Your parents leave town for the weekend. You hold a rager. There’s some property damage and possibly a smattering of human sick on your mother’s white microfiber carpet. Don’t feel ashamed. It happens to all of us. Even presidents.
Andrew Jackson — founder of the Democratic Party, hero of the 1812 Battle of New Orleans, nicknamed after sturdy wood (“Old Hickory”) — was also apparently responsible for an inauguration party that pretty much destroyed the White House.
Not that Jackson made a giant pitcher of some Colonial Jungle Juice and invited the nation over to chill. Then again, as some people saw it at the time, the exxxtreme-factor of his inauguration might have a bit to do with the fact that he was our first so-called “Frontier President.” Born in 1767 somewhere between North and South Carolina (state borders were a bit fuzzier in Jackson’s day), he was a stranger to East Coast high society, a man of the people. (The “people’s president” was actually one of his, like, million nicknames.) Maybe a bustin’ party was inevitable, if not at all intentional.
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The inauguration was actually a solemn and respectful—and totally packed—event. The major “problem,” it included regular folk, like you and me. According to a letter written by D.C. society lady Margaret Bayard Smith, “Thousands and thousands of people, without distinction of rank, collected in an immense mass round the Capitol” to watch Jackson’s inauguration by Chief Justice John Marshall. Things started off calmly enough, what with the whole swearing in and taking the welfare of a nation into your hands. But once it came time to celebrate, everything changed.
The crowd was invited into the White House, which they proceeded to treat like a frat house during rush week. Again according to Smith, “Cut glass and china to the amount of several thousand dollars had been broken in the struggle to get the refreshments, punch and other articles had been carried out in tubs and buckets, but had it been in hogsheads [huge barrels capable of holding gallons and gallons of wine] it would have been insufficient.” Jackson was apparently so crushed by the throngs, he had to escape by a window. And at least according to one account, the White House was only eventually emptied by putting bowls of punch outside, onto the White House lawn. The crowd followed the booze, leaving a lot of damage behind.
Writing for WhiteHouseHistory.org, David and Jeanne Heidler recount that a “surging crowd made mingling impossible, and as people pushed toward Jackson and lunged toward refreshments, they collided with fragile furniture and shoved servants laden with punch bowls and trays of food. Waiters were trying to maneuver with a large bowl of spiked orange punch crashed into a crowd and spilled it all on the carpet. Men in work boots, straining to see Jackson, stood on expensive upholstered furniture.”
According to ConstitutionCenter.org, “James Hamilton Jr., a representative from South Carolina, wrote the next day to Martin Van Buren and called the event a ‘Saturnalia.’” In case you’ve forgotten your Ancient Roman history, the pagan Saturnalia looked a little something like this. And according to at least one painter, the inauguration party ended up looking like this. (Cleanup, apparently, took a week.)
Smith, who we can only assume wrote her letter while wearing some kind of conservatively high-collared frock and holding a monocle, wasn’t indirect about who to blame: “Ladies and gentlemen, only had been expected at this Levee, not the people en masse. But it was the People’s day, and the People’s President and the People would rule.”
Jackson actually got out of the White House before things got too wild, but we imagine at least a few dudes in white wigs woke up on the White House lawn the next day and went in search of the 18th Century equivalent of a greasy egg sandwich.