THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release November 1, 2000
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
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
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
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
Now, let the celebration begin. (Applause.)
END 12:40 P.M. EST