White House

Fiscal Policy: Mary Todd Lincoln and the White House Budget

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Feb 17, 2013    •    1412 Views

How much of the federal budget should be spent on the White House?

Abraham Lincoln would have replied, “Not very much.” Commenting on his wife’s purchases he realized, “It would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said that the president of the United States had approved a bill over-running an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets.”

By contrast, Tony Kushner, screenplay writer for “Lincoln” points out in an NPR interview that by revitalizing a rundown White House, Mary Todd Lincoln demonstrated political acuity. She understood that a presentable presidential residence could elevate respect for the nation.

Described in Jean Harvey Baker’s biography of Mary Lincoln, the first lady was a magnificent wheeler dealer. Faced with a “seedy and dilapidated” White House, she started by selecting a loyal Commissioner of Public Buildings who, by law, oversaw her purchases and then presented the bills to the Treasury.

Unrestrained, she and Commissioner Wood brought new china and rugs and drapes and an army of workmen to the White House. Finding only 10 matching place settings of White House dishes, she bought a 190 piece set of Limoges china for $3195. The invoice described it as “fine porcelain dining service decorated with royal purple and double gilt…with the arms of the United States on each piece.” The new damask rug in the East Room was $2500. A bill for French wallpaper was $6800. And that was just the beginning. A 31 room mansion, the White House got new draperies, rugs, paint, wallpaper. Temporarily, Mary and the President had to move to a state guest room because their bedrooms were in disarray with painters, molders and floor waxers.

Meanwhile, the Senate decided not to confirm the first Commissioner of Public Buildings with whom she had formulated her plans. Their new appointee, Benjamin French, though, was just as cooperative. Working with Mary, he got one Congressman to “bury” a White House decorating expense for $4800 in a budget appropriations bill. Telling his boss, the Secretary of the Interior, that it was always done this way, he was able to “redirect” funding for the Capitol and other buildings to Mary through his $500,000 budget. Consequently, money earmarked for gas lamps on Capital Hill instead went to the White House. So too did kickbacks from the White House gardener who padded his budget with extra roses, and bushes and lettuces that he never received. Even selling secondhand White House furniture and manure from the stables, Mary raised extra funds.

$20,000 was a small part of the White House budget in 1861. Based on estimates from the Economic History Association using the Consumer Price Index, a market basket of goods and services that we use to measure price changes, $20,000 in 1861 would have been close to $500,000 today.

We should mention also that Mary Todd Lincoln was not the only first lady to be criticized for her additions to the White House. As a NY Times journalist reminds us, “…the cost of Nancy Reagan’s china ($210,399) was seen as wildly extravagant (though the china was a private donation and considered a necessity…). The Kennedy White House was too French; the Clintons’, too Arkansas…”

Sources and Resources: If you’ve seen “Lincoln,” you will especially enjoy the Tony Kushner NPR Fresh Air interview. His comments about Mary Todd Lincoln started me wondering about how she changed the White House. That took me to the Jean Baker Harvey biography, Mary Todd Lincoln and a NY Times article on First Ladies that ideally complemented the Lincoln facts. Wondering about the purchasing power of $20,000 in 1861, I went to the economic history service.

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