As prescribed in the Residence Act, John Adams, who had become president in 1797, moved into the new house on November 1, 1800. His wife, Abigail, remarked innocently that the East Room was larger than a New England meetinghouse. Because the house was as yet unfinished, lacking sufficient stairs, service bells, some plasterwork, and kitchen fittings, and was sparsely furnished, neither Adams can have been very comfortable, but the rhythms of great events came in with them. In the house on 12 December 1800, Adams heard the election results from South Carolina that put his party, the Federalists, out of the presidency forever; Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in a contest that pitted the Federalist ideology of a strong central government against that of the more democratic "Republicans," who favored more limited government. In a small second floor room just east of his bedroom on his last night in office, Adams made his famous Midnight Appointments, commissioning several federal judges who were sympathetic to his views. It was Adams who, in a letter to his wife, wrote the timeless benediction for the White House: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof!"
Adams's use of the word "rule" might have given his successor pause. Jefferson, president from 1801 to 1809, brought a new tone to government, reducing it where possible and largely stripping it of ceremony. The White House—for it was first called that in Jefferson's time—could be seen as a glaring anachronism in an era dedicated to "republican simplicity." In various improvements Jefferson made the house seem less august. He built low-lying wings to the east and west that made the house seem not so tall and guant; they contained the "offices" that typically served such a residence in scattered outbuildings. He made no effort to complete the unfinished East Room, and put his office squarely in the State Dining Room, which the Federalists had used for their levees or formal receptions. Jefferson's usual entertaining consisted of small dinners.
He opened the house to the public in the spring of 1801, and it has remained open to tours, except in wartime and for reasons of national security, as following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, ever since. The Marine Band, early-on an Italian family orchestra rescued by the Marine Corps from Mediterranean pirates, was brought in for concerts; the Marine Band, titled by Jefferson the "President's Own," remains the source of White House music today. One continuing White House ceremony was established by Jefferson: When a foreign diplomat presents his credentials to the president, the exchange takes place in the center of the Blue Room.
By the time of Jefferson's departure, British military provocation against the United States at sea was creating great public tension. As the second greatest maritime power in the world, the new United States considered itself a plumb Britain might one day return and pluck. James Madison came to the presidency in 1809 as a man of action. Needing political support, he turned the White House into a most formidable rival to every tavern in Washington. In the able hands of Dolley Payne Madison, his wife, the public rooms were redecorated in sumptuously theatrical elegance that was, oddly enough, British high style. Politicians and officials scrambled to attend the weekly receptions of Dolley Madison, providing Madison with opportunities to make political hay.
The quiet that followed the United States' declaration of war on Britain in 1812 soon ended in 1814, when the British, free to turn their attention from European conflicts after the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte that year, sailed for American shores. On 24 August, British sailors under Rear Admiral George Cockburn marched toward Washington, entering the city after dark. Meanwhile, the White House was the scene of pandemonium, with the packing of papers and valuables. Fearing that the British might make a mockery of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, Mrs. Madison entrusted it to two visitors, who removed it from the frame and fled with it through Georgetown. Mrs. Madison departed in a carriage with her coachman, some baggage, and her macaw, and began a wandering journey through the Virginia countryside that would last until nearly dawn. Madison returned to the White House at about dark, had a glass of port with secretary of state James Monroe and other officials, then went to join American troops.
Cockburn's detail of 150 sailors entered the White House at about eleven. Finding the table set for dinner for forty, the officers dined and drank and took souvenirs (Cockburn ordered that these be of no value) and generally enjoyed themselves while Lieutenant Richard Pratt, who had been the fire expert under the command of General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, during Britain's Spanish campaign of 1812, prepared the house for its fate. At last the sailors stood in a circle around the house and hurled flaming javelins through the broken-out windows, igniting the house and burning it to its stone walls.
The loss of the White House had an even more profound effect upon the Americans than the burning that same night of the Capitol, which was unfinished and had yet to achieve its visual identity. After a brief effort to remove the capital to Cincinnati, Congress approved the repair of the public buildings in Washington, and Madison insisted that the White House be rebuilt to match the original structure. What was ultimately salvaged was the central pedimented section of the north front, the basement level, and the entire south front. The rest of the structure was rebuilt, and finished in time for the New Year's Reception in 1818 of a new president, James Monroe.
Monroe was a popular president. The period was called the Era of Good Feelings, due to explosive national prosperity. Monroe ordered furniture for the White House state rooms from France. Pieces of the suite of gilded furniture designed by the French cabinetmaker P. A. Bellangé remain in the oval Blue Room. Many other purchases were made at this time: silver, statuary, chandeliers, carpets, clocks, urns, and a pair of elegant decorative ostrich eggs set up upon golden stands are items included in Monroe's invoices from Paris and later inventories of the house. Some of the silver purchased during Monroe's tenure continues to be used at White House tables, and the French clocks, although not allowed to chime, still tick away White House hours. While the Era of Good Feelings collapsed in the Panic of 1819, Monroe's popularity did not. His most memorable marks on the White House are the South Portico—so-called, when in fact the unpedimented colonnade is a porch—and the large stone gate piers on Pennsylvania Avenue. A pair of iron gates installed under Monroe's direction in 1818 stood in place until 1976. The present-day fence and gates were designed after Monroe's originals.