showed up at the mansion was made up of Jackson supporters who were dressed in their best clothes.
What happened next doesn’t seem to be disputed: The White House wasn’t prepared for the crowd as it pressed in through the front door and sought out Jackson, along with the food and whiskey-laced punch. Jackson found himself pressed into a situation with his back to a wall until his people were able to get him away from the crowd, and back to his hotel.
The sheer number of people inside the White House led to collisions with furniture and food.
After Jackson left, the Heidlers say Antoine Michel Giusta, the White House steward, moved the party outside by taking the punch outside. Other reports indicated that staffers passed punch and ice cream through the White House’s windows to the crowd outside.
As for the image of a riot of drunken Jackson supporters, the Heidlers believed that the incident was used as a metaphor by Washington society and Jackson’s enemies, who feared the new regime and its lower-class roots.
“Most witnesses, however, mentioned little real damage, and newspapers reported only incidental break-age. Niles’ Weekly Register, in fact, merely observed that Jackson had ‘received the salutations of a vast number of persons, who came to congratulate him upon his induction to the presidency’,” said the Heidlers.
The story about the cheese actually happened at the end of Jackson’s eight years in office. The president was given a 1,400-pound cheese wheel as a gift, and it sat in the White House for several years. Finally, Jackson allowed the public into the East Room to eat the cheese, which it consumed over several days in 1837. The odors lingered for days after the event.
Jackson’s cheese incident later inspired a fictional presidential tradition in the TV show West Wing, where White House staffers were required to meet with and listen to the less powerful interest groups, such as a group who wanted to fund a highway exclusively for wolves.
In the end, Jackson seemed unfazed by the open house incident in 1829. He had planned on redecorating the White House anyway and was able to get $50,000 from Congress for his project.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.