The Papers of Joseph Henry


My Dear H

I have just returned from a very plesant dinner party at Secretary Marcy's. The party was small but in good style and very agreeable. The Secretary and his Lady were very attentive and polite to me—among the guests were Governor Fairfield of Maine[1] and Governor Somebody I have forgotten whom from Connecticut.[2]
After the dinner which commenced at about 7 o'clock I went to Mr Walkers[3] to meet Bache. Where I have remaind until just now. This morning I made my first appearance in the white House.[4] I had called before and left my card but did not see the President. I was admitted though a number of Gentlemen were wating audience.[5]
The man in the great position received me with much politeness and afibility made enquiries as to me[B] and requested that I would call frequently particularly after the adjournment of congress.
The room of audience for business is on the second floor and is though not very large quite plesant the President sits at a large table on one side of the fire place and his visitors arrange themselves on the other side fasing him.
The office though one of much honor is certainly not one of much leisure— All day long strangers are arriving or and all at certain hours are admitted.[6] We found alone with the President a roudy looking fellow with a monsterous[Text omitted. -Ed.] talking loud and urging the appointement of himself or a friend to some office. The manners of the great man are affible but considerably dignified not as much so as those of General Jackson but more than those of Mr Van Buren.[7]
This has been a very windy day and for Washington quite cold. I have been making many inquiries about the health of the city[8] and find various accounts. The general testimony is that the inhabitants in the months of aug. and sept and perhaps a part of nov are liable to chills and fever provided they expose themselves to the air at night by sitting in the open air or to the fog in the morning shortely after sun rise.
I also learn that the most health part of the city is on the mall where the Smithsonian Hall is to be erected.[9] It appears from the accounts of several with whom I have conversed that those who live on the out-skirts of the city are more exposed to chills than the inhabitants of the centre and more thickly settled parts.[C] This is the case with Charleston and other cities at the south while the middle of the city is perfectly healthy the country around is impregnated after sundown with malaria. The effect is probably due to the decomposition of the vegetable matter around the city and the impregnated air is purified by the smoke of the chimnies or is prevented by the houses reaching the centre of the city.[10]
I think when you are once settled here you will be pleased with the place you may go into society or not as you may think fit and as there is always somethg going on during the session of congress there is no want of excitement.
I had an invitation to a party this evening at the vice Presidents but as there was to be a great rout with dancing there I concluded not to go. I have been quite cheerful for two days past and begin to feel quite confident in the success of the Smithsonian though clouds and darkness have settled hereto-fore upon its prospect. I intend starting for home tomorrow evening but perhaps I shall stop at Baltimore to avoid riding during the night. I am living on the anticipation of the pleasure I hope to enjoy in meeting you and our dear little ones. I have been from you long enough to feel how much I need your company sympathy direction love and all that has rendered you a part of myself for the last 16 years and I feel most forceably the truth of your remark that life is too short to spend much of it in seperation.


Family Correspondence, Henry Papers, Smithsonian Archives.
    [1] John Fairfield (1797–1847) was governor of Maine from 1839 to 1843, when he was elected to the United States Senate. BDAC.
    [2] Clark Bissell (1782–1857) was governor of Connecticut from 1847 to 1848. Thomas William Herringshaw, Encyclopedia of American Biography of the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 1905).
    [3] Robert J. Walker.
    [4] That is, his first audience with President Polk. Henry had visited the White House before, in 1836. Henry Papers, 3:135.
    [5] Polk did not mention Henry's visit in his diary, noting only that he spent the morning in "the usual scene of receiving visitors. . . . Many of them as usual were seeking office and especially military appointments." Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Diary of James K. Polk during His Presidency, 1845 to 1849, 4 vols. (Chicago, 1910), 2:366.
    [6] Polk's availability to the public was a hallmark of his administration. Except for days when Polk met with his cabinet, he "felt obliged by the doctrine of republican accessibility to interrupt his labors for several hours to receive anyone who wished to call on him." Charles G. Sellers, James K. Polk, Continentalist, 1843–1846 (Princeton, 1966), p. 302.
    [7] For Henry's impressions of President Andrew Jackson and President-elect Martin Van Buren, see Henry Papers, 2:81–82 and 3:135.
    [8] No doubt to reassure Harriet as much as himself. Washington's climate, swampy areas, and poor sanitation led many residents and travelers to consider it insalubrious. Charles Dickens's view was typical: "It is very unhealthy. Few people would live in Washington, I take it, who were not obliged to reside there." Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, 2d ed., 2 vols. (London, 1842), 1:283; Constance M. Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800–1950, 2 vols. in 1 (Princeton, 1976), 1:12–13, 93–94, 134–135, 211–212. For a more positive description of the city, see Joseph B. Varnum, Jr., The Seat of Government of the United States, 2d ed. (Washington, 1854), pp. 62–63.
    [9] Henry was misinformed: the south side of the Mall, where the Smithsonian Building was to be erected, was considered one of the city's most unhealthy areas, situated as it was along a canal linking the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. As early as the 1820s, the swampy stretches of land along the canal were recognized as health hazards. Green, 1:134–135.
    [10] Henry's was an expression of the miasmic theory of disease, which held that decomposing vegetation in low-lying marshes produced poisons that caused fevers and illnesses. It was only after mid-century that this theory would give way to those which regarded microscopic organisms as agents of disease propagation. Morrill Wyman, A Practical Treatise on Ventilation (Boston and London, 1846), pp. 88–89; John K. Mitchell, On the Cryptogamous Origin of Malarious and Epidemic Fevers (Philadelphia, 1849), pp. 13–33; Phyllis Allen, "Etiological Theory in America Prior to the Civil War," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 1947, 2:489–520, especially pp. 492–494, 504–516.
    [A] From internal evidence.
    [B] Altered from my
    [C] Altered from a