On November 1, 1800, President John Adams, in the last year of his only term as president, moved into the newly constructed President’s House, the original name for what is known today as the White House.
Adams had been living in temporary digs at Tunnicliffe’s City Hotel near the half-finished Capitol building since June 1800, when the federal government was moved from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington, D.C. In his biography of Adams, historian David McCullough recorded that when Adams first arrived in Washington, he wrote to his wife Abigail, at their home in Quincy, Massachusetts, that he was pleased with the new site for the federal government and had explored the soon-to-be President’s House with satisfaction.
Although workmen had rushed to finish plastering and painting walls before Adams returned to D.C. from a visit to Quincy in late October, construction remained unfinished when Adams rolled up in his carriage on November 1. However, the Adams’ furniture from their Philadelphia home was in place and a portrait of George Washington was already hanging in one room. The next day, Adams sent a note to Abigail, who would arrive in Washington later that month, saying that he hoped “none but honest and wise men [shall] ever rule under this roof.”
Although Adams was initially enthusiastic about the presidential mansion, he and Abigail soon found it to be cold and damp during the winter. Abigail, in a letter to a friend, wrote that the building was tolerable only so long as fires were lit in every room. She also noted that she had to hang their washing in an empty “audience room” (the current East Room).
John and Abigail Adams lived in what she called “the great castle” for only five months. Shortly after they moved in, Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in his bid for re-election. Abigail was happy to leave Washington and departed in February 1801 for Quincy. As Jefferson was being sworn in on March 4, 1801, John Adams was already on his way back to Massachusetts, where he and Abigail lived out the rest of their days at their family farm.
Our first president, George Washington, selected the site for the White House in 1791. The cornerstone was laid in 1792 and a competition design submitted by Irish-born architect James Hoban was chosen. It was only after eight years of construction that President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the unfinished house in 1800. During the War of 1812, the British set fire to the President’s House in 1814. James Hoban was appointed to rebuild the house, and President James Monroe moved into the building in 1817. During Monroe’s administration, the South Portico was constructed in 1824, and Andrew Jackson oversaw the addition of the North Portico in 1829. During the late 19th century, various proposals were made to significantly expand the President’s House or to build an entirely new house for the president, but these plans were never realized.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt began a major renovation of the White House, including the relocation of the president’s offices from the Second Floor of the Residence to the newly constructed temporary Executive Office Building (now known as the West Wing). The Roosevelt renovation was planned and carried out by the famous New York architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, had the Oval Office constructed within an enlarged office wing.
Less than fifty years after the Roosevelt renovation, the White House was showing signs of serious structural weakness. President Harry S. Truman began a renovation of the building in which everything but the outer walls were dismantled. The reconstruction was overseen by architect Lorenzo Winslow, and the Truman family moved back into the White House in 1952.
Every president since John Adams has occupied the White House, and the history of this building extends far beyond the construction of its walls. From the Ground Floor Corridor rooms, transformed from their early use as service areas, to the State Floor rooms, where countless leaders and dignitaries have been entertained, the White House is both the home of the President of the United States and his family, and a museum of American history. The White House is a place where history continues to unfold.
- There are 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels in the Residence. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators.
- The White House kitchen is able to serve dinner to as many as 140 guests and hors d’oeuvres to more than 1,000.
- The White House requires 570 gallons of paint to cover its outside surface.
- At various times in history, the White House has been known as the “President’s Palace,” the “President’s House,” and the “Executive Mansion.”
- President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name in 1901.
Did slaves both build and burn the White House?
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” Michelle Obama said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Her words brought White House history into public discussion.
Yes, slaves did help to build the White House. Unable to recruit enough European workers, the U.S. government rented slaves from their masters to quarry and cut the stone used to build the White House walls. Because of the efforts of hundreds of local black, white, as well as European workers, the White House opened in 1800.
Did slaves help burn the White House, too?
During America’s War of 1812 against England, a British admiral issued a proclamation calling on slaves to leave their masters. They could join the British military and/or be sent as free settlers to British territory.
President James Madison wasn’t shocked at the tactic. He’d proposed a similar option years earlier during the American Revolution. “Would it not be to depend as well to liberate and make soldiers of the blacks,” Madison had said at the Continental Congress. “It would certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty.”
Britain’s 1814 slave proclamation prompted President Madison to warn his war secretary that Washington, D.C. was likely one of the British targets: “the seat of government cannot fail to be a favorite one.”
Hundreds of runaway slaves boarded British ships to the West Indies or Canada. In Maryland Royal marines trained about 300 former male slaves and gave them redcoat uniforms.
To be clear, the British were not without racial prejudices. British Admiral George Cockburn, the leading antagonist in Jane Hampton Cook’s nonfiction book, The Burning of the White House, wrote: “They have induced me to alter the bad opinion I had of the whole of their race and I now really believe these we are training will neither show want (lack) of zeal or courage when employed by us in attacking their old masters.”
Called the Colonial or West Indies Militia, these former slaves were part of the British marines, soldiers, and sailors who attacked Washington. These forces defeated American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, on August 24, 1814, and arrived at sunset in Washington, where they burned most of the public buildings, most notoriously the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
Many former and current slaves were pro-American during the attack that led to the burning of the White House.
One former slave, who had already won his freedom, declined joining Britain’s militia. Instead, Charles Ball fought side-by-side with the greatest American hero at Bladensburg, Commodore Joshua Barney. “I stood at my gun, until the Commodore was shot down, when he ordered us to retreat,” Ball bravely recounted.
One of the best eyewitness accounts of what happened at the White House in the hours immediately before the British invasion came from Paul Jennings, a teenage slave to President Madison.
Jennings was the last occupant to leave the White House before the British arrived to burn it. He contained the fires in the kitchen to avoid accidentally catching the house on fire—an irony under the circumstances.
Taking refuge at the house of a Methodist minister, Jennings was listening to a prayer when “I heard a tremendous explosion, and, rushing out, saw that the public buildings, Navy Yard, ropewalks were on fire.” Years later Jennings secured his freedom.
Michelle Obama brought up the issue of slaves building the White House to make a point about the generations “who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done.” She continued, “I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Though slaves were used to build the White House and former slaves were part of the campaign to burn it, slaves were also freed because of it. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the White House on January 1, 1863.
By doing so Lincoln helped to free enslaved people, purging the cultural cancer that had plagued America and purifying independence in the process. The White House can rightfully be seen as a symbol of independence and emancipation.