A Young Charles Dickens. Library of Congress
As the home of America's chief political authority and leading diplomatic figure, the White House has long opened its doors to prominent figures from foreign nations. Presidents have invited monarchs and musicians, prime ministers and poets into their home. Many such visitors have recorded their thoughts and by doing so have provided a resource for future students to explore how the presidency and the White House have been perceived throughout history. More so, we can learn about how notable characters from around the world have viewed American political culture.
Travel accounts have been published about America since its founding. Particularly interesting are impressions of European visitors who have grown up in aristocratic nations and have come to America curious about the workings and by-products of democracy. It should not be surprising that in the 19th century, natives of Great Britain should want to return to the former colonies and investigate the successes and failures of what was considered a "great experiment" in self-government when America declared independence in 1776. In 1842, one of Britain's most celebrated authors, Charles Dickens, toured the United States at the age of 30. By this date, he had already gained fame with publication of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club; The Adventures of Oliver Twist; The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; and The Old Curiosity Shop. His journey took him to Washington, and his itinerary included a meeting with President John Tyler and an evening reception at the White House where he saw his friend and fellow writer Washington Irving.
Although Dickens was sympathetic to the "common man" in much of his fiction, the American public was disappointed in the author's tour. As one scholar put it, "America, it seems, expected a sort of young messiah of democracy while Dickens, for his part, expected to behold the promised land." (Michael Slater, Dickens on America & the Americans, 1978) Dickens published his impressions in American Notes (1842). Shortly afterward, his experiences took on an imaginative form in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit.
The author of great comic prose did not amuse American readers with his portrayal of them. But Dickens's view of the White House from American Notes was fairly balanced. He took sharp aim at the office seekers milling around the president's offices, producing a number of caricature portraits while commenting frequently on what he considered the uncouth American habit of spitting. President John Tyler, who had recently become the first president to ascend to office through the death of a predecessor, was deemed worthy of his office. As for the White House social gathering, Dickens was struck by the variety of visitors and their respect for the presidency exhibited by their behavior while in the president's home.
1. To examine the point of view of international visitors on American political and cultural institutions.
2. To appreciate that literary documents can be entertaining as well as informative sources for historical researchers.
» National History Standards
They called President John Tyler, "His Accidency." When President William Henry Harrison died only one month into his first term in April 1841, Vice President Tyler rushed to Washington from his Virginia home. Legislators were not clear on the Constitution's guidance in the case of a president dying in office; it had not happened before. Tyler, however, was not uncertain, and insisted that he not serve out the term as "vice president" or "acting president" but he took the title of "president." All mail sent to the White House, unless addressed to "President" Tyler, remained unopened.
John Tyler. White House Collection
The White House, 1848. White House Collection
Support for Tyler as Harrison's vice president had come from the Whig party and its leader Henry Clay, but soon after Tyler moved into the White House, it was apparent that the president preferred a states' rights view of policy while the Whigs were more nationalistic. The Whigs also found to their dismay that Tyler was not willing to allow a Whig Congress to reduce his authority as chief executive. When Tyler twice vetoed bills intended to establish a strong National Bank, the Whig leadership expelled him from their party. Most members of Tyler's cabinet resigned. A drunken mob marched upon the White House. Outside the gates they shouted at Tyler and burned him in effigy, cursing his name and throwing stones at the walls built by George Washington
a half-century earlier.
Shortly thereafter, two bills were combined and sent to Tyler. The first raised tariff duties, which Tyler favored in order to replenish the U. S. Treasury. The other would stop Congress from distributing the proceeds of public land sales to the states and instead apply them toward the national deficit. Tyler once again used his veto powers to force Congress to ensure his success, but he angered Whigs and Democrats as well as members of both parties in the southern states who wanted the public sales proceeds to flow to them. Tyler was a president without party. No wonder Charles Dickens noted that the president was "at war with everybody." Soon Tyler would raise the issue of the annexation of Texas, something avoided by Andrew Jackson
and Martin van Buren
, both of whom feared that the addition of another slave state would feed the fires of sectional discontent. Anglo-American relations were testy, as well, as conflicts arose over the boundary between Maine and Canada.
American Notes was published in serial form in this New York
newspaper. Library of Congress
Charles Dickens entered a White House with a sickly first lady who was seldom seen by the public. Standing in for Letitia Tyler
was the president's daughter-in-law, Pricilla
. The president's seven children, ranging in age from 11 to 26, lived in the house on the second floor, down the hall from his office. A public reception was held monthly and guests could attend without invitation. When Congress was in session, Tyler hosted two evening receptions and two formal dinners on a monthly basis. It is not clear if Dickens knew that Tyler had requested funding for what would shortly become the first permanent White House security force, but the author does mention the orderly manner of the reception crowd.
Dickens visited during the morning, and was escorted upstairs to meet the president. Later during his visit to the nation's capital Dickens and his wife enjoyed an evening reception in the East Room. His account of his White House visit was published in American Notes for General Circulation
Primary Document Activities
Visiting "The President's Mansion"
South Front of the White House, 1846.
Since the first days of its occupancy in 1800, the White House has been a popular place to visit. For much of the 19th century, compared to today, it was not terribly difficult for respectable ladies and gentlemen to get an appointment to see the president. When prominent international visitors came to Washington, they often had the opportunity to meet the president and perhaps enjoy dinner or a reception with him. One of the most famous early visits was that of the Marquis de Lafayette, who toured America in 1824-25, meeting with President James Monroe
and President John Quincy Adams
. When a writer visits the White House, impressions can be especially interesting. Charles Dickens came to America with the intent to publish his thoughts about the nation, its people and its institutions. His descriptions of American visitors in the "President's mansion" are especially entertaining and reveal an outsider's view of the chief executive and his workplace.
Make copies of Dickens's impressions of the White House and President John Tyler on his first visit
and distribute to students to read. Also, give them a copy of the south front photograph
(click on image at left) showing the White House essentially the way it looked when Dickens visited.
Ask a student to read aloud the first paragraph while classmates examine the exterior photograph. Tell them the photo was taken just a few years after Dickens visited. Some have interpreted the comparison of the White House to "an English club-house," with gardens that seem to have been "made yesterday," as a somewhat disdainful description from a British subject who is accustomed to centuries-old government buildings of a majestic nature. But after reading the description and viewing the photograph, ask students to gauge the accuracy of Dickens's description. Is he exaggerating, or is he close to the truth? While 19th-century Americans were sensitive to descriptions of the President's House lacking grandeur, the size of the White House is often mentioned by modern presidents as the right size for a democratic nation. Why the change in viewpoints?
Ask students to read the rest of the passage, including the descriptions of those who are touring the White House or waiting to see the president, the description of the waiting room outside Tyler's office, and Dickens's meeting with the president. Keeping in mind the entire passage, have students make a list of reasons why a young American nation might not care for this description from a British writer. Consider the historical relationship between the two nations, and direct students to write a newspaper editorial, dated July 4, 1842, countering Dickens's description.
A Democratic Reception
Shortly before he departed the nation's capital, Dickens and his wife Catherine attended an evening reception (or "levee") at the White House. The author noted the variety of "classes" represented by the guests, their attire and behavior. He seemed surprised at the sense of order at this crowded event and pleased that Americans were sophisticated enough to admire his friend and fellow novelist Washington Irving, who was also in attendance. Read the passage describing the reception
. Discuss Dickens's positive portrayals, and then ask students to play the part of Dickens. Have them read one or more of the editorials from the activity above and, as "Dickens," ask them to write a letter to the editor challenging the newspaper's viewpoint. Extra points for those who try to mimic the master's style!
Picturing the President's House
Dickens's published works were often illustrated with drawings of the places and people he described. Some might say that Dickens did such an excellent job of providing a mental image of the figures in his writing that illustrations were unnecessary. Nonetheless, his publishers insisted. Dickens worked closely with some of England's finest illustrators, such as George Cruikshank. To see some examples, visit: http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/illustrations.html
Have students consider illustrating some of the people described in his White House account
: the Kentucky farmer, the "oval-faced bilious-looking man," or others. There are very few interior images that show the White House in the 1840s. Have students use their imagination, along with Dickens's description, and illustrate the rooms as well, or draw an entire scene as depicted by the British author.
Enrichment and Extension
In the Eyes of the Beholder
Keeping in mind Dickens's comparison of the White House to an "English club-house," ask students to do research on English clubs in London that Dickens knew. Some examples that still exist are the Carlton, the Reform, the University, the Travellers and other clubs in the vicinity of London's Pall Mall.
Students should create brief architectural histories — with images — of the clubs and the White House (see the lesson Building the White House
on this site for background). They should include an introduction to their house histories supporting or refuting Dickens's comparison. Arguments should take into consideration architectural style, construction materials, interior design, size, and purpose of the building (or use of the various spaces).
Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation
. Patricia Ingham, ed. New York: Penguin USA, 2000.
You can also access American Notes
on the Web at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DicAmer.html
Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Slater, Michael. Dickens on America & the Americans
. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.
National History Standards, Grades 5-12
Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
Standard 3A The student understands the changing character of American political life in the age of the common man.
Standards in Historical Thinking, Grades 5-12
2C – Read historical narratives imaginatively.
2G – Draw upon visual, literary, and musical sources.
3B – Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions.
3D – Consider multiple perspectives.
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