THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AND HISTORIAN DAVID MCCULLOUGH AT CEREMONY OF 200TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE WHITE HOUSE The South Lawn
12:20 P.M. EST
MR. MCCULLOUGH: Mr. President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. The first President to move into what was then known as the President's House, John Adams, of Quincey, Massachusetts, arrived here at this entrance at midday, Saturday, November 1, 1800, at just about this time. Very little looked as we now see it. The new federal city of Washington was no city at all. The Capitol was only half finished. Except for a few nondescript stores and hotels in the vicinity of the Capitol, the rest was mostly tree stumps and swamp.
The house itself was still quite unfinished. Fires had to be kept burning in all the fireplaces to help dry up the wet plaster. Only a few rooms were ready. Only one twisting back stairway connected the floors. Though the President's furniture had arrived, shipped from Philadelphia, it looked lost in these enormous rooms. The only picture hanging was Gilbert Stewart's full-length portrait of George Washington, which still hangs in the East Room.
These beautiful grounds did not exist. It was a different setting; it was a different country; and it was a different time. And in that age, no one ever knew when anyone was going to arrive anywhere, for certain, including the President of the United States. So on that historic morning, two district commissioners were inside inspecting the work when they happened to look out the window and commented, "There is the President of the United States." He had just rolled up in his carriage.
With him was his secretary, Billy Shaw, and one servant on horseback, John Brisling, who became the first steward federal the White House. There was nobody else. No honor guard, no band playing, no entourage of any kind. But who was that man that walked through these doors, the first of 40 Presidents who have lived here thus far?
Adams had just celebrated his 61st birthday two days before, en route from Philadelphia. He was about 5'7", which was middle size in that day, and stout, but physically very strong. He stood erect, shoulders back. He was accustomed at home to building stone walls and bringing in the hay. He was a farmer's son, descended from four generations of plain, God-fearing New England farmers, and proud of it.
He was, of course, one of our founding fathers, a leading figure in the American Revolution. Jefferson called him the colossus of independence, for the part he played in driving the Declaration of Independence through the Congress in that fateful summer of 1776. His role was decisive.
On missions to Europe in the midst of war, he traveled farther and under more adverse conditions in the service of his country than any American of his time, by far. It was John Adams who secured the desperately needed loans from the Dutch to help finance the war. He was a signer of the Paris peace treaty that ended the war, and the first American to appear before King George, III, as a minister for the new United States of America.
Between times he also drafted the oldest written Constitution still in use in the world today -- the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written 10 years before our own Constitution, and had great influence on the national Constitution. He was our first Vice President, under George Washington, and elected President in 1796, defeating his old friend, Thomas Jefferson.
John Adams could be proud, vain, irritable, short-tempered. He was also brilliant, warm-hearted, humorous, a devoted husband and father, and a lifelong talker, an all-out, full-time talker. He loved Don Quixote. He loved the English poets. He carried a book with him everywhere he traveled, and once said to his son, John Quincey, you'll never be alone with a poet in your pocket.
He never had any money to speak of, and he is the only one of our founding fathers who, as a matter of principle, never owned a slave. Further, John Adams had the immense good fortune to be married to Abigail Smith Adams, one of the most extraordinary Americans of that extraordinary era. And their letters to one another constitute a national treasure. They number well over a thousand.
John Adams was a great man and a highly principled President in tumultuous times. Though gravely mistaken when he signed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, he had the good sense and determination and the courage to keep America from going to war with France, which was a very great accomplishment, indeed, with far-reaching consequences.
But let us not forget, too, that it was John Adams who nominated George Washington to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. It was John Adams who insisted that Jefferson be the one to write the Declaration of Independence. And it was President John Adams who made John Marshall Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As a casting director alone, he was brilliant.
Abigail Adams did not arrive here to join her husband until two weeks later, in that long-ago November. She could never get over the size of the house. She called it the castle, and hung her laundry out to dry in the then unfinished East Room. The Adamses lived in the house less than four months, and it was not a happy time for them. Adams learned of his defeat for reelection by Jefferson in what was perhaps the most vicious presidential campaign in our history. Then, within days he and Abigail received the word -- devastating word -- that their second son, Charles, had died in New York of alcoholism.
There were men and women in that day, in their time, who would have refused to have lived in the White House in the condition it was in. But they made do without complaint. On January 1, 1801, they held the first New Year's Day reception here ever -- open house.
On his first evening in this house, following a light supper, John Adams retired early for the night. We may picture him with a single candle climbing that twisting back stairway. Early the next morning he went to his desk on the second floor and addressed a now famous letter to Abigail. Franklin Roosevelt thought so highly of the letter, and of two sentences in it, that he had it carved into the wooden mantlepiece in the State Dining Room. And when Harry Truman supervised the rebuilding of the White House, he insisted that that inscription remain where it is today.
When John F. Kennedy was President, he had the inscription carved into the mantlepiece in marble. "I pray heaven," Adams wrote, "to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."
John Adams lived another 25 years, to age 90, longer than any President. As it happened, he and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day -- and it wasn't just any day; it was "the" day, July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
A few days before Adams' death, a delegation of his Quincey neighbors came to call on him. The old President sat in an arm chair in his library as they asked if he could give them a toast that they might read aloud at the town's 4th of July celebration. "I will give you," said Adams, "independence forever." Asked if he would like to add something more to that, he said, "Not a word."
That was the man who first occupied the White House. I think how pleased he and Abigail would be if they were here to see how we've gathered today. To see the country they so loved still independent, still united and thriving, still strong, still free, and this grand old house looking so magnificent. But then, maybe they are here with us today. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, and good afternoon. I know I speak for all of us in thanking David McCullough for that wonderful review of President Adams' life and presidency. We could all listen to him all day and never stop learning.
I thank Bob Stanton for his distinguished work at the Park Service. I'd like to thank Representatives Delahunt and Markey for coming here, for representing the state of Massachusetts, home of the Adams family. I thank all the descendants of the Adams family who are here with us today, and I know that they share in the pride all Americans feel for the contributions of John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, and so many other members of their family, to the richness of our nation's history.
Mayor Williams, thank you for joining us here today. I'd like to thank the members of the White House Historical Association Board, including Bob Breedan and Hugh Sidey and Neil Horstman, who helped this month of celebrations possible. I'd like to thank the people here at the White House who played their role -- Milanne Verveer, the First Lady's Chief of Staff, who has worked so hard on the historic preservation work we've been honored to do these last eight years; and especially our chief usher, Gary Walters, and through him all the members of the White House staff -- for 200 years now have been the unsung heroes of making this place work every day, making it a place available to the American people, and still a home for the President and his family.
I'd also like to thank the United States Marine Band. For more than 200 years they have set a standard of musical excellence that has enriched this house and our entire nation. They have been the President's own, and for me it has been a special honor and treat. They have stirred the spirits of more people than President Adams could ever have imagined when he signed the bill creating the Marine Band. And today their music is in honor of his memory. So let's give them a big hand. Thank you very much for being here. (Applause.)
As David McCullough just said, the capital city President Adams helped to shape was a very different place than the Washington we know today. Our nation was new, and still carving out the symbols that would define it forever. History tells us that even as the city's planners debated the final design of this house, masons laid its stone foundations more than four feet thick. Like our nation's founders, these men were building a monument to freedom and they wanted it to last.
In 1814, when the British troops captured Washington, they entered the President's House, as it was then known, to find supper still on the table. The First Lady, Dolly Madison, had prepared it for her husband, but had to leave it behind when she fled. Well, the British were uncouth enough to eat the supper before they set fire to the house. (Laughter.) When the smoke finally cleared, it was just a charred shell; but the stone walls stood strong, and so did our nation.
For two centuries now, Americans have looked to the White House as a symbol of leadership in times of crisis, a reassurance in times of uncertainty, of continuity in times of change, a celebration in times of joy. These walls carry the story of America. It was here at the White House that President Jefferson first unrolled maps of a bountiful continent to plan the Lewis and Clark expedition. Here that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, some of whose ancestors have quarried the very stone from which the White House was built. Here, that President Roosevelt held the Fireside Chats, willing his nation through the Depression, then marshaling our allies through the war.
Over the course of two centuries, the White House has also been home to 40 Presidents and their families, including mine. Hillary, Chelsea and I love this house. We have loved living here. It is still a thrill every time I drive up in a car or land on the back lawn in the helicopter, just to look at this magnificent place, and to feel the honor of sharing its history for these eight years. We are profoundly grateful to the American people for letting it be our home for these years.
One of the best things about it, like any home, is welcoming others to share in its beauty and history. Not just heads of state or great artists or famous scholars, but the people this house really belongs to -- the American people.
The White House is the only executive residence in the entire world that is regularly open, free of charge, to the public. And every year, nearly a million and a half people walk through its halls, marveling at the history and taking away perhaps a little better sense of who we are as a nation.
Hillary has taken a special interest in supporting this living museum, showcasing the full diversity of our nation's art, culture and history. I thank her, especially, for establishing the Sculpture Garden over here to my left in the Jackie Kennedy Garden. And from the day we moved in, she has also devoted herself to preserving the White House, and has personally overseen the restoration of several of its public rooms, rooms on the Residence floor, on the second floor and on the third floor.
Working with the White House Historical Association, she's also helped to raise a lasting endowment, something that is profoundly important because it will enable us to better preserve the White House and its collections for all generations to come.
In renewing this beloved monument to our nation's history and freedom, we also renew our commitment to the dream of our founders -- that our democracy, built upon bedrocks of liberty and justice, will grow ever stronger and remain forever young.
So as the White House enters its third century, let us remember President John Adams, being grateful to him for his many contributions to our republic and his determination to define us as one nation. And let us share his prayer that in this house the best of blessings will be bestowed, and that leaders here will find the wisdom and the guidance to do well by our nation, to do well by all of our people, and to be a responsible leader in the larger world.
That's what John Adams tried to do; that's what America has tried to do for 200 years now. We are still in the business of forming that more perfect union of our founders' dreams. I hope and believe he would be pleased.
Now, let the celebration begin. (Applause.)
END 12:40 P.M. EST