Holiday Merry Making in the White House

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | December 30, 2013

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Washington distilled his own, meticulously; Lincoln said he “hated the stuff”; and Obama, a home brewer, likes a beer with his ball games. Then and now, presidents have enjoyed, or conversely spurned, drink – although it wasn’t until Rutherford B. Hayes took office in 1877, that the White House first went dry. How water came to flow like wine then, at a time when the per capita rate of alcoholic consumption – for every American man, woman, and child – was 8.2 gallons per year, is the story, almost miraculous, told between the lines here, as Hayes, improbably, argues that Roman Punch is non-alcoholic…

Perhaps the recipient of this letter, his friend Donaldson over at the Smithsonian, had just brought him another exotic present, and he was, in turn, making an interesting gift; or, maybe, he was just taking a moment to argue a fine point with a fellow collector of historical artifacts – but here, the teetotaling Hayes, discussing a recipe for an alcoholic beverage, is all wet. Presenting a cup forged from the metal propeller of Admiral Farragut’s Civil War flagship, the Hartford, he suggests it would be good for Roman Punch – and then gets the recipe for the drink wrong. That fashionable 19th century potion was a frozen concoction of lemons, oranges, water, egg whites, sugar and – this is where the President is in error – whiskey or champagne. Hayes, however, first denigrates the course – “swindling spoon victuals” – and then insists it “contains no rum or other spirits but are merely flavored with juniper or the like.”

"The drunkards progress. From the first glass to the grave" by N. Currier. Library of Congress.

Dear Tom:

This cup is not a drinking cup.  It will do for those swindling spoon victuals called Roman punch, which contains no rum or other spirits but are merely flavored with juniper or the like – but use it or show it as you please always being reminded of

Sincerely

R.B. HAYES

The Hayes’ White House, famously, was a bastion of Temperance – earning Mrs. Hayes the sobriquet “Lemonade Lucy” – although it was rumored that the disapproving staff served oranges infused with a rum-based Roman Punch. Hayes later debunked this, saying that his orders were to flavor the punch with the same flavors found in Jamaica rum – and the joke wasn’t on himself and Mrs. Hayes, but the drinkers.

The subject of drink, incidentally or not, was one which Hayes and Donaldson were wont to discuss repeatedly: particularly which Presidents did, and which did not. In Donaldson’s Memoirs, he records, “The President [Hayes] said: ‘Pierce had a large share of the drinking, and I was afraid that [former President] Grant, for lack of something to do, might get into this habit; but he told me at Philadelphia in December, 1879… the newspaper accounts of his non-use of liquor were correct, and how he had entirely stopped the use of every thing and, said the President as we parted at the door, ‘he has quit entirely.'”

Lincoln, Donaldson likewise reported, drank nothing, Johnson too much, and Grant, some. Even post-presidentially, the men kept track of who drank what. Garfield liked a beer, Arthur, rich food and drink – and Hayes, of course, drank not at all.

RUTHERFORD B. HAYES. The 19th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“R.B. Hayes”), as President, 1 page, octavo, Executive Mansion, December 30, 1880. To Thomas Corwin Donaldson (1843 – 1898), collector of Americana, general agent for the Smithsonian Institution, and Hayes’ intimate friend.

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