Friday, February 6, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "Let Them Talk, and Come With Me to One of Mrs. Lincoln's Receptions"

While Duvergier de Hauranne has only managed to catch sight of President Lincoln at a distance during his first weeks in Washington – a mere glimpse of “a long-legged giant who was leaving the White House lobby wrapped up to his nose in an enormous scarf” – the visitor does manage to enter the Presidential mansion on a different basis.  His account of attending one of Mrs. Lincoln’s receptions leads him to comment on the no-frills lifestyle she and the President maintain, in marked contrast to the luxurious trappings of kings and potentates in other countries.  Duvergier de Hauranne came to the U.S. heavily influenced by de Tocqueville’s accounts of American egalitarianism, and his sympathy for the Lincolns is evident.  Many other European visitors during Lincoln's time in office took the opposite tack; they often lampooned the President and his wife as country rubes, a nineteenth century version of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Mary Todd Lincoln
After relating that Mary Todd Lincoln had been savaged in American newspapers for charging the government for unofficial dinners and for not paying her bills on a timely basis, Duvergier de Hauranne comments that “in spite of all the thievery they are accused of, these American leaders are not very rich.”  He reports, admiringly, that Lincoln refused to take payment of his annual salary of $25,000 in gold rather than in paper money -- at that time an uncertain monetary instrument at best.  When the Frenchman asked Robert Todd Lincoln if he had any plans to visit Europe, the President’s son replied that the trip would cost too much.  “I know of no other country where the Chief of State is too poor to afford a trip abroad for his son,” Duvergier de Hauranne writes.   He continues:

Let them talk, and come with me to one of Mrs. Lincoln’s receptions.   You arrive on foot, you enter the huge, bare vestibule of the White House.  There are no honor guards with golden breastplates, no swarms of glittering lackeys, not even a sentry at the door.  A lone servant in a black coat asks for your card and opens the drawing-room door for you.  It is a simple, plain room, hung with red damask.  The mistress of the house rises and comes forward; her welcome is so open and friendly that you think she is going to offer you her hand like an old acquaintance. 

White House vestibule, 1860s
The heavy stiffness of your formal bow recalls her to the cold conventions of official etiquette.  This former country-woman looks no worse in her velvet gown than any other aging lady who is a little bit plump and middle-class.  Her manner is dignified, kindly, reserved and almost shy; I must admit that her conversation is not phenomenally brilliant, and it seems that she feels an easily understandable diffidence when speaking with strangers from Europe, thought by her to be very severe judges --- especially after all the indecent mockery that has been showered upon her. The joke is on those who scoff at her, for there is nothing to laugh at in this respectable household, and I have a poor opinion of those who jeer at this modest simplicity as though the Lincolns were crude backwoodsmen.

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