In honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday February 12, rather than review the hoary old chestnuts about his strict honesty, humble upbringing, and stirring eloquence, Etiquetteer would rather look at the most glittering social event of his administration, the Grand Presidential Party of February 5, 1862. Of the many nighs to remember in the history of the White House, it proved that no matter what's done in the White House, some loud group of people will be displeased with it.
Mary Lincoln proposed an extra-large evening reception as a subsititute for a series of "stupid state dinners" as a gesture of economy and, perhaps, as a way to show off a spectacularly refurbished White House with a bit less wear and tear. But to change existing social forms, one has to be in an unassailable social position oneself. And Mary Lincoln was not in such a position, looked down on (somewhat unjustly) as an uncultured Westerner by the cave dwellers of Washington society. She wanted both to display her good taste in the redecoration of the Executive Mansion, and also snub some of her detractors by keeping them off the guest lists. The President's secretary John Nicolay wrote a lady friend "Half the city is jubilant at being invited, while the other half is furious at being left out in the cold." So often in official entertaining one has to put aside one's personal dislikes to be gracious - "suck it up," as is said today. Mary was often unwilling to "suck it up," but even so her great Washington rival Kate Chase was there, without any attendant social fireworks.
What sort of etiquette problems attend on an official event like this? What to wear is always a consideration, of course, but this time Mrs. Lincoln had to consider how to acknowledge the recent death of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. Mary chose half-mourning since the British ambassador would be attending, dressing in white satin trimmed with black, and with white and purple flowers in her hair. One account says she wore "an expensive array of pearl jewelry," maybe the parure of seed pearls given to her by the President. Another says that she wore no jewelry but a string of pearls, which would be more in keeping with mourning restraint.
Fashions were also changing in favor of longer trains and lower décolletage. Mrs. Lincoln, by then a matron and what would now be called "a lady of a certain age," would be nothing if not fashionable, but filled in her low neck with a garland of crape myrtle. Even so, there were those who felt she was not dressed with Perfect Propriety. One senator from the West wrote that ". . . the weak-minded Mrs. Lincoln had her bosom on exhibition and a flowerpot on her head.*" Even the President made a couple cracks before they went down to their guests. "Whew! Our cat has a long tail to-night . . . Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style.**"
Grace under pressure, the motto of official entertaining, had an extra layer of meaning for the Lincolns with a very sick son upstairs in bed. At different points in the evening one or the other of them went upstairs to check on Willie, but without betraying to their guests that anything was amiss***.
Grace under pressure also means not betraying that anything is amiss even when it very obviously is. When it was time for the supper to be served, the promenade ended up halting at the door to the State Dining Room because it was locked! (No doubt to keep hungry guests from jumping the line.) Oops . . . but there were no reports of Mrs. Lincoln losing her cool over this serious breach of preparedness. It was General McClellan who had to keep his cool instead. While the steward fumbled for his keys, restive catcalls from the back of the line came: "I am in favor of a forward movement!" "An advance to the front is only retarded by the imbecility of commanders!****" As these were direct commentaries on McClellan's leadership of the Union army, he might have been expected to turn red or turn tail, but he kept his head and his good humor.
These days at evening parties the custom is for refreshments to be available from the very beginning. In the 1800s, particularly at balls, a supper would be served about halfway through the party (hence the promenade on this occasion ending in the dining room). Mrs. Lincoln engaged Henri Maillard, a top-flight New York caterer, to manage this supper, and the State Dining Room was full of enormous set-pieces of food, including a sugar replica of Andrew Jackson's home the Hermitage. So many good, costly, and showy foods were offered, though, that the First Lady endured a lot of criticism afterward. How respectful could the Administration feel toward the brave boys in blue, suffering the field, to carry on so?
So Mrs. Lincoln gave the largest party of her White House years, with the additional burden of a sick child, and got almost nothing but grief for it. But on the night itself, the Grand Presidential Party was considered a radiant success. Etiquetteer has seen so often that a guest's opinion of a party will start to brown and curdle after about three weeks. For Mrs. Lincoln, recollection of the night itself, and what her guests said to her then, may have been treasures she kept close to her heart long afterward.
*Senator James Nesmith, quoted in James B. Conroy's fascinating Lincoln's White House The Poeple's House in Wartime.
**Quoted in Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage.
*** Students of history will recall the struggles of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, entertaining Polish nobles at Spala while their hemophiliac son Alexis writhed in pain on his bed after an accident.
**** Quoted in Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage.