Sunday, March 25, 2012

Martin Van Buren, the Election of 1840, and the "Regal Splendor" of the Presidential Palace

Having witnessed the chaos of Andrew Jackson’s "levees" first hand, Martin Van Buren prohibited all food or drink from public receptions. Privately, however, he hosted many extravagant dinner parties at the White House.

Using gold plated spoons that James Monroe had purchased years earlier in France, Van Buren added the finest quality cut wine glasses, water bottles and goblets. He also purchased expensive European finger bowls in which he rinsed his fingers after a night of fine dining.

Shortly before the election of 1840, Charles Ogle, a Whig Congressman from Pennsylvania, rose to speak in the House of Representatives and launched into a three-hour attack on Van Buren’s luxurious lifestyle. After describing the “Regal Splendor of the Presidential Palace,” Ogle turned his attention to Van Buren’s “kingly” dinner table.

Setting the scene for a packed gallery, Ogle dramatically proclaimed:

Mr. Chairman…Let us enter [the] palace, and survey its spacious courts, its gorgeous banqueting halls, its sumptuous drawing rooms, its glittering and dazzling saloons, with all their magnificent and sumptuous array of gold and silver…I cannot forbear…to read you a description of the great banqueting hall, commonly called the “East Room”…who can deny that this room, intended for the comfort of our democratic Chief Magistrate, is adorned with regal splendor far above any of the grand saloons at Buckingham Palace…or Windsor Castle…

In my opinion, it is time the people of the United States should know that their money goes to buy for their plain hard-handed democratic President, knives, forks, and spoons of gold, that he may dine in the style of the monarchs of Europe. … What, sir, will the honest [Democrat] say to Mr. Van Buren for spending the People’s cash [on] GREEN FINGER CUPS, in which to wash his pretty tapering, soft, white, lily fingers, after dining on Fricandeau de Veau and Omelette SoufflĂ©?


Outraged, Democrats condemned Ogle’s speech and tried to show that he was the real aristocrat in the campaign. But the damage was done, and Harrison, at sixty-seven, became the oldest person elected to the presidency, a distinction he retained until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

FAST FACT: Ironically, it was Van Buren who born into a working class family while Harrison was from a wealthy political family and his father was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Source: Charles Ogle, "The Regal Splendor of the Presidential Palace" (1840)

Credit: Portrait of Martin van Buren by George P.A. Healy (White House)

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