Primary Documents

CLASSROOM | Primary Documents
The White House as Home and Symbol to John and Abigail Adams
Letters from 1800
Although today’s mailboxes are filled with magazines, catalogues, and bills, they lack an
abundance of personal letters. The technologies of the electronic age allow people to communicate quickly and efficiently without ever having to pick up a pen. Up-to-the-minute reports
via telephone, television, radio, and the Internet allow us to be informed of events as quickly
as they happen.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries people had far fewer means of communication available to them. A limited number of newspapers may have provided some people with local,
national, and international news but letter writing was a more effective and readily available
method of communication. The reasons for corresponding have not changed significantly
over the centuries. A desire to keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues who are far
away has always been important, but when limited communication options were available,
letter writing was also an important outlet for people to express opinions and exchange ideas
on many subjects. These narratives provide insight on philosophical, religious, social, scientific or political topics not only to the intended recipient, but also to the unintended reader of
Letters provide an intimate and personal record of events and ideas and they must be read
with a critical eye. Historians must consider the relationship between the writer and the
recipient, the backgrounds of both, and the context of the time period. While historic letters
cannot provide all the answers to questions of the past they do contribute a valuable perspective.
The letters in this lesson, written by President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams,
demonstrate the power and significance of letter writing from personal and historical perspectives. Their letters are filled with personal hopes and dreams along with keen observations of the political and social landscape. They reflect the Adamses’ desires to inform one
another but they also reflect an understanding that these documents would serve as a record
of their participation in unprecedented events for generations to come.
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John Adams by artist John
Trumbull. White House Collection
Abigail Adams by artist Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the
National Gallery of Art
1. By reading original letters written by John and Abigail Adams at the time of their White
House residency, the student will be able to:
Analyze letters as historical documents and draw conclusions about the benefits and limitations of letters as primary source material.
2. Compare letters written on the same day by Abigail Adams, to different people, and to
draw conclusions about the information in each letter.
3. Describe the condition of the President’s House (White House) and surrounding environs
in its earliest days as home and office of the chief executive.
4. Cite examples that John and Abigail Adams viewed their roles as first occupants of the
White House as significant for future residents.
5. Reflect on the significance of the White House as a symbol of the new republic.
Today, the White House is known around the world as a symbol of the power and influence
of the United States. When the idea first arose to build a permanent residence for the president of the new republic, George Washington hoped that the building would be a “palace”
that reflected a nation with a strong federal government, residing in a city that would one
day take its place alongside the great power centers of Europe. His vision of the house,
grander and more opulent than it ever would be in reality, was to be achieved not simply
through ornamentation and decorative elements, but through events that shaped the nation
and the leaders who would occupy the residence.
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Building the President’s House would not happen easily or quickly. The area now known as
Washington, D.C., was designated the seat of the federal government in July 1790 with the
passage of the Residence Bill. George Washington selected the site on the Potomac River.
Chosen for its central geographic location, the area was largely undeveloped farms and
forests. The government had ten years to transform this land into a capital city that would,
among other things, reflect the ideals of the new republic. Because of politics and personalities, planning and building the federal city was a long and arduous job.
(For more information on “Building the White House” go to the Classroom, Grades 4-8: classroom_4-8.html)
South view of the White House as it may have looked
in 1800. Painting by Tom Freeman, 2000
By the time John Adams first visited the city of Washington in June 1800, he was more than
three years into his presidency. His term had not been easy. Although he succeeded George
Washington as the second president of the United States, he won the office by only three
electoral votes. Not only was he in conflict with his vice president and former friend, Republican Thomas Jefferson, but Adams battled members that shared his own Federalist party,
the most vocal of whom was Alexander Hamilton. During a time of European war, President
Adams’s attempts to negotiate peace with France angered the pro-British, Hamiltonian Federalists. Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the build-up of an army and navy at the
prospect of going to war with France infuriated French-leaning Republicans.
Despite the political turmoil, John Adams remained true to his convictions and to what his
wife Abigail called the “splendid misery” of the presidency. He also remained committed to
the scheduled move of the federal government from its temporary home in Philadelphia to
Washington including his own move into the President’s House. With the possibility of a
second term uncertain, Adams initially felt that a row house on Capitol Hill would be adequate for his stay in Washington. He changed his mind during a trip to the federal city in the
summer of 1800. Accompanied by his secretary and nephew, William Shaw, Adams arrived
in Washington on June 3, 1800. His visit to the President’s House with the architect piqued
his interest. Although the exterior of the residence was complete, the interior was not. As his
interest in the house grew, Adams suggested changes, including the orientation - the south
side was to be considered the main entrance instead of the north - and the removal of certain
decorative elements, such as nude figures, from fireplace mantels. Pleased with the progress
the city was making, Adams was optimistic about the city and hoped that the President’s
House would be completed by the scheduled move later that year.
Without ceremony, President Adams arrived at his new home on the Potomac River on
November 1, 1800. The White House, like much of the city and the rest of the nation, was a
work in progress. Only six of the 36 rooms were habitable. Many rooms were partially finished. The walls of what is now called the East Room were unplastered and would be used as
a drying room for wet clothes. Only one small set of service stairs led to the second floor.
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The rooms were cold and drafty and would require fires burning at all times and the president would have to pay for the firewood out of his own pocket. Lamps for lighting the house
were scarce and the furnishings that were shipped from the presidential mansion in Philadelphia were in poor condition. It was remarkable that the president and first lady consented
to live in the house for what they assumed might be a few short months.
Mrs. Adams supervises the hanging of laundry in the
East Room. Painting by Gordon Phillips
Abigail Adams arrived in Washington two weeks after her husband. Although first reluctant
to join him, his desire for her to be with him overruled any reservations she might have had.
Despite ill health, Abigail Adams made the trip to Washington to ensure that the transition
to the new residence was as smooth and comfortable as possible. Her impressions of the city
and the President’s House were immediate and clearly stated in letters she wrote to her sister and daughter. Despite the state of the city and the residence, Abigail Adams recognized
their future potential, as well as the importance of her role as first lady. She would make the
best of the situation. Although Abigail Adams’s stay in Washington was marked by disappointment - her husband lost his bid for reelection and her son Charles died in New York
soon after her arrival - she performed her duties as presidential wife with the seriousness
and dignity that the role required.
Letters were life lines for Abigail Adams. Accustomed to long periods of separation from
her husband, she spent many years alone on the family farm in Braintree (Quincy), Massachusetts, raising children and managing the property. When apart, John and Abigail Adams
filled the void through their correspondence. She wrote often to her husband, as well as to
other family members and friends, on every topic imaginable. Although she did not keep a
diary or journal, taken together, her letters serve much the same purpose. Whereas she may
have felt constrained in speaking her mind on certain subjects, Abigail felt little discomfort in writing down her thoughts. To her husband she observed, “My pen is always freer
than my tongue. I have wrote many things to you that I suppose I never could have talk’d.”
[quoted in Akers, Abigail Adams: An American Woman, p. 24] Her letters reflect personal
views on politics, education, the role of women and other societal issues. It is clear that her
husband viewed her role not only as a friend but also as an adviser and sounding board for
his ideas and concerns. Their correspondence served them well throughout their lives and
provide a lasting legacy for those who study the early days of the American republic.
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National History Standards
This lesson and accompanying activities meet the following National Standards for United
States History Grades 5-12, Era 3, Standard 3D: Revolution and the New Nation (17541820’s)
Historical Thinking Standards:
2. Historical Comprehension
A. Identify the author of the historical document and assess its credibility.
B. Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage.
E. Read historical narratives imaginatively.
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
A. Consider multiple perspectives.
D. Draw comparisons across eras in order to define enduring issues.
F. Compare competing historical narratives.
J. Hypothesize the influence of the past, including both the limitations and the opportunities
made possible by past decisions.
4. Historical Research Capabilities
A. Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness
accounts and letters.
C. Interrogate historical data.
D. Identify the gaps in available records.
5. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
A. Identify issues and problems in the past.
D. Evaluate alternative courses of action.
E. Formulate a position or course of action on an issue.
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Enrichment and Expansion:
1. Great fanfare greeted President John Adams when he took his first trip to Washington
in June 1800. He was met at the city’s border with a military salute and received an escort
by men on horseback. Throughout his short visit he was honored and entertained by various factions of the Washington community. At one dinner he received seventeen toasts. He
visited most of the city’s buildings under construction and addressed audiences as he went.
Aware of the importance of his visit and the pending move, Adams addressed his hosts with
enthusiasm in regard to the future of the Federal City.
By contrast, John Adams’s move into the President’s House in November 1800 went virtually unnoticed. No major social events were held in his honor in the first few days. The few
newspaper accounts simply record his return to the city and his move into the residence. It
is hard to imagine that in today’s world the arrival of a head of state in a similar situation
would go unnoticed and uncelebrated.
Read the following brief notice that appeared in at least two newspapers, The Universal Gazette, Washington, D.C., November 6, 1800, and The Boston Gazette, November 13, 1800:
“On Saturday last the PRESIDENT of the United States arrived in this city, and took up his
residence in the house appropriated to him by the [federal district’s] commissioners. Though
not entirely finished, the part which is completed will afford ample accommodation.”
Describe your reaction to this article. Do you think this is an appropriate or adequate
amount of press coverage for this particular event? What information is the reader supposed
to gather from this article?
Imagine you are a newspaper reporter. Write an article about the arrival of the Adamses in Washington. Include the condition of the President’s House in your article. Take the
challenge and write the article from the point of view of a political supporter or opponent of
President Adams.
2. The three letters in this lesson focus on the physical condition of the President’s House at
the time of the arrival of its first residents. Both John and Abigail Adams recognized that although the house was lacking in furnishings and other physical amenities, in time the house
would be grand and beautiful. How has the physical nature of the White House changed over
the years? Do further research on the various changes that have been made over time. You
can find an overview of “Building the White House” and a Technological Timeline on this
site. How has the role of the White House changed over the years? Or has it?
3. Communicating through letters is not an uncommon practice between presidents and
their wives. Read some of these letters. What issues of concern or importance characterize the information in these letters? Describe the circumstances - such as world or national
events and political climate - under which the letters were written. Can you characterize the
relationship between the president and the first lady through the letters? Cite examples to
support your opinion. What other sources might you use to obtain a better understanding of
this relationship? What other means of communication did these presidents and their wives
have besides letters?
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Sources for additional research on letters between presidents & first ladies:
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Letters to Mamie. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1978.
Ferrell, Robert H., editor. Dear Bess: The Letters From Harry Truman To Bess Truman,
1910-1959. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.
Reagan, Nancy and Ronald Reagan. I Love You, Ronnie. New York: Random House, 2000.
Bibliography and Links:
Akers, Charles W. Abigail Adams: An American Woman. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.
Jensen, Amy. The White House and Its Thirty-Five Families. New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Company, 1958.
Leish, Kenneth W. The White House: A History of the Presidents. New York: Newsweek,
Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Mitchell, Stewart, editor. New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947.
Seale, William. The President’s House, Volume I. Washington, D. C.: White House Historical Association, 1986.
The White House: The History of an American Idea. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute of Architects, 1992.
Gelles, Edith B. “The Paradox of High Station: Abigail Adams as First Lady.” White House
History, Number 7. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, (Spring 2000),
Seale, William. “The White House in John Adams’s Presidency,” White House History,
Number 7. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, (Spring 2000), 26-35.
The Massachusetts Historical Society |
Library of Congress |
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Activity 1: Wish You Were Here
John Adams’s first days in the White House were remarkable in their ordinariness. He conducted business as usual and met with well-wishers. By the end of the second day he wrote
a letter to his wife. This short note to Abigail anticipated her arrival in Washington, but Adams spared many of the details of the condition of the house, knowing that she would form
her own impressions.
Read the Text or the Original Handwritten Letter Page One & Page Two that John Adams
wrote to Abigail Adams on November 2, 1800 and complete the following. (SEE PG.9)
1. Describe John Adams’s mood when he wrote the letter and cite words or phrases that support your answer.
2. Characterize the information John Adams gives in this letter to his wife. Why do you
think he does not give more details about the condition of the house? In what way does he
acknowledge the significance of his being the first occupant of the house? Cite the passage
that demonstrates John Adams’s view that the President’s House is built for the ages. (This
passage was so significant that President Franklin Roosevelt had it engraved on the fireplace
mantel in the State Dining Room.)
3. Describe your reaction to the letter as if you were Abigail Adams. Would you be looking
forward to your trip or would you be hesitant? Write a letter in reply.
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John Adams to Abigail Adams
Presidents house, Washington City, Nov. 2. 1800
My dearest friend
We arrived here last night, or rather yesterday at one O Clock and here We dined and Slept.
The Building is in a State to be habitable. And now We wish for your Company. The Account
you give of the melancholly State of our dear Brother Mr. Cranch and his family is really distressing and must Severely afflict you. I most cordially Sympathize with you and them.
I have Seen only Mr. Marshall and Mr. Stoddert, General Wilkinson and the two Commissioners Mr. Scott and Mr. Thornton.
I Shall Say nothing of public affairs. I am very glad you consented to come on, for you would
have been more anxious at Quincy than here, and I, to all my other Solicitudines Mordaces
as Horace calls them i.e. “biting Cares” Should have added a great deal on your Account.
Besides it is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other.
Before I end my Letter I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all
that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.
I shall not attempt a description of it. You will form the best Idea of it from Inspection.
Mr. Brisler is very anxious for the arrival of the Man and Women and I am much more so for
that of the Ladies. I am with unabated Confidence and affection your
John Adams
Note on some names mentioned: Secretary of State John Marshall; Secretary of the Navy
Benjamin Stoddert; District of Columbia commissioners Gustavus Scott and William
Thornton; Adams’s steward John Briesler
Courtesy of the Massachusetts
Historical Society
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Activity 2: “A romantic but a wild wilderness at present”
Abigail Adams to her sister, Mrs. Mary Cranch, November 21, 1800: Read the Text and see a
page of the Original Handwritten Letter (SEE PG.11)
Abigail Adams to her daughter, Abigail Smith, November 21, 1800: Read the Text
(SEE PG.13)
Abigail Adams was a prolific letter writer. She wrote often to family members and friends,
keeping them abreast of her experiences and passing along information she learned from
others. A keen observer, her letters are candid and filled with political and social commentary, as well as personal advice. Shortly after arriving in Washington, Mrs. Adams wrote
letters to her sister, Mary, and to her daughter, Abigail (nicknamed “Nabby”), chronicling
the events leading up to her arrival at the President’s House and her early impressions of
the home itself. Her unique perspective and observations provide insights into this critical
historical period that might otherwise have gone unrecorded.
1. Read both letters carefully. What is the purpose of each letter? Do you get the same impression of the capital city of Washington and the President’s House from both letters?
2. Make a list of the various ways she describes the city of Washington. What aspects does
she single out? At one point in the letter to her daughter, Abigail Adams feels that she may
have been too candid in her description of the President’s House. Why would she be concerned about her negative observations? Note examples of how she changes her tone to
reflect a more positive outlook.
3. What is Abigail Adams’s opinion of the President’s House? How many rooms are available
for the family to use? What are the functions of the various rooms in the house? Imagine the
time of year and what is required to keep the rooms comfortable. According to Mrs. Adams,
what amenities are lacking at the house? What are her biggest concerns about the house and
its furnishings? What is needed most to complete the house?
4. Imagine you are a “travel reporter” in 1800. After reading Mrs. Adams’s description of
the city, its current condition, as well as its future potential, write an article that promotes
Washington as a city in which to visit or to live. Include information on “points of interest,”
such as the President’s House.
5. As the wife of a public figure, Abigail Adams often suppressed her own hopes and wishes
in deference to a higher calling. In what ways does she acknowledge the role that the President’s House plays in the future? Describe your reactions to the condition of the White
House as Abigail Adams found it. Did she do the right thing by accepting the situation and
making the best of it? Explain.
6. Imagine you are either the daughter or sister of Mrs. Adams. Write a letter in response to
the one she has written you. What words of comfort can you give her about the condition of
the house and her role as the first lady?
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An excerpt from the letter of Abigail Adams to her sister, Mary Cranch
Washington, Nov’br 21, 1800
My Dear Sister
I arrived in this city on Sunday the 16th ult. Having lost my way in the woods on Saturday
in going from Baltimore, we took the road to Frederick and got nine miles out of our road.
You find nothing but a Forest & woods on the way, for 16 and 18 miles not a village. Here
and there a thatchd cottage without a single pane of glass, inhabited by Blacks. My intention
was to have reachd Washington on Saturday. Last winter there was a Gentleman and Lady
in Philadelphia by the Name of Snowden whose hospitality I heard much of. They visited me
and were invited to dine with us, but did not, as they left the city before the day for dinner.
They belong to Maryland, and live on the road to this place 21 miles distant. I was advised at
Baltimore to make their House my stage for the night, the only Inn at which I could put up
being 36 miles from Baltimore. . . . I sit out early, intending to make my 36 miles if possible:
no travelling however but by day light; We took a direction as we supposed right, but in the
first turn, went wrong, and were wandering more than two hours in the woods in different paths, holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass, untill we met a
solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offerd
to conduct us, which he did two miles, and then gave us such a clue as led us out to the post
road and the Inn, where we got some dinner. . . .
I arrived about one oclock at this place known by the name of the city, and the Name is all
that you can call so. As I expected to find it a new country, with Houses scatterd over a space
of ten miles, and trees & stumps in plenty with, a castle of a House -- so I found it -- The
Presidents House is in a beautiful situation in front of which is the Potomac with a view of
Alexandria. The country around is romantic but a wild, a wilderness at present.
I have been to George Town and felt all that Mrs. Cranch described when she was a resident there. It is the very dirtyest Hole I ever saw for a place of any trade, or respectability of
inhabitants. It is only one mile from me but a quagmire after every rain. Here we are obliged
to send daily for marketting; The capital is near two miles from us. As to roads we shall
make them by the frequent passing before winter, but I am determined to be satisfied and
content, to say nothing of inconvenience, &c. That must be a worse place than even George
Town, that I would not reside in for three Months.
I found your dear son here at the House to receive me. He is well and grows much like his
Father. He dined with us on Sunday & yesterday, and yesterday I went to see Nancy and
your dear little modest Boys. Richard is a fine Boy. William is more bashful, and Nancy is a
fat little doe. They are all pretty children, and Mrs. Cranch tho thin is handsomer than she
was as a Girl.
When I arrived here I found a Boston Newspaper, which containd the celebration of [President Adams’s] Birthday at Quincy. It was truly gratifying to find in a world of calumny and
falshood, that a Prophet could meet with honour in his own native soil. . . . Pray can you
inform me by whom those passages were selected from Shakespeare which composed the
Quincy toasts? The President says if his Friends intended to flatter him, they have succeeded, for he would not exchange the Quincy celebration for any other that he has heard off.
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My dear Sister the few lines in your own hand writing were a cordial to my spirits. I pray
most sincerely for your perfect restoration to health and my dear Mrs. Norton. I have received all the kind Letters of my Brother Cranch and thank him for them. If my future peace
& tranquility were all that I considered, a release from public life would be the most desirable event of it -- I feel perfectly tranquil upon the subject, hoping and trusting that, the Being in whose Hands are the Hearts of all Men, will guide and direct our national counsels for
the peace & prosperity of this great people.
Remember me affectionatly to all my Friend[s], never omitting Mrs. Black.
I have the pleasure to say we are all at present well, tho the news papers very kindly gave the
President the Ague and fever. I am rejoiced that it was only in the paper that he had it.
This day the President meets the two [Congressional]Houses to deliver the speech. There
has not been a [quorum in the] House untill yesterday -- We have had some very cold
weather and feel it keenly. This [President’s] House is twice as large as our meeting House. I
believe the great Hall is as Bigg. I am sure tis twice as long. Cut your coat according to your
Cloth. But this House is built for ages to come. The establishment necessary is a tax which
cannot be born by the present sallery: No body can form an Idea of it but those who come
into it. I had much rather live in the house at Philadelphia. Not one room or chamber is
finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to
keep daily, or sleep in wet & damp places.
Yours as ever
A. A.
[Source, Mitchell, New Letters of Abigail Adams, pp. 256-260]
The final page of a letter of Abigail Adams to her sister, Mary
Cranch, November 21, 1800. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society
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Abigail Adams to her daughter, Abigail Smith, November 21, 1800
My Dear Child,
I arrived here on Sunday last, without meeting any accident worth noticing, except losing
ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick road, by
which means we were obliged to go the other eight through woods, where we wandered two
hours without finding a guide, or the path. Fortunately, a straggling black came up with
us, and we engaged him as a guide, to extricate us out of our difficulty; but woods are all
you see, from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. . . . In the city
there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress
and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort in
them. . . . The [President’s] house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring thirty servants
to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of
the house and stables; an establishment very ill proportioned to the President’s salary. The
lighting the apartments, from the kitchen to parlours and chambers is a tax indeed; and the
fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues is another cheering comfort. To
assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting,
not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain.
This is so great an inconvenience, that I know not what to do, or how to do. The ladies from
Georgetown and in the city have many of them visited me. Yesterday I returned fifteen visits,
-- but such a place as Georgetown appears, -- why, our Milton is beautiful. But no comparisons; -- if they will put me up some bells, and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I
design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but, surrounded
with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to
cut and cart it! Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood. A small
part, a few cords only, has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of
the house before we came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible for him to
procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals; but we cannot get grates made
and set. We have, indeed, come into a new country.
You must keep all this to yourself, and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since Briesler came.
We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished
audience-room I make a drying-room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are
not up, and will not be this winter. Six chambers are made comfortable; two are occupied
by the President and Mr. Shaw; two lower rooms, one for a common parlour, and one for a
levee-room. Up stairs there is the oval room, which is designed for the drawingroom, and
has the crimson furniture in it. It is a very handsome room now; but, when completed, it will
be beautiful. If the twelve years, in which this place has been considered as the future seat of
government, had been improved, as they would have been if in New England, very many of
the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every
improvement, and, the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it.
Abigail Adams
[Source: Leish, Kenneth W., The White House: A History of the Presidents, pp. 138-139]
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