This year’s White House Easter Egg Roll marks what is likely the 150th anniversary of it as an event to which members of the public have been invited. It is a tradition not begun in 1878 by President Rutherford Hayes who always gets official credit for it, but in 1862 by a President’s Son with a severe speaking disability, who invited a disabled boy as the first known member of the public to the event.
“Official” history credits Hayes with “starting” the event because he let local children hold the event there after Congress prohibited the gathering from continuing on the US. Capitol Building grounds.
It was, however, more a matter of Hayes saying yes when asked if a mass of kids could hold the party on his lawn.
Credit for personally arranging for a member of the public to the private party is due to the forthright compassion of Tad Lincoln, youngest son of the 16th President.
With high energy and constant curiosity, Tad Lincoln thrived on activity and distraction, or else found trouble.
His great conspirator during his first year in the White House was his brother Willie, three years older.
The duo were dubbed “devils”back home in Illinois by their father’s law partner William Herndon. In the White House, Tad was a more notorious hellion, pestering the tense executive staff.
The President’s Secretary John Hay attempted to keep Tad away from his father who never failed to stop work when his son wanted him, prompting Hay to let out a “disgusting snort.” After Tad stained a marble table with ink, telegraph operator Madison Buell angrily shook him by the collar. “Come, Tad,” the President said protectively, “Buell is abusing you.”
The staff was relieved when spring drew Tad and Willie out onto the South Lawn.
In 1861, Easter Monday fell on April 24, 1861, just two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter.
Some years later, Julia Taft Bayne, the sister of the two Lincoln sons’ best friends, left a generic account claiming the four boys enjoyed egg-rolling at a private party on the White House lawn: “Easter Monday is egg-rolling in the White House grounds and the two Lincoln boys enjoyed it hugely. My two brothers, with a basket fill of hard-boiled and gaily-colored eggs were on hand early to meet Willie and Tad similarly equipped. At the rear of the White House is a sloping lawn with soft turf. The players stand on the top of the hill and watch their eggs in a race to the bottom. The one which first arrives whole is the winner; the cracked or broken ones go to the victor, who eats them or at least is expected to…”
Tad Lincoln had a disability, having been born with a cleft palate. Presidential bodyguard, William H. Crook, recalled that, “From some cause an unusual impediment in little Tad Lincoln’s speech made it extremely difficult for him to pronounce certain words, and really impossible for him to enunciate clearly a name like Smith, for instance.”
Beyond feeling different from other children, the death of Willie on February 20, 1862, further matured Tad’s sensitivity. When a turkey was about to be killed for a Thanksgiving meal, he asked his father for a federal pardon to spare the animal’s life and later did likewise for a toy soldier. As Crook put it, “Tad Lincoln never was cruel to any living creature.”
At some point after the Civil War was underway, Tad befriended a boy who was described as “lame” indicating physical immobility.
They shared the name, “Thomas,” although the boy was called “Tommy.”
His last name is unknown.
It is known that his father, a Union Army soldier, was killed in the Civil War and that his mother worked at the Treasury Building.
A widow earning,. at best, a modest federal salary, she had no practical way of caring for Tommy other than bringing him along to work. So often outside. Tad likely first noticed Tommy at the Treasury Building, adjacent to the White House.
Exactly when egg-rolling became a custom in Washington, D.C. is unclear. Undocumented legend credits Dolley Madison as having started it after her son by a first marriage, Payne Todd, told her that painted eggs were rolled to the base of the pyramids in ancient Egypt.
There is no record of any presidential children rolling eggs on Easter Monday at the White House until Bayne’s described one from, apparently, 1861.
There was an Easter Egg Roll on the U.S. Capitol Building lawn, definitively established as early as 1873.
Tommy, however, would have had nobody to transport him there to watch or join in what he could.
Not wanting him to feel even further alienated, Tad Lincoln decided to invite the stranger as a guest to the private egg-rolling games at the White House for him and his family friends. Tommy could be easily carried or walk with crutches, from the Treasury Building.
Mira Spencer Delano, wife of James S. Delano, the Treasury Department’s second comptroller and a longtime Lincoln family friend, called Tad “the kindest, brightest, most considerate child.”
Leaving the fullest description, she was with President Lincoln when Tad appeared, to show him colored Easter eggs, exclaiming, “See father, my eggs! Cook dyed them! Two dozen— one dozen for the lame Tommy and one for me. Tommy is spending the day, and Isaac [servant] has carried your big chair out for him. You can see he can lean over and roll the eggs quite well.” From there, the president’s son led his father out to “smiling lame Tommy, who received a warm handshake from President Lincoln.”
During the day, Mrs. Delano noted, Tad was “watching over him with tact and sympathy.”
Of the four Easter Mondays during the Lincoln presidency the first can be discounted as the date of this first public Easter Egg Roll – except for the near-impossible chance that. Tommy’s father had lost his life as a member of the Union Army within the first two weeks of the warl. The third one is also be discounted.
On Monday, April 6, 1863, the President, First Lady and Tad were all visiting troops in Falmouth, Virginia, and stayed the night.
Thus, the first known public Easter Monday Egg Roll was held on either April 21, 1862 or March 28, 1864.
Having lost Willie’s companionship exactly two months before Easter in 1862 offers stronger incentive for Tad Lincoln suddenly befriending of Tommy and inviting the stranger to what was, until that moment, a private family party.
The Kennedy family Easters and home movies:
A Day for Dogs and other White House Easter Egg Roll Memories:
Coming Friday: A Mad Men Era White House Easter Egg Roll, 1961
- A Day for Dogs & Other White House Easter Egg Roll Memories (carlanthonyonline.com)
- “Let’s Go, Let’s Play, Let’s Move!”: Easter Egg Roll 2012 (whitehouse.gov)
- Let’s Move! Tweetup at the White House: Easter Egg Roll (whitehouse.gov)
- White House Easter Egg Roll (chicago.cbslocal.com)
- Easter Egg Roll Suspense (whitehouse.blogs.cnn.com)
- The White House Easter Egg Roll (ghostsofdc.org)