There are two brand new episodes of Second Decade podcast out! And both are variations on a theme. The first one, Episode 30, “The White House, Part I,” is an entry in the regular series, but it’s followed by a Second Decade Off Topic episode, “The White House, Part II.” (Off Topic, of which is the third, is where I delve into history outside the decade of the 1810s). Here they are:
Episode 30: The White House, Part I
Originally built in the 1790s largely with slave labor, from the very beginning the White House was an eerie mirror of American society, including its original sin of slavery. But the house as it was originally constructed stood for only a few years. During the War of 1812, a British strike team sailed up the Potomac and burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House to the ground. This might have been the end of the house’s illustrious history, but it wasn’t. Reconstructed from the ashes under the supervision of two Presidents, Madison and Monroe, the executive mansion again stood proudly at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, which in the 1810s was a muddy pathway full of ruts and stumps. What was it really like to live in the White House in this era? This episode, first of two parts, will show you.
In this installment of Second Decade, historian Sean Munger will take you into the hallways and bedrooms of the President’s house, in war and peace, both before and after its destruction by the British. You’ll join James and Dolley Madison on one of their Wednesday night soirees; you’ll learn why the famous story of how Dolley saved the portrait of George Washington from the British isn’t exactly as you may have heard it; and you’ll shiver along with workmen toiling in the drafty unfinished rooms of the mansion in the winter of 1816-17, hoping to rebuild the place as a symbol of American resilience. This is a story you don’t often hear about America’s most famous address, but it lies at the heart of the history that resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Second Decade Off Topic: The White House, Part II
This is an Off Topic episode, involving historical topics outside the scope of the main podcast. This episode continues the story from Episode 30, “The White House, Part I.”
What was the White House really like in the early part of the 19th century? Always under construction, reconstruction, redecoration or renovation, the President’s house was like a child that could never sit still, or like a living organism changing constantly over time. In addition to logistical and domestic details like how the chandeliers worked and when the first toilet flushed within the walls of the Executive Mansion, the story of the White House in these years goes hand-in-hand with political and personal events of the first families that lived there.
This special bonus episode continues the story of the White House begun in Episode 30 of the main podcast. In this “Off Topic” riff, you’ll encounter the first Presidential mummy, surging mobs of Andrew Jackson supporters ripping pieces out of the drapes, a Presidential hairstyle 140 years ahead of its time, a 1400 pound wheel of stinky cheese, an epidemic of diarrhea with a grim body count, and a succession of feckless, hard-drinking, hard-luck chief executives who grow increasingly more intoxicated as the Civil War nears. The White House of the antebellum period not only proves to be a dangerous place with its toxic water and diseased mosquitoes, but also a sad and melancholy one, with personal and family tragedy stalking the halls of power.