Let your imagination listen to the great historical menagerie of presidential pets and you’ll hear the sounds of their feathered friends, like Thomas Jefferson’s mockingbirds, or Calvin Coolidge’s canaries and maybe his pet goose – OR parrots? George and Martha Washington had more than one. When President James Madison and his wife moved into the White House in 1809, so did Dolley Madison’s green and yellow macaw parrot.
Dolley was known for her fashionable turbans and often, for Polly, the big bright, squawk-ative bird on her shoulder, helping to greet her guests. And how thrilling, when high-spirited Polly swooped about the high-ceilinged rooms and dive-bombed the company! Later, she was part of the scary, War of 1812 drama, when, in 1814, red-coated British soldiers torched the White House. But at least Dolley made sure they didn’t get their hands on the precious painting of President Washington, or her precious Polly.
Just months later, General Andrew Jackson led a rough, frontier army down the Mississippi River to drive the British out of New Orleans. Victorious Andy Jackson, national hero, ended up being President, from 1829 to 1837. That old soldier knew a lot of salty language and so his pet parrot, Poll. We know this because in 1845, he attended ex-President Jackson’s funeral – at least until a shocked human carried poor Poll out of the room. Too much sad excitement had set him to squawking curse words!
At the end of the 1800s, President William McKinley amused himself by teaching his yellow-headed Mexican parrot how to whistle “Yankee Doodle.” After Mr. McKinley died of an assassin’s bullet, in 1901, former Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took office. He and First Lady Edith Roosevelt and their six children had LOTS of pets, including a big, beautiful parrot named Eli Yale. Eli was a deep blue hyacinth macaw.
There would be other presidential parrots. After all, the big worldwide parrot family has 350 species. Parakeets, for instance: John F. Kennedy’s little girl had two of them. Lyndon B. Johnson’s family kept lovebirds, little candy-colored parrots. But more than a century has passed since a big, big-beaked macaw like Polly or Poll has lived in the White House. Deep blue Eli Yale was the last - so far.
Andrew Jackson owned an African grey parrot. Wikimedia
Cockatiels, cockatoos, and large flightless kakapos are just a few of the many kinds of parrots. One of the biggest is the gentle, South American hyacinth macaw – from head to tail, more than three feet long! Wikimedia
Teddy Roosevelt with Eli Yale. Wikimedia
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Polly Wants a President." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank,
13 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Until 1800, the U.S. capital had been Philadelphia, a big city. Then the capital moved to Washington, DC, a small town with dirt roads, lots of trees, and the not-quite-finished Capitol and presidential mansion, known to some as the “White House.” In the winter of 1809, when Abe Lincoln (future President No. 16 – the tallest) was still a baby, James Madison, the new president (No. 4 – the shortest), gave a party. It happened that James’s wife, Dolley, was excellent at bringing all sorts of people together and making sure they had a jolly time. This was her way of making Mr. Madison popular.
So, one Wednesday evening, the Madisons’ servants (enslaved African Americans, some of them) welcomed party goers to the White House. The large East Room, where Abigail Adams (wife of President No. 2) hung up her laundry, was closed off. Now the politicians, government workers, foreign diplomats, and their wives exchanged smiles with rosy Dolley Madison. (She used blusher – very daring then!) Imagine people in the oval-shaped Blue Room (cream-colored then, with red velvet curtains), laughing with the First Lady, all fancy in her Paris gown.
Next door was the sunny gold parlor (the Red Room now), where you might visit with shy, brainy President Madison. (Did you know he helped to write the U.S. Constitution? Well he did!) Best of all was the big State Dining Room. It had been an office for Thomas Jefferson (President No. 3). Now it was full of FOOD: Savory snacks, tea and other drinks, little cakes and a rare delicacy: ice cream. Imagine guests with their mouths full and eyes wide, staring up at Gilbert Stuart’s great portrait of President No. 1. Some of the guests had met George Washington, but they all knew how much he’d done to make the United States possible.
Everyone had such a good time, that there was another party the next Wednesday and the next. LOTS of people came – even the most disagreeable politicians! The popular weekly party, with its crowds of mashed together party goers, was a White House tradition for a while. It even got a name: Mrs. Madison’s Crush.
Cheryl Harness's latest book is Flags Over America, a picture book history of flags, especially America's. It was published for the 200 YEARS anniversary since Francis Scott Key wrote his poem about the Star Spangled Banner. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Wednesday Night Crush." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ the-Wednesday-Night-Crush.
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