- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

The 2004 presidential campaign was peppered with negative campaign ads in a race that also featured a large voter turnout and a nail-biting conclusion.

But, as shown in the Stephen Decatur House Museum’s exhibit “First Neighbors: Decatur House Residents and the Presidents,” this is not the first mudslinging or down-to-the-wire presidential election race.

The Decatur House, a stone’s throw from the White House, was the home of dozens of foreign ambassadors, secretaries of state, members of Congress and other Washington dignitaries in its close-to-200-year history.

“You can learn about all the important historic events and issues by studying this home and its residents,” says Sarah Tapper, curator of collections at the Decatur House. “Many of them had close ties to several presidents.”

The exhibit requires some knowledge of 19th-century American history, says Ms. Tapper, adding that it’s appropriate for children ages 10 and older.

Nineteenth-century Decatur House resident Rep. Henry Clay, for example, was a controversial figure in the close 1824 election, Ms. Tapper says.

Clay cast a deciding vote for John Quincy Adams, drawing the ire of contender Andrew Jackson. When Adams later awarded Clay with an appointment as secretary of state, rumors and conspiracy theories swirled, she says.

The exhibit has an original letter from Jackson to a friend in which the future president writes of his deep bitterness toward Clay. Clay, on his part, predicted in a letter, also an original document, to one of his friends that Adams would be re-elected in 1828.

He was wrong. Jackson was elected, sending Clay out of the administration, the Decatur House and Washington.

The 1824 campaign was also an example of negative campaigning, as both sides pulled no punches in their efforts to smear the other, Ms. Tapper says.

The pro-Adams side put out bulletins saying that Jackson, while he was a general, wrongfully ordered the execution of soldiers who were seen as deserters. The pro-Jackson side said the accusations were false.

After the election of Jackson in 1828, Martin Van Buren moved into the Decatur House. He had been appointed secretary of state in the Jackson administration. Van Buren hosted parties to which Margaret “Peggy” O’Neal Eaton, wife of John Eaton, secretary of war, was invited.

This caused an all-out war in Washington’s social circles as other prominent wives thought Peggy Eaton was unworthy of their company.

They suspected infidelity in her past, Ms. Tapper says. The conflict, known as the “petticoat wars,” caused such a stalemate within the Jackson administration that the entire Cabinet had to resign to ease tensions.

A Hollywood movie — played on a small screen at the exhibit — was made about the affair called “The Gorgeous Hussy,” starring Joan Crawford as Peggy Eaton and Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson.

The Decatur House was also the home to several ambassadors who helped shape American politics. The Russian ambassador during President James Monroe’s administration in the early 19th century, for example, influenced what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine, Ms. Tapper says.

In late 19th century, Edward Beale, a good friend of President Grant, moved into Decatur House.

“Beale advised Grant on various issues and supported the president as he tried to heal the nation after the Civil War, while still making sure African-Americans enjoyed the rights they were awarded through the 14th Amendment to the Constitution,” she says.

The 14th Amendment assures citizenship rights.

Though relatively small — visitors can go through it in less than 30 minutes — the exhibit gives a snapshot of several important issues of the 19th century.

“You can learn about states’ rights, [Western territory] expansion, slavery and political reform, all through the history of this home,” Ms. Tapper says.

When you go:

• Location: 748 Jackson Place NW.

• Directions: The Stephen Decatur House Museum is located block north of the White House.

• Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

• Parking: Street parking.

• Admission: Free, but a $5 donation is suggested.

• Information: 202/842-0920 or www.decaturhouse.org.

• Miscellaneous: Street parking is limited, but the Decatur House is close to two Metro stops — Farragut West on the Orange and Blue lines, as well as Farragut North on the Red Line.

Other places to go for presidential history:

• The Smithsonian’s National American History Museum, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Phone: 202/633-1000. Web site: www.americanhistory.si.edu.

• White House Visitor Center, 1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Phone: 202/208-1631. Web site: www.whitehouse.gov/history/tours.

• George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, 3200 George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon. Phone: 703/780-2000. Web site: www.mountvernon.org.

• Jefferson Memorial, southern edge of the Tidal Basin SW. Phone: 202/426-6841. Web site: http://nps.gov/thje.

• Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Circle, between Constitution and Independence avenues SW. Phone: 202/426-6841. Web site: http://nps.gov/linc.

• Theodore Roosevelt Island, George Washington Parkway, just north of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge. Phone: 703/289-2500. Web site: http://nps.gov/this.

• Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S St. NW. Phone: 202/387-4062. Web site: www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org.

• Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Ohio Drive, West Potomac Park in Southwest. Phone: 202/426-6841. Web site: http://nps.gov/fdrm.

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