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Our Presidents and Cigars

A White House tradition is in danger of disappearing.
Carl Sferrzza Anthony
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

President William Jefferson Clinton may have comfortably adjusted to the ban on smoking in the White House--it seems he doesn't light up ... anymore. In effect, he hasn't been banned from enjoying a cigar, just smoking it. In this way he can avoid any accusations of inhalation, and he is still able to savor some of a cigar's more relaxing elements.

While reports from the campaign trail suggested that Clinton did light up occasionally, his White House tenure has been marked by two paparazzi-type photographs of him holding unlit cigars in his mouth. If his current reluctance to actually smoke a hand-rolled premium cigar remains intact, Clinton will be endangering a presidential tradition--the 196-year-old relationship between the Oval Office and cigars.

In the early days of White House life, it was those men and women from Southern plantations who seemed to be the greatest consumers of tobacco in all forms. The seventh president, Tennessean Andrew Jackson, was such a regular user of plug that brass spittoons--now in his Tennessee estate, the Hermitage--were installed at the White House. Virginian Dolley Madison scandalized Washington as one of the few women to openly pinch snuff with congressmen. Still, it was tobacco in the form of cigars that remained the choice of presidents.

Although he raised tobacco as a cash crop at Mount Vernon, there is no evidence that George Washington smoked cigars. The first president to enjoy a "seegar" was James Madison, the country's fourth leader, who smoked until his death at 85 in 1836.

Andrew Jackson, and his wife, Rachel, also smoked cigars. One account had the homespun "Mrs. General Jackson" in her rocking chair before a warm fire, consuming "two seegars" in an evening. But another homespun general's spouse who later became a president's wife would turn ill with cigar smoke. So her husband, Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848 as the hero of the Mexican War, smoked cigars only in the presence of male companions who also smoked. Included among these was Senator (and later president of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis, whose first wife had been Taylor's daughter.

Ironically, after the Civil War, it was Davis's cigar holder and coffee maker that turned up in the White House. At an auction of the possessions of deposed Confederate aristocrats, Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president from 1865 to 1869, purchased Davis's unusual ceramic train that held several cigars by wire and also percolated coffee. Between the Civil War and the Second World War, more presidents smoked cigars than did not.

Few men in American history have ever been more closely associated with the cigar than the great celebrity of the late nineteenth century, Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president. Famous first as the Union general who brought the Confederate Army to its knees, Grant was a two-term president almost always caricatured, illustrated, sculpted, or photographed with his beloved cigar. In fact, toward the end of the war, when Grant suffered a particularly severe bout of depression, he wrote that he was so unhappy that he was "eating neither breakfast nor dinner" and he had "not smoked a cigar."

Grant was said to smoke 20 cigars a day. His habit increased during the Civil War, after the Battle at Fort Donelson in Tennessee in mid-February 1862. As he later told General Horace Porter, "I had been a light smoker previous to the attack on Donelson .... In the accounts published in the papers, I was represented as smoking a cigar in the midst of the conflict; and many persons, thinking, no doubt, that tobacco was my chief solace, sent me boxes of the choicest brands .... As many as ten thousand were soon received. I gave away all I could get rid of, but having such a quantity on hand I naturally smoked more than I would have done under ordinary circumstances, and I have continued the habit ever since."

When the general decided to run for president, his relish for stogies was used as part of his campaign persona, and was even immortalized in the 1868 campaign song, "A Smokin' His Cigar." The Democrats tried to use Grant's cigar against him. One of their ditties had a verse running, "I smoke my weed and drink my gin, playing with the people's tin."

Chester Arthur, a wealthy New York clubman who was the twenty-first U.S. president, from 1881 to 1885, and who was given to lavish midnight suppers, usually concluded his meals with Champagne and expensive imported cigars.


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