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Robert McNamara

Shaking the President's Hand on New Year's Day

By December 31, 2012

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On January 1, 1801, President John Adams, who had recently moved into the White House as its first resident, held a public reception to mark New Year's Day. Hundreds of people stood on a long line, entered the unfinished executive mansion, and shook hands with the president and wished him a "Happy New Year."

Adams and his wife Abigail would only host one such gathering, as he had already lost the election of 1800. But his successor, Thomas Jefferson, continued the practice. And shaking hands with the president on New Year's Day became a tradition that endured well into the 20th century.

The New Year's Day reception 150 years ago became a footnote to an important historical event. President Abraham Lincoln felt obligated to shake countless hands on the afternoon of January 1, 1863. Following his public appearance, he went upstairs to his private office at the White House.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which had been transcribed from Lincoln's own draft by a government calligrapher, awaited his signature. Lincoln mentioned to William Seward, his secretary of state, that his hand was swollen and nearly paralyzed from hours of shaking hands.

Lincoln said he didn't want anyone to "look at the signature, think it was shaky, and conclude that I'd hesitated." He paused, massaged his right hand for a few minutes to restore feeling, and then signed the document with a clear "Abraham Lincoln."

More: Shaking Hands With the President On New Year's Day

Illustration: President John Adams/Library of Congress

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