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Tea, in the White House

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe… These first five Presidents of the United States were very different in personality, temperament, wealth, professional background, physique, and skills, but they and their wives shared one distinctive characteristic that may seem surprising: a love of tea.

It’s surprising, of course, because the American Revolution has long been symbolized by its rejection of tea. During the War, tea was boycotted and alternative weeds, herbs and random twiggery brewed as a substitute.

But tea still remained a major element of US Presidents’ and their wives’ personal and official life. That has continued through to today.

George Washington had a far stronger association with tea than did Earl Grey. Tea has been more core to life in the White House than to Buckingham Palace. There’s not a single consequential historical event associated with tea and royalty but Clara Hoover’s tea party invitation to Mrs. Jesse DePriest a century ago is a landmark in the progress of civil rights.

Since Victoria’s time, the King or Queen’s annual garden party has averaged 8,000 guests. Eleanor Roosevelt hosted eight tea parties a week and in 1939 almost 10,000 members of the public sat down for tea in the White House.

The first claimed plot to assassinate an American President was the near fatal poisoning in 1827 of the tea that James Buchanan and a group of friends shared at their weekly get together. One of the guarded secrets of the Obama Presidency was that when you saw him holding a coffee mug, it was green tea. And, not too surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson was a tea connoisseur, placing orders for twenty pounds at a time of the best, through his Philadelphia agent.  

Finally, in this brief tour of trivia, President Andrew Johnson brewed his daily tea in a pot shaped like a locomotive, which had a steam whistle and little bell that signaled when it was ready. No wonder he was the first to be impeached.

Here are a few vignettes from the Presidencies of the five Founding Fathers and their partners.

The Revolution: against Britain, not tea

George Washington loved tea. He drank three cups every morning and even during the Revolutionary War, when tea consumption was discouraged, it remained high on his agenda, and was even addressed in his military orders. When a large hidden stock of tea was discovered in 1779, he laid out meticulous instructions as to how it was to be shared out, ranging from fifty pounds to be kept at HQ, a pound for each General Officer down to a quarter pound of the remainder for any army officer who applied for it.

He and his wife Martha had excellent taste in teaware, with a large, varied and specialized collection of pewter. porcelain and silver items. At that time, porcelain remained a tightly protected China monopoly but its artists were tailoring new designs to the European craze for “chinoiserie.” Washington’s letters to his London agent are very insistent that he wanted to keep up with the fashions.

A 1755 tea set owned by Washington since his bachelor days

A 1755 tea set owned by Washington since his bachelor days

One of the most emblematic pictures of this extraordinary figure contrasts with the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of him, awkward and apathetic, suffering from his badly-fitting new false teeth. Washington was a sandy-haired giant for the times, 6’ 3’ in height, with a commanding presence. A skilled card player, one of the most noted horse riders of the Virginia gentlemen, and a successful explorer and surveyor.

Here’s a picture of him imagined with the Marquis of Lafayette, his protegee, at Mount Vernon. Martha Washington is serving tea in the background. It captures much more of the man and his underrated wife and of his pride in his Mount Vernon retreat.

Washington_and_Lafayette_at_Mount_Vernon,_1784_by_Rossiter_and_Mignot,_1859

Washington and Lafayette, Tea at Mount Vernon

 The Adams Family

Washington’s successor, John Adams, was lucky in his marriage. Abigail Adams managed his bizarre moods and talent for finding enemies and became his most trusted and sage adviser. Their 1,000-letter correspondence, maintained over the many years when he was away from Boston in Paris, Philadelphia or Amsterdam, is unique in intimacy and depth of communication. Abigail’s letters begin “My Dearest Friend,” which captures the respect, warmth and openness of this extraordinary partnership.

Tea was integral to the Adams household. Running through her letters are the difficulties of moving so often between their home in Quincy, Mass, with its formal tea parlor, to Philadelphia, Paris and Washington. They are full of comments about wanting a new tea table, tea urns, and getting special teaware from England. She records paying a hefty $13 dollars for a tea table in high-priced Washington in furnishing the empty White House. In the early social gatherings there, she served her own rose petal tea recipe.

Abigail went along with the patriotic fervor of the Revolution in opposing the landing of the “bainful weed” in Boston and joined other Massachusetts women in advocating rejecting the “pernicious herb.” John similarly renounced tea a year after the Boston Tea Party. He wrote to her that “I must be weaned, and, the sooner, the better.”

It didn’t last. The very month that John sent his letter of self-abnegation, he was trying to sort out a misdelivery of a parcel of tea for Abigail. When it went astray, he ordered another one. When they moved into the new White House, there were just six habitable rooms and she had to dry the family laundry on a string hung across the reception hall. But her first complaint was that “my tea-china is half missing.”

Jefferson: Great taste and little money sense

The third President, Thomas Jefferson was a knowledgeable and heavy tea buyer and drinker, who designed a beautiful tea room in his Monticello home – his “most honorable suite.”

He placed many orders for the best teas in large quantities: bohea, hyson, gunpowder. He spent an average $60 a year on tea, around $1,500 a year today (He kept detailed records throughout his life. One purchase was for a pound of Imperial souchong for what amounted to the annual salary of a Virginia teacher; he ran up over $100,000 in debts building Monticello, millions in today’s currency.

The Madisons and Monroes

Dolley Madison and Elizabeth Monroe established tea as central to the formal social etiquette of the White House. They made it the base for a mix of formal events and more casual intimate gatherings that created a distinctive social style in the new capital of a new republic.

Dolley Madison was a charmer, charismatic, impossible to ignore even among those who disliked her. She was also one of the most effective political leaders of her time. Her key contribution was to systematically create social spaces where men and women in the very contentious and vicious environment of the early Republic could socialize, gossip, make deals and get to know each other outside the public arena. In a nice turn of phrase her biographer, Catherine Algron, captures her achievement: If James Madison and his colleagues “dreamed of and drafted the plan for ‘The Grand Federal Edifice,’ Dolley built it brick by brick. One cup of tea, one favor, one connection at a time.”

The Madisons continued the tradition of excellent and elegant tea ware. The Monroes’ extended it and definitely moved it towards more complexity. Elizabeth Monroe was very active in the design of the first official Presidential dinner and tea service. When the Madisons moved to the White House, they took with them the tea table bought twenty years earlier, in 1797, when James Madison was Ambassador in France.            

This selective focus on tea and the Presidency brings out some interesting personalities and events that otherwise are only in the mists of history. Louisa Catherine Adams was the only foreign-born First Lady until the current occupant of the office. She may well have won her husband, the unsociable John Quincy Adams, the Presidency. He disdained campaigning. Louisa did it for and despite him. (One of the best tea quotes is Emerson’s putdown of the dour Adams: “He takes his tea with arsenic.”)

Her sustained program of Tuesday tea parties was the real though unofficial campaign. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but only a plurality of Electoral College votes. but a “corrupt bargain” among the other candidates and their Congressional cronies. Around eighty of these attended her final formal tea party the night before they voted to give the Presidency to her husband.

The most infamous event was Betty Ford being stuck at tea with the truly detestable, ignorant and narcissistic Imelda Marcos. That created a flow of high level cables and faxes at top government levels, including Henry Kissinger.

Finally, many Presidential families owned beautiful teaware along with sets commissioned for use in the White House. Lincoln’s tea set is especially attractive.

Tea at the White House: Jessie DePriest

Any coverage of tea in the White House should highlight Lou Hoover’s invitation to Jessie DePriest in 1929. She was the wife of Oscar DePriest, the first Afro-American Congressman elected since 1901. He held his Chicago seat for three terms where he was the only black representative in the House and Senate.

His record as a businessman, politician, organizer and activist was astonishing, though marred by a swing to opposition to many of FDR’s programs in the late 1930s. He played a continued role in desegregating Congressional facilities, built his wealth by helping black families buy houses in white neighborhoods – “blockbusting” and launching unsuccessful efforts to get lynching defined as a Federal crime and successful ones to end job discrimination in the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the key New Deal programs.

His wife, Jessie, was in the limelight only once and her long life is not well-documented. She is believed to have been a piano teacher and was well-educated, with great personal presence and seems to have been a valuable support to her firebrand husband in helping him gain credibility among the black elite and white civil rights supporters.

Lou Henry Hoover, the President’s wife, invited Jessie to be part of the traditional White House tea party for Congressional wives, the first black guest there since Booker T. Washington in 1901. The response was extreme and vile and lasted for the rest of Hoover’s Administration. There’s no reason to dignify the threats, efforts by state legislatures to sanction Hoover, and rage expressed in the press.

The main protest was that the tea and how Mrs. DePriest handled the challenge gave social credibility to blacks and legitimacy to her husband and encouraged aspirations by people who should know their place and stay in it. That’s exactly what it did.

There have been five landmark tea parties in American politics: the Boston event of 1773, the influential Edmonton Tea Party boycott in 1774 organized and led by fifty women, the Seneca Falls meeting in 1848 that launched the women’s rights movement as a coordinated force for change, the coopting of the label by the radical right in 2009 and the DePriest White House party of 1929.

So, tea didn’t lose its role, prestige or visibility at the center of American society and identity after the first Boston Tea Party. The reasons are simple and exactly the same as with tea lovers in general. Why did Washington drink 3-4 cups daily for breakfast or Jefferson place precise orders for the best souchong with his London agent or Obama drink plenty of organic green tea? Because they liked the pleasures of good tea.

Why did the Adams and Monroes bring their well-used tea sets and tables to the White House? Because these were part of their everyday family life. Why so many excellent pots, cups and sugar bowls? Because everyone loves the beauty, variety and styles of porcelain and it makes a great gift (from visiting dignitaries, in this particular case.)

These vignettes give just a flavor of the rich history of tea in the White House. There are many more.

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

2 Comments

  1. David Preston says

    The Dolly Madison biographer is Catherine Allgor, not Algron.

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