From William Crawford
Washington 30th. Novr. 1811
Your customary card has renewed an embarrassment under which I have labored since the first & only time I attended your table as a guest. Living recluse from intercourse with polished society—unacquainted with the regulations of their ceremonial—and diffident of the conduct I ought to observe—I at that time committed a blunder—which may have been construed into rudeness—where I could have no rational motive to offend & where I am conscious I had not a wish to occasion an uneasy sensation. As a representative of the people my standing in society requires an exertion to relieve myself from an awkward situation which has ever since denied me to your hospitality.1 If this is admitted as an apology an intimation thereof from you will bring me to your table on tuesday—if not it will be considered as forming my excuse. I am Sir With high respect Your Most Obedt.
RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.
1. The Madisons gave evening parties in the President’s House on a semiweekly basis, and all the members of Congress probably received an invitation to one of these occasions during the course of a legislative session. The issue of an appropriate style of “republican” etiquette at such times was a difficult one, both for the president and for the legislators, and according to Jonathan Roberts (1771–1854), a freshman representative from Pennsylvania who seems to have received an invitation to the dinner that his colleague Crawford hesitated to attend, even “the oldest veterans” of the Washington scene were “not without emotions on these occasions.” Roberts, for example, had agonized over how to respond to JM’s invitation, although he admitted to his brother as he awaited the 4 P.M. arrival time, “In the first place I am pretty hungry.” As to his misgivings, he wrote: “It is not pleasant to encounter new scenes where it is not easy to be prepar’d for all that passes & where embarrassments may arise that may subject one to the sneers of the narrow minded. My dining then is not a matter of choice but expediency as it will subject one to less notice to accept than refuse” (Jonathan Roberts to Mathew Roberts, 2 Dec. 1811 [PHi: Roberts Papers]).
After attending JM’s table, Roberts continued his letter: “General Pickens & Dr Kent of Maryland and myself left the capitol in a Hack for the White house which is about a Mile distant. On our arrival we were met by a French servant in livery in the antechamber where we left our Hats and Coats who conducted us thro two or three rooms to that in which the company were assembling—Where we found Mrs Madison & her widowed sister Washington & perhaps 8 or ten gentlemen.… On the right of the fire as you enter sat the Lady herself & on the left her sister at about 10 feet distance rows of chairs with stuffed purple silk velvet cushuions were extended in paralell lines from the two ladies seats.” After having made their bows to the ladies, “every body chose their seats where they might be found vacant. Those of more confidence & standing entered into conversation with the Ladies while the rest addressd their next neighbours.… The chat with the Ladies was common place & easy tho’ evidently the effect of effort” (ibid.).
“While seated in waiting for dinner,” Roberts reported, “a small Glass of Lemonade was servd round. In about half an hour after entering Dinner was announcd. Two of the gentlemen nearest to the Ladies rose & with a very courtly air took their hands and capered off to the dinner room. The Ladies were here seated next the fire at the upper end of the table. The president was confin’d with the tooth ache and did not at all appear. Mr Coles his secretary took the lower end of the table. The first course was noodle soup served out by Mrs Madison and the secretary. Thro the whole entertainment the good Lady preservd her character as the efficient head of the table. There was no want of variety or plenty but the soup Meats pastry and dessert were plain and economical. There was Porter for drink & five kinds of wine none of which I believe could be call’d good Wares. There was no healths drank nor any body rose to carve. There was a pretty equal proportion of feds & Demo’s. The company for the most part were strangers to each other. There was no conversation across the table & but little any how. As soon as two glasses of wine had been drank the Ladies retird & the table very soon dispersd. I might have staid coffee but did not as I have not made up my mind how far it is proper to open my books with the people of the White House. My impressions respecting the deportment of Mrs Madison & the whole arrangement of the feast is that it was conducted with much ease & plainess. Nor do I think the sternest democrat amongst us would be disposd to condemn the practice with much severity were he to witness it” (ibid.).
On a related matter Roberts added: “I have not been at a teaparty at the White house or what is vulgarly calld a levee tho I think I shall ere long. I understand that on those occassions the citizens put on their best suits & those who aspire to distinguishd gallantry do not appear in boots but that this is entirely a matter of Fancy. The levee or tea party then I understand is conducted with as much ease as the dinners & many good reasons may be given why a republican President should admit these th[r]ongs under proper limitations. He ought not nor he cannot live a recluse & to admit every one at the hour he might call as a private visitor would be insupportable. Mrs Madison I understand has unequivocally declar’d she is a democrat tho the world have strong doubts of it” (ibid.). For a more general discussion of the Madisons’ methods of entertainment in Washington, see Barbara G. Carson, Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington (Washington, 1990), pp. 158–62.