One of the most famous guests to dine at the White House during John Tyler’s presidency was the great English writer, Charles Dickens. Upon his arrival in the United States, Dickens was honored at a lavish ball in New York City, where he was greeted by such famous American writers as Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edgar Allan Poe.
A few days later, Dickens met Tyler in the White House and later penned this about the president:
He looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody - but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable.
Although Dickens seemed to like Tyler, he strongly disliked slavery. Describing a particular meal in Baltimore, Dickens wrote:
We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and…were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and sold…is not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it IS slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.
After returning to England, Dickens wrote his first travel book entitled American Notes. In it, he criticized Americans for their poor table manners and disgusting habit of chewing and spitting tobacco. He also devoted an entire chapter to slavery in the United States.
FAST FACT: Oliver Twist is perhaps Dickens’ most famous novel. Set in England, the main character is a nine-year old orphan in a London workhouse where the boys are given only three meals of thin gruel a day. When Oliver asks for more (“Please, sir, I want some more”) he is dubbed a troublemaker and treated even more cruelly. Oliver Twist called attention to the problem of poor and starving children in England and, to a lesser extent, the United States.
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