Resolutions, college football bowl games, parades, gym renewals, and January first’s first-born child: New Year’s Day customs give people hope, happiness or distraction. Swollen feet, pneumonia and confrontation do not. Which explains the silent death of the legendary White House New Year’s Day Reception.
In old New Amsterdam, if Dutch kids got gifts on St. Nicholas Day, Dutch adults got jolly on New Year’s Day, shooting off guns into the first glint of the morning’s light to carousing from one-open house party to another. Not only did the English change the city’s name to New York, they changed the purpose of New Year’s Day to a day of open-house receptions with business and social purposes rather than family reunions. Men of commerce and women of the social elite used the event, usually held in the homes of prominent leaders among them to network with one another and enjoy lavish spreads of sweets, teas and alcoholic cheer.
On his first New Year’s Day as America’s first president, George Washington followed the custom, hosting the first presidential New Year’s Day Reception at the first presidential mansion in the first capital city of the U.S. By the spare, few accounts it was a civilized affair, attended mostly by the city’s elite, despite it being an ostensible “open-house.” He continued the custom when the capital city moved to Philadelphia, and his successor, John Adams, did the same, when the capital was finally moved to the new, permanent capital city of Washington, D.C.
After twelve years of New Year’s Day Receptions, it was entrenched as a custom by the time Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801 – with one notable change. Instead of bowing to select guests as had Washington and Adams, the great Democrat shook hands and let the word spread that all citizens were invited to this first “grip and grin.” However well-intended the symbolism, Jefferson might have spared the unique tradition of giving the everyday citizen a chance to meet their leader had he paradoxically kept in place the Washington and Adams tradition of bowing.
It wasn’t too bad in the first decades. Washington had a small population, and most of those who came to the annual New Year’s Day Reception were public officials like military leaders, diplomatic corps, the Cabinet, the judiciary and the legislature, along with prominent newspaper editors, business leaders and the social elite. Monroe, for example, received an estimated 1000 guests. Each group was given a designated time in an official schedule. Once Andrew Jackson became President, however, reports of larger numbers of crowds dominate descriptions of the event. In a January 27, 1840 letter, for example, Eliza Hill, daughter of a Vermont Congressman, wrote to a friend about President Martin Van Buren’s New Year’s Day Reception, suggesting it was civil enough to get a good look at the rooms but too packed with the general public to be able to serve any more food, or even anything to drink:
You inquire, “What is the manner of spending New Year’s Day in Washington?” The President holds a levee on the day. The house is open from 12 until 3 to all inclined to go. There is, of course, always a great crowd & a great display of Beauty & Dress, everyone going in their best. “His Majesty” receives the company in the Salon, shaking hands with & smiling & speaking to all. The splendor of the furniture exceeds anything I ever saw. The mirrors, chandeliers, carpets, chairs & window curtains are truly splendid. The company spends the time in walking about the apartments & in conversation. There are no refreshments handed round, there being such a crowd it would be impossible.
For another ninety years, Presidents and First Ladies continued hosting the annual White House New Year’s Day Reception. Had it been limited to those who held rank, and had Presidents been allowed to revert to the vaguely monarchial greeting form of George Washington to nod in acknowledgement to the streaming reception line it might not have been bad. As the population grew, however, so too did the lines of citizens huddled from the pre-dawn hours in the bitter cold which snaked around the White House perimeter. It was the one day of the year when anyone willing to endure the hours of waiting could shake hands with the President – and have a word with him.
Dressed in layers of clothes to stay warm for the endless hours in the frigid air before they got to meet the man himself, by the time the general public snaked beneath the North Portico, and through the overheated foyer into the White House, they were a sweating or shivering motley crew, many coughing, sneezing and wheezing with the congestion and runny noses and teary eyes of the flu they’d contracted while standing, shuffling and waiting all those hours.
By the time they got in, the general public was hardly a warmly welcomed bunch any President and First Lady would want to get too close to, let alone shake their hands. First Ladies wore gloves at least. Presidents, however, shook hands in that good, old red-blooded democratic style of Jefferson – with bare hands.
Technically, everyone of these well-wishers was a potential assassin, not because a few might have carried a gun but because they all carried germs.
If risking one’s life in the cold was dangerous for the common man, there were other painful realities for the Presidents and First Ladies.
Florence Harding, for example, had to have her shoulders, legs, hands and feet massaged after her marathon handshaking.
People wearing rings were especially painful to greet, the repeated squeeze of stones and odd-shaped protrusions causing contusions and cuts. John Tyler’s hands were left purple and pulpy after one of his New Year’s Day Receptions and he was unable to hold a fork or spoon for several days as a result.
Abraham Lincoln’s hand had become so numb and shaky after gripping those of several thousand at his 1863 reception that when he proceeded up to his office post-party to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he joked to a Cabinet member that he had to steady his hand so his signature was smooth; otherwise, he continued, future generations would look at his shaky handwriting and conclude that he’d hesitated to free the slaves.
Guards could frisk anyone they suspected as potentially trying to physically attack the President, but nobody could control a person’s thoughts and words when they suddenly found themselves before the most powerful man in the nation – and an easy target to blame for any problems. Grover Cleveland, at his 1894 New Year’s Day Reception, found himself before a small group of grumbling, contemptuous laborers who were among the ranks of the unemployed “Coxey’s Army.”
Just like the Great Depression, the nation’s worst economic downturn for which he was so personally blamed that he lost his re-election, Herbert Hoover is blamed for ending the last democratic chance for citizens to meet their President, by “ending” the New Year’s Day Reception, literally getting out of town to avoid the 1933 event.
It’s entirely unfair.
The record shows that Calvin Coolidge, his immediate predecessor had gone to Florida and missed the last of his New Year’s Day Receptions in 1929. Rather than use this as newly set precedent and not revive it, Hoover opened the doors again in 1930, 1931 and 1932, averaging a staggering 9,000 handshakes each year, between noon and three-thirty in the afternoon. When he lost his re-election, however, Hoover followed Coolidge’s precedent.
The President went to Florida and the 1933 reception wasn’t held. When Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who beat him, had his first presidential New Year’s Day, in 1934, he failed to follow Hoover’s custom of at least starting out by holding the event.
And all his successors have been secretly grateful.