Claim: The White House obtained its name because it was repainted white after the British burned it in 1814.
Examples: [Collected via e-mail, 2006]
Burned by the British in 1814, the President's House was reconstructed and the charred sandstone walls repainted the white for which it is named by 1817, when James Monroe moved in with his family.
Origins: After the loose confederation of thirteen former British colonies known as the "United States of America" drew up a constitution which created a federal government and bound them together as one nation in 1788, one of the first orders of business was to choose a location for the new nation's capital. As the result of a series of compromises, New York City was designated as the temporary capital of the USA for sixteen months beginning in 1789 (in time for the inauguration of the first president, George Washington); the American seat of government was then moved to Philadelphia until 1800, when it was finally relocated to its permanent home in the newly-created District of Columbia.
The new capital needed to include a residence for the chief executive, of course, and so the cornerstone for the "President's House," designed by Irish-born architect James Hoban, was laid in October of 1792. Although George Washington oversaw the building's construction, he retired before its completion, and so second president John Adams and his wife Abigail became the first occupants of the residence in 1800 (even though work on the edifice was far from finished).
The residence of the President of the United States of America had no official designation back in the early
The legend does not correspond to historical fact, however. The President's House had been given a coat of whitewash as early as 1798 in order to protect its locally-quarried sandstone against the deterioriation caused by winter freezes, and from then on white paint was used for the exterior. Moreover, references to the building as the "White House" antedate the War of 1812. As early as the spring of 1811, Francis James Jackson, the former British minister to the United States, wrote that his successor would "act as a sort of political conductor to attract the lightning that may issue from the clouds round the Capitol and the White House at Washington." White House curators cite similar contemporary evidence:
Not so, says the office of White House curator Betty Monkman. She and her staff have uncovered many references to "the White House" well before the British marched in.
On March 18, 1812, for example, a Massachusetts congressman wrote his wife: "There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President's."
Last updated: 4 July 2014
Barnhart, David K. and Allan A. Metcalf. America in So Many Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN 0-395-86020-2 (pp. 112-113). Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington D.C. Fairfax, VA: George Mason Univ. Press, 1991. ISBN 0-913969-29-X. Hickey, Donald R. Don't Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. ISBN 0-252-03179-2 (pp. 81-82). Knutson, Lawrence L. "Theodore Roosevelt Names The White House in One of His First Orders." Associated Press. 12 November 2001.