Lincoln's White House
By Karoline Leavitt '19, December 06, 2016
On Monday, December 5, the Institute hosted James B. Conroy, a Boston lawyer and author of Lincoln's White House: The People's House in Wartime. Conroy received a master's degree from George Washington before receiving a law degree from Georgetown University. Before pursuing a legal career in Boston, he worked as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill. At the NHIOP, Conroy discussed his book, focusing on the use of the White House by Abraham Lincoln as a political tool throughout his famous presidency from 1861-1865.
Conroy said he wrote the book because he was interested in what the White House was like during the time of Abraham's presidency. He said he wanted to learn more about life was like in the most powerful building in the country-from the food, to the music, to the security it did or did not have, to the type of boss that Lincoln was within it.
First, Conroy talked about the White House building itself. He showed pictures of the White House from the 1860's, explaining how there was no East Wing at the time. A zoomed out landscape photo of the White House showed how underdeveloped D.C. was during that time. In fact, the capital city was so underdeveloped that one could see the mountains in Virginia in the distance, which today is a sight one certainly cannot see.
He also told an odd story about a pipe being broken in, what was, the White House basement. What is odd about the story is that Lincoln himself went down with a wrench to fix it; something that a president would most likely never do today due to the numerous White House staffers at his disposal. The White House at the time was also not as clean or newly furnished as it is today. Mrs. Lincoln was appalled by the furniture, worn out rugs, and stained wallpaper; which she said she would not even allow in her own home in Illinois. Another staffer at the time described the White House as being as nice as "a third class hotel." Even more surprising, the Oval Office was just like a casual office, with ripped wallpaper and cigar smoke that filled the air. Mrs. Lincoln is credited with doing an amazing job at refurnishing the White House, as that became her main duty as First Lady.
Second, Conroy spoke about racial segregation. He said he also wrote the book because he wanted to learn about how Lincoln used the White House as a tool for racial progression, in a time where race was reason for war within a very segregated America. In fact, Lincoln was the first president who allowed black people into the White House. Before his presidency, they were not even allowed near it. People have said that blacks and whites were treated the same in the White House during Lincoln's time. Thus, Lincoln used this open door policy as a tool for racial equality in America.
What I found to be most shocking from all the stories Conroy told, was that there was virtually no security at all for the White House or the president. Anybody who wanted to, could walk right into the White House and wait to speak directly to Lincoln. Lincoln used this easy accessibility as a tool to speak with citizens. In comparison to the incredibly intense security today, it was hard to imagine that this could even be true. I wondered what Lincoln would say if he knew that snipers stand on the White House roof at all times, or that the president and his family are constantly followed by Secret Service. I also wondered if White House security was heightened in 1865 as a result of Lincoln's assassination.
Conroy's discussion was interesting, and prompted me to think about how much both the White House and presidencies have changed throughout history.