The First, First Family Moves In

Poor Abigail Adams! The White House was an unfinished and cold “mess” when she moved in!! The first, First Family to live in the new nation’s home for its president.  Sounds romantic and elegant! But, alas, that’s not the way it was.

Let me set the stage for you a bit ---

* Abigail’s husband, President John Adams, was already 3 years into his term as president and these years had not been easy ones!

* The nation’s Capital had moved several times and was at last to be moved permanently to the newly created District of Columbia. It was to be called Washington, DC.

* Washington, DC had few roads and very little infrastructure.

* Only six of the 36 rooms in the White House were habitable when the President and First Lady, Abigail Adams moved in.

Here's the final paragraph of Abigail Adam’s letter to her sister, Mary Cranch, dated Nov’br 21, 1800. Let's see how she describes the White House when she first arrived for the first time ---

This day the President meets the two [Congressional] Houses to deliver the speech. There has not been a [quorum in the] House untill yesterday -- We have had some very cold weather and feel it keenly. This [President’s] House is twice as large as our meeting House. I believe the great Hall is as Bigg. I am sure tis twice as long. Cut your coat according to your Cloth. But this House is built for ages to come. The establishment necessary is a tax which cannot be born by the present sallery: No body can form an Idea of it but those who come into it. I had much rather live in the house at Philadelphia. Not one room or chamber is finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet & damp places.

Yours as ever
A. A.

[Source, Mitchell, New Letters of Abigail Adams, pp. 256-260] White House Historical Society Lesson Plans The White House as Home and Symbol to John and Abigail Adams Letters from 1800.

Now, here’s a link to another letter from Abigail; this time it’s to her daughter, Abigail Smith. Have a look and see what the First Lady tells her daughter about the new Washington, DC:

Abigail Adams to her daughter, Abigail Smith, November 21, 1800

 [Source: Leish, Kenneth W., The White House: A History of the Presidents, pp. 138-139] White House Historical Society Lesson Plans The White House as Home and Symbol to John and Abigail Adams Letters from 1800.

Can you imagine?

For Teachers

After exploring DC, wonder how your students would describe the city? It might be great fun having them write a letter home giving their first impressions of DC to family and friends, much as Abigail did.  After all, what they say today, will be original documents in the future!

Side Bar

When our nation’s Capital City was an it’s infancy no one had computers, cell phones, TVs, radios or movies. Paper was expensive and not everyone could read or write. So face-to-face social gatherings like ladies’ teas became an important vehicle for learning the latest news, getting advice on running a home or on schooling one’s children.

 Then, as more people learned to read and write, letter writing became an important source of information about everyday lives, traditions, thoughts and emotions of  friends and relatives. These letters are important primary sources.  And they are wonderfully interesting!

Interesting Resources

1. The White House as a Home and Symbol ---

2. The White House Historical Society ---

3. The Massachusetts Historical Society --- for letters from John and Abigail Adams to on another.

4. Library of Congress ---

5. Letter writing in the 1800’s ---

6. The history of Handwriting ---