It was on this day in 1800 that President John Adams arrived in Washington, D.C., for the first time. The capital city, which had been chosen by George Washington as the seat of government for the United States, was still under construction. There were no schools or churches, only a few stores and hotels, and some shacks for the workers who were building the White House and the Capitol. The area was swampy and full of mosquitoes, and the ground covered with tree stumps and rubble. Adams might have been depressed by the dismal site of the country’s new capital, but he wrote to his wife, Abigail, “I like the seat of government very well.”
It was several months before Adams was able to live in the White House, then known as the President’s House. On the day he moved in, he entered the house with just a few of his staff. There was no honor guard or entourage or any kind of ceremony. The house was still unfinished, still smelling of wet paint and wet plaster. The furniture had been shipped down from Philadelphia, but it didn’t quite fit the enormous rooms of the new house. The only painting that had been hung on the wall was a portrait of George Washington in a black velvet suit.
It had been a difficult period in Adams’s life. He’d had a hard time filling the shoes of George Washington as president. He’d been struggling with debts ever since his election, as the presidential salary was rather meager. He’d barely prevented a war with France. He’d been plagued with political infighting among his cabinet, and in the upcoming presidential election, it looked like he might lose to Thomas Jefferson.
So Adams might have been thinking about all his troubles when he went to bed that night as the first president to sleep in the White House. He had left Abigail in Philadelphia, so he had to sleep alone. The following morning, he sat down at his desk, and in a letter to his wife he wrote: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
Adams only lived in the White House for a few more months, since he lost the election to Jefferson that year. But about 150 years later, Franklin Roosevelt had the words from Adams’s letter to Abigail carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room.