Of all the traditional events associated with a Presidential Inauguration, the most frivolous one of the Ball is often equated with as much importance in the public imagination as the Inaugural Address, in which the new leader outlines his vision for the nation he will now guide. The first such event, held on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. took place March 4, 1809 to honor the new President, James Madison on the day he became the fourth President.
All the more interesting is that it was conceived, planned and executed in exactly one week.
Although George Washington had attended a dancing party a month after his inauguration in the then-capital city of New York as the first President in 1789, it wasn’t held until nine days later. Four years later, when Washington was inaugurated for a second term, there was another dance party in the second capital city of Philadelphia, but that was held two days before the inauguration. It’s also not clear the Ball was held to mark the Inauguration as much as it was to honor Washington, a legend in his own time. There were no such celebrations for second President John Adams when he took his oath of office in Philadelphia in 1797 or for third President Thomas Jefferson on the nights of his two Washington, D.C. inaugurations, in 1801 and 1805.
The Madison Inaugural Ball, organized by twelve men who were close personal friends of the new President and his wife (and one of them being her cousin) was held specifically to honor the fourth President.
On Saturday, February 27, 1809 there appeared a small notice in the local newspaper, The Monitor, put out a call to “those gentleman” who regularly went to the Washington dance parties to convene at a local boarding house known as Long’s Hotel two days later. The purpose was one, to hastily plan for an “inauguration ball” to take place at that location in just five days.
Starting at seven and ending at midnight, four hundred guests would attend the Madison Inaugural Ball.
Of them, three left eye-witness accounts. All that seemed to impress the U.S. Capitol’s architect wife, Maria Thornton, was the ticket cost of four dollars. The bluntest take on it all came from John Quincy Adams, then between jobs, having resigned as Massachusetts U.S. Senator because he switched from the Federalist to the Democratic-Republican Party; Madison would soon reward Adams, naming him as the first U.S. Minister to Russia.
Thirty-one year old Margaret Bayard Smith left the most personal account. A native Pennsylvanian, she was married to Samuel Harrison Smith, who owned and published the National Intelligencer newspaper. A skilled writer, her unattributed reporting on the most important political figures in Washington of the time found its way into the paper’s stories and reflected the access that only a close friend could have had to them. She seemed to have a crush on outgoing President Thomas Jefferson, sympathize with incoming President James Madison and practically worshipped his wife Dolley Madison.
In fact, the Madisons knew almost everyone at the ball, the city only having been the capital for nine years and its elite class sparse. It was composed of Congressmen and Senators who came to live there during legislative sessions usually without their wives (there were not many homes yet built to rent; most lived in boarding houses), and Maryland and Virginia families whose wealth derived from farming, shipping, and construction. Social life consisted of taking in Congressional debates as if they were theater for the brain, playing cards and dancing.
In fact, a group had formed what were then called “Dancing Assemblies,” essentially dancing clubs and it was leaders of this group, all friends of the Madison, who organized the first Inaugural Ball. It was as much to have fun as it was to celebrate the new President.
Three days before the March 4, 1809 Inaugural Ball, there was a small notice in the National Intelligencer which announced what would prove to be an historic milestone: “A Dancing Assembly will be held on the 4th inst. at Mr. Long’s Hotel—Tickets to be obtained at the bar, on application to a Manager.”
The organizers of the event included Captain Thomas Tingey, the chief of the Navy Yard, John Van Ness, a former New York Congressman married to the woman who established its first orphanage for girls, Daniel Carroll a landowner and member of the famous English Catholic Maryland family, and Isaac A. Cole who had not only served as the outgoing President’s Private Secretary but was a first cousin of the incoming President’s wife.
“The Dancing,” the newspaper made clear, “will commence at 7 o’clock precisely.”
As the festivities of that Saturday Inauguration began, it was the outgoing President, however, who threatened to steal the thunder from the incoming one. That didn’t matter to either of them. They were more than political comrades. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison may very well have been among the most personally close of non-related Presidents. “Certainly father never loved son more than he loves Mr. M[adison],” Margaret Smith recorded about Jefferson, “and it was observed, that every demonstration of regard or respect shown to him, gave [Jefferson] more evident satisfaction than those paid to himself.”
Madison had even offered to have his horse and carriage divert on its path from his home to the Capitol and pick up Jefferson at what was then called the President’s House, so they could go to the ceremony together. Jefferson, however, declined, explaining, “I wished not to divide with him the honors of the day—it pleased me better to see them all bestowed on him.”
When the Madisons first came to Washington for him to serve as President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, in March of 1801, they lived for a time with him in the newly built President’s House, which had only been occupied at that point for four months by the second President and his wife, John and Abigail Adams. The fact that, now, Jefferson would remain living at the President’s House for a week after his term expired was not an issue with the Madisons, by then living in their own home along a row of newly-built houses clustered around what would long be the city’s shopping district of F Street.
Joining the crowds walking to the Inaugural ceremony, President Jefferson simply got on his horse and rode up, with no military escorts or servants alongside him.
At the Capitol, he simply dismounted and tied his horse to a post. He turned down the seat of honor held for him at the ceremony, telling them, “This day I return to the people and my proper seat is among them.” Margaret Smith thought, “this was carrying democracy too far, but it was not done, as his opponents said, from a mere desire of popularity…he wished by his example as well as his often expressed opinions, to establish the principle of political equality.”
Jefferson also came to give his friend some moral support. The new President needed it. Although an acknowledged intellectual and primary drafter of the U.S. Constitution he was often insecure making public appearances and speeches. At five feet six inches tall and weighing only 125 pounds, the 58-year old Virginian was easy to overlook in a crowd of bigger politicians competing to be heard. He was as conscious of this as everyone else. One observer noted that Madison walked with a “peculiar springing step, as if he were trying to make himself seem taller than usual…”
In his diary, John Quincy Adams wrote that Madison’s delivery of his Inaugural Address, done before Chief Justice Marshall administered the oath of office, was “a very short speech, in a tone of voice so low that he could not be heard.” The National Intelligencer concurred, saying, “Of the Inaugural Address, without attempting a critique, we may be permitted to say, that in point of stile it is chaste and nervous…” Margaret Smith also weighed in, adding that, “Mr. Madison was extremely pale and trembled excessively when he first began to speak, but soon gained confidence and spoke audibly.”
What he wore seemed to draw more interest than what he said. As the newspapers reported, Madison came “in a full suit of [brown] cloth of American manufacture, made of the wool” from sheep from the Hudson River Valley farm of Chancellor Robert Livingston, a coat from George Washington’s former Private Secretary made by one of his manufacturing interests, and a white vest from sheep wool harvested at his own Virginia estate, Montpelier.
After the ceremony, there was the very first rudimentary Inaugural parade for him to review. Stepping outside the Capitol, the new President reviewed several military contingents.
The swearing-in ceremony and parade ending by two in the afternoon, the crowds followed the new President to his home. There, he and Dolley Madison (who did not attend the Capitol ceremony) were hosting an open-house luncheon reception, setting a custom followed by his successors who did so at the White House, until Congress began hosting one for freshly-inaugurated Presidents as part of the official events, in 1953.
Getting into the Madison house was an ordeal; the muddy streets around it jammed to a standstill with teams of horses and closed carriages conveying the well-heeled while streams of pedestrians clogged the sidewalk, pushing their way in.
Once inside, every room in the house, including the bedrooms, was packed with people. The lucky ones got some of the alcoholic punch and cake put out for everyone. The new President stood with his wife just inside the main living-room door to greet not just the representatives of foreign countries but strangers who successfully shoved themselves in. “[T]o the surprise of every one,” now-former President Jefferson showed up at the Madison as well.
Now the crowd had not one but two celebrities to divert their attention away from the new President.
With both the President and Vice President Aaron Burr being widowed, it was the Secretary of State’s wife who came to serve as his presidential hostess whenever he had women guests to entertain. Even though his daughter Martha Randolph spent the winter and spring congressional sessions for two years as his hostess, she followed the lead of Dolley Madison. Jefferson had, in a sense, made Dolley Madison the star she became.
Her regal appearance was balanced with accessible warmth effused for visitors and guests from of all stations of life. While recent documentation suggests she was insensitive to the full impact of slavery on African-American families, she was also noted for at least having compassion for them as individual humans. The new “Lady President” was described at the open-house reception by Margaret Smith as looking “extremely beautiful…in a plain cambric dress with a very long train, plain round the neck without any handkerchief, and a beautiful bonnet of purple velvet, and white satin with white plumes. She was all dignity, grace and affability.”
Jefferson sort of lingered around until Mrs. Smith reminded him that many citizens had expected to next go to the President’s House to see him there one more time before he left town. He was reluctant to leave. “This day should be exclusively my friend’s,” he said, nodding towards little Madison, “and I am too happy in being here, to remain at home.”
Margaret reminded him “all these ladies” wanted some time alone with him. He headed back to the President’s House to get ready for them.
Although there were no estimates on the number of people in town for the Inauguration, anecdotal evidence suggests truth in one chronicler’s claim that no “preceding event had attracted such crowds.” For several weeks before the event, there was a parade of stagecoaches full of guests ready to party for Madison pulling into town from all along the eastern seaboard.
Relatively few of them, however, could get into the first Inaugural Ball, even if they could afford it. Tickets could be purchased only from the Washington Dancing Assembly managers, who had to approve the guests. Perhaps more easily, they could be obtained from Robert Long, the proprietor of the Long’s Hotel, where the event was being held – at the bar.
Well before the Ball began, the streets around it were jammed with Madisonites looking for a ticket and all types of carts and carriages and coaches attempting to pull off and deposit the guests who had tickets. Horses were at such a premium that when the coach of one of the hosts, Daniel Carroll, who also owned and leased the building to Long, pulled up it was being pulled by four mules.
Among the first of the famous to show up, former President Jefferson again made the scene, arriving promptly with Isaac Coles at seven. When he entered the ballroom, the band struck up “Jefferson’s March” in his honor but seeing relatively few other guests there, he worried, “Am I too early?” He spotted Margaret Smith. With some enthusiasm, he admitted to her, “You must tell me how to behave, for it is more than forty years since I have been to a ball.”
Soon enough the only three foreign diplomats to attend arrived. There was the British Minister David Montague Erskine and his wife, a Philadelphian who knew Mrs. Madison from their youth in that city. The Danish Minister Peter Peterson arrived stag, his wife not having come to Washington.
The French Minister, Louis Turreau de Garambonville, also came alone but his wife was in town – rumored to be often kept in the basement where he beat her.
Described as “a slim lizard of a man with cruel, glancing eyes, and dripping with lace and gold,” the Napoleonic general was famous for having massacred tens of thousands of people and ravaged numerous countrysides.
Not until the Madisons arrived, however, could any of the anticipated dancing begin. The old tradition of dance cards was being followed, a custom where women were given a card with blank, numbered lines to be filled out with the names of the men whom they chose as their dance partners for each succeeding musical number.
An hour after Jefferson had arrived, a grand coach pulled by four horses led by a coachman. The President and Mrs. Madison, along with her sister Anna Cutts, wife of a Massachusetts Congressman had arrived, alighting from the vehicle with the help of a footman.
Taking the arm of the lead host of the ball, Captain Tingey, Dolley Madison entered first, followed by the President who escorted Mrs. Cutts into the ballroom.
As he appeared, the band broke into a new tune with a predictable title, “Madison’s March.” Another one of the hosts then presented the President’s Lady the honor of the first dance-card, giving her the choice of which men she wished to dance with.
“What am I to do with it?” she shrugged, “I do not dance.”
Smoothing over the upset plans, Captain Tingey then advised that she “Give it to your neighbor.”
Dolley Madison’s reputation for expert diplomacy had not been accidentally built. She was hardly going to blow it in front of this crowd.
“Oh, no,” she twinkled back, “That would look like partiality.” Matching her tactical manners, Tingey turned graciously to her sister, quipping “Then I will!” and handed the card to Anna Cutts.
The band struck up a dance tune and the ballroom floor filled up fast. Those who didn’t dance stood on chairs and benches to watch. Packed to capacity, the situation worsened as the crowds began to surge around Dolley Madison, “to catch a word, or smile” from her.
It wasn’t long before the room became unbearably hot.
Guests began to feel faint and suffocated. For some reasons the windows could not be unlocked and someone just starting smashing the glass window panes to let the cold air flow in.
Although he didn’t dance, Jefferson was in “high spirits” and “beamed with a benevolent joy.”
In the meanwhile, neither suffocation nor cold air stopped Margaret Smith from her determination to take good notes on the focus of the event.
“I chose a place where I could see Mrs. M[adison] to advantage. She really, in manners and appearance, answered all my ideas of royalty.”
And Margaret Bayard Smith gushed on for history:
“She looked a queen.
She had on a pale buff colored velvet, made plain, with a very long train, but not the least trimming—a beautiful pearl necklace, earrings & bracelet—her head dress was a turban of the same colored velvet & white satin—(from Paris) with two superb plumes of the bird of paradise feathers.
It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did. Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. It seems to me, that such manners would disarm envy itself & conciliate even enemies.”
She also managed to sidle up to flatter the former President among them. “[Y]ou look so happy and satisfied Mr. Jefferson, and Mr. Madison looks so serious not to say, sad, that a spectator might imagine that you were the one coming in, and he the one going out of office.” He smiled back, replying, “There’s good reason for my happy and his serious looks. I have got the burden off my shoulders, while he has now got it on his.”
In his fancy ball outfit of black suit, white ruffled shirt, silk stocking and silver-buckled shoes, President Madison was clearly not having any fun. Mrs. Smith got to him and made small talk. He asked how the project to dig a well on her property was going; making a poor effort at wit but hoping that among everything that might be turn up in the digging would be water. Forced to stand, jostled around, he was “spiritless and exhausted.” Margaret tried to make him feel better. “I wish with all my heart I had a little bit of a seat to offer you,” she said.
He turned to look at her with “a most woe be-gone face,” to admit, “I wish so too.”
One of the Inaugural Ball managers finally found him and interrupted his conversation, requesting that the new President please remain for the formal dinner, about to be announced. It seemed a bit disingenuous. If Madison left, he would take their star feature of the evening with him. He nodded, willing to stay but then turned to Margaret and sighed under his breath, “But I would much rather be in bed.”
Only special guests were invited into another room for the late supper, at a crescent-shaped table. Perhaps knowing that his unexpected presence would have the ball managers scrambling to find him a seat of honor, by the time dinner guests were making their way out of the ballroom, former President Jefferson “stole unperceived away,” slipping into the night, free.
There was perhaps no greater example of the ends to which Dolley Madison could discipline her personal feelings to serve a greater political purpose than when she willingly allowed herself to be escorted into dinner on the arm of “the lizard.” Just three and a half years before the Inaugural Ball she’d written to Anna on June 5, 1805 about how Turreau “whips his wife and abuses her dreadfully.” Now, she let him take her arm and guide her to a seat beside him, while Anna was escorted by British Minister, who sat next to the President’s Lady on the other side. There was more subtle drama to it.
Understanding the male ego as well as the complexity of England’s current war with France, Dolley Madison displayed her natural skills at “pleasing everyone and injuring none.” She lavished her eager attention on both the French and British Ministers and prevented the intimacy found at a dinner table from leading to insults and cursing between the two men. “She was so equally gracious to both French and English,” Margaret chimed in, “and so affable to all.”
Directly across the table from his wife, President Madison sat silently observing her first employment of social skill for political purpose on her first day as President’s Lady. It was a subtle art they would unleash often in the eight years of his Administration ahead. Despite their dramatic physical and personality differences, the Madisons were one of Washington’s first power couples, working as a team.
When the meal ended, the Madisons left.
Dancing went on until the stroke of midnight, when the music abruptly stopped.
Two days later, in the March 6, 1809 edition of the newspaper owned and edited by Margaret Smith’s husband, the very first Presidential Inaugural Ball was described as “the most brilliant and crowded ever known in Washington.” John Quincy Adams thought otherwise.
As he put it in his diary, “The crowd was excessive, the heat oppressive and the entertainment bad.”
Next: Two Centuries of Massive Crowds at the Inaugural Balls
- The Double Rarity of Obama’s 2013 Sunday Second Inauguration, Part 1 of 7 (carlanthonyonline.com)
Categories: Dolley Madison, First Ladies, George Washington, History, Individual Presidents, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Presidential Inaugurations, Presidents, Presidents Together, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Quincy Adams