One of DC’s Great Urban Myths: The Origin of the Term “Lobbying”

Without a doubt, one of the best-known historic landmarks in the US Capitol City is the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue — the walls hold a lot of secrets. It is also the backdrop of one of the great legends of Washington, DC.

As the story goes, the political term “to lobby” was coined in the sprawling entryway of the hotel in the early 1870s, when President Ulysses S. Grant was in office. It is said, even promoted by the hotel, that Grant sat for long periods of time among the columns and banquets sipping brandy and having cigars with colleagues and friends. People soon got wind of the social gatherings and would approach the men to ask for jobs and to try to sway political favor in their direction. Grant called them “damn lobbyists!”, and the term was born. 

Why wouldn’t the hotel promote such a story? It’s great publicity, and a great story. It’s just not true*. On the bright side for the Willard, they have many other claims to fame. Such as…

  • Some of it’s many famous guests over the years: Harry Houdini, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Morse, P. T. Barnum, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.
  • Safe haven to Lincoln: After assassination threats against Abraham Lincoln, detective Allan Pinkerton smuggled Abe into the hotel in February 1861 where he would stay for several weeks prior to his inauguration in March.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., finished his “I Have a Dream” speech in his hotel room in 1963 in the days leading up to his march on Washington.
  • The entire ninth floor of the hotel was leased in 1940 by the British Purchasing Commission, the outfit in charge of procuring aircraft and other war materials for England during World War II.
  • Plans for Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations took shape when he held meetings of the League to Enforce Peace in the hotel’s lobby in 1916.
  • Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, lived at the hotel during his tenure in that office as did his successor Calvin Coolidge.
The Willard Hotel lobby viewed from a balcony, c. 1904 | Photo by  Frances Benjamin Johnston, courtesy LOC image collection

The Willard Hotel lobby viewed from a balcony, c. 1904 | Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, courtesy LOC image collection

The Willard Hotel lobby c. 2013

The Willard Hotel lobby c. 2013

*Records show that the first political usage of the term lobby in print was in the 1830s in Ohio, referring to local politics. The term was picked up a decade later by the British Parliament at a time when there was a lot of shoulder-rubbing going on in the halls of the Parliament building. According to Jesse Sheidlower, Editor-At-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, there are examples of usage dating as far back as 1640. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the verb “to lobby” dates to 1837. 


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Categories: History + Legends, Life. Style., Local DC, North America, People, Stories, Where to Travel

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