The First Ladies Series Part 1 | Sarah Stook

We always have an image in our mind about First Ladies. Sometimes we think of the glamour of Jackie Kennedy, the tragedy of Mary Lincoln, the youth of Frances Cleveland or the openness of Betty Ford. Some are known, others are not.

First Ladies aren’t elected; they come as a package deal. Some presidents have been widowed in office, having female relatives take the place of wives. Only one president remained unmarried, but he used his niece. Due to the infrequency of this only Harriet Lane will be included, as James Buchanan never wed.

We don’t think of these women as political, but many had their own opinions, causes and stories. Many wielded enormous power over their husbands, even in the early era of America. Some even directly influenced policy and sat in on cabinet meetings. One even took over the role of President for her incapacitated husband.

Over several articles, we’ll be learning about the wives of the most powerful men in America, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. We’ll go from the start of the United States, through war and social upheaval, to where we are today. As you’ll learn, there are so many differences but these women are linked by remarkable circumstances. The newer First Ladies aren’t the only movers and shakers.

In this article, we’ll be covering the ladies from and including Martha Washington to Julia Tyler. Enjoy your read and let me know who you like.

 

  1. Martha Washington (née Dandridge, formerly Curtis)

 

Life: 2nd June 1731- 22nd May 1802

Education: Assumed to be educated at home

Marriage: 1st Husband: Daniel Parke Custis (married 1750, widowed 1757), 2nd Husband: George Washington (married 1759, widowed 1799)

Profession: Plantation owner

Bio: Born to a good family, Martha Dandridge first married in 1750 aged eighteen. Seven years later, she was widowed with two living children. In an unprecedented move in the era, she took control of her plantation and became an extremely formidable businesswoman (even though she sadly did own slaves). She married George Washington in 1759, becoming a popular army wife and hostess during the Revolutionary War.

As the inaugural First Lady of the United States, Washington helped to establish the role. Due to its infancy, she was generally limited to holding the social functions expected of her, but was seen as a generally popular hostess.

She died two and a half years after her husband, having lived a post- Presidential life as the rich society lady she had been all of her life. Washington was interred with her husband in Mount Vernon, the tomb of which can be visited today.

Most Badass Moment: Running a successful plantation as a widow with two small children

Most Known For: The only FL not to live in the White House and the first in the role.

Political Influence: Publically quiet on matters of policy, probably due to societal expectations of women, there is also no evidence she privately influenced her husband. Our only knowledge is that she was likely a Federalist, though there is no concrete proof.

 

  1. Abigail Adams (née Smith)

Life: 22nd November 1744- 28th October 1818)

Education: Informal home education by family

Marriage: John Adams (married 1764, he was widowed upon her passing)

Profession: Society hostess

Bio: Born to a minister, her mother was a member of the influential Quincy family. She met her second cousin, John Adams, aged fifteen. They were an extremely loving and bright couple, as evidenced by the hundreds of letters exchanged between them. Adams raised her children when her husband was away, instilling a strong sense of justice and hard work in them. She remained a huge influence in her husband’s life.

As First Lady, Adams is probably one of the most influential on policy, on par with even Hillary Clinton. Her opponents called her ‘Mrs. President’ and she was hugely well informed, knowing things that others did not know. Adams did listen to his wife, but did not implement her then-radical views.

After the White House, she continued caring for her grandchildren and mended the fractured family relationship with Thomas Jefferson. She died eight years before her husband, unable to see her son John Quincy Adams become President.

Most Badass Moment: Her famous ‘all men would be tyrants if they could’ speech.

Most Known For: Her early feminism and politics.

Political Influence: Adams was extremely political, especially for a woman of the time. She was a fervent opponent of slavery, in contrast to most Founding Fathers and taught black children along with whites. She was a proto-feminist, arguing in favour of property rights, equal education and intellectual discussion. Adams argued that women should ignore laws that were made against them and threatened a rebellion if women’s voices were not heard. Her husband rejected her views personally, but still listened to her and made her an influential part of his decision process.

 

  1. Dolley Madison (née Payne, formerly Todd)

Life: 20th May 1768- 12th July 1849

Education: Assumed to be educated at home

Marriage: 1st Husband: John Todd (married 1790, widowed 1793), 2nd Husband: James Madison (married 1794, widowed 1836)

Profession: Society hostess

Bio: Born in a Quaker family, she first married John Todd in 1790. He and one of their sons died in an endemic, after which she moved to Philadelphia. There, Aaron Burr introduced her to James Madison. The two, with a large age gap between them, married after a quick courtship.

She was an unofficial First Lady for Thomas Jefferson, but an official one when her husband was elected. Madison was an immensely popular hostess, an early Jackie Kennedy in her fashion and social skills. She hosted sought-after events at the White House, bringing together political rivals to network in a friendly way. In 1814, the British invaded Washington DC. Madison and the White House staff fled the building, but a popular story was made that the First Lady saved the famous Washington portrait. Whether she actually saved it or a slave did is a matter of debate, but she became famous for this.

After she was widowed, Madison had a tough time. Her alcoholic son was unable to look after the plantation, she was forced to sell the family home of Montpelier in order to settle debts. For most of her widowhood, she lived in abject poverty, only saving herself with the irregular sales of her husband’s papers.

Most Badass Moment: Saving the famous Washington portrait (she at least directed it)

Most known For: Being an amazing society lady and the Washington story

Political Influence: Letters to her husband indicate that she had at least some interest in politics, but she was not an overtly political figure. Her diplomacy through dinner, however, did show she had a very strategic mind.

 

  1. Elizabeth Monroe (née Kortright)

Life: 30th June 1768- 23rd September 1830

Education: Assumed to be educated at home

Marriage: James Monroe (married 1786, he was widowed upon her passing)

Profession: Society hostess

Bio: Born to a merchant family, she lost her mother to childbirth and her father never remarried. She met James Monroe when both were in New York, having made a favourable impression on him at a social event. They married in 1786. They lived in Paris during the French Revolution, saving prominent figures such as Thomas Paine from the guillotine. Upon their return to the USA, Monroe started to suffer from suspected epilepsy. From then on, ill health plagued her.

When Monroe became First Lady, she had to contend with a White House still under repairs from being burned down in 1814. She directly contrasted with her predecessor in that she preferred small events with exclusive invitations, not popular with Americans. Monroe was often compared poorly against Dolley Madison due to this. Due to her illness, however, her daughter Eliza often took over the role of First Lady.

After the White House, the Monroes suffered large debts, paid for by the sale of their property. Her ill health continued, and she predeceased her husband by a year. It wasn’t until 1903 that the two were buried together in Hollywood Cemetery, Virginia.

Most Badass Moment: Sheltering Thomas Paine during the French Revolution

Most Known For: Her frequent absences from social events and her role in the French Revolution

Political Influence: Apart from her time in France, it seems that Monroe did not get involved in politics as her predecessors did.

 

  1. Louisa Adams (née Johnson)

Life: 12th February 1775- 15th May 1852

Education: Assumed to be educated at home

Marriage: John Quincy Adams (married 1797, widowed 1848)

Profession: Society hostess

Bio: Born an illegitimate child in London, it took years before the identity of Adams’ mother was known. She met John Quincy Adams in London, where he attended her home to visit her father. They married in an English church in the capital in 1797. She followed her husband around Europe as part of his job, throughout wars. Adams struggled in Russia the most, especially with the terrible conditions, losing an infant daughter in the country.

When she became First Lady, Adams became deeply depressed and reclusive. Before that, she had been a popular hostess, but disliked her role. She preferred reading and music alone as opposed to the grand dinners of her predecessors. Still, Adams remained a good and liked hostess.

She suffered a difficult post- White House life. Her husband chose to serve in Congress and her two oldest sons died. Adams’ husband was a cold, austere man, much like his father and she’d also had a difficult relationship with his mother. The former President died in 1848, his wife four years later- both Houses of Congress mourned a woman for the first time.

Most Badass Moment: Travelling through war torn Europe in a coach.

Most Known For: Being the first foreign born First Lady and the oldest.

Political Influence: Adams regretted marrying into the political family she did and there is no evidence of her ever involving herself in politics.

 

  1. Anna Harrison (née Symmes)

Life: 25th July 1775- 25th February 1864

Education: Clinton Academy and the Isabella Graham School

Marriage:  William Henry Harrison (married 1795, widowed 1841)

Profession: Society hostess

Bio: Born to a noted judge and his wife, she was smuggled through British lines during the Revolutionary War to stay with her grandparents. She was educated very well for a woman at the time, attending school instead of informal education. Harrison met her husband in Kentucky, though her father forbade them from being together and they eloped when he was away. She maintained a quiet life as he became a noted war hero, upset when he won the Presidency.

Harrison was First Lady for exactly a month. Her daughter-in-law stood in at the inauguration due to her ill health, with other family members attending. Harrison was packing for the White House when news came of her husband’s death.

She got the first pension for a widowed First Lady. Harrison remained in Ohio, living with a son and his children. She died at 88, a good age for those times.

Most Badass Moment: Eloping

Most Known For: Being the First Lady for the shortest time and for never being in the White House

Political Influence: Harrison never discussed politics openly and there was no indication she did so privately, she was very much a homebody.

 

  1. Letitia Tyler (née Christian)

Life: 12th November 1790- 10th September 1842

Education: Assumed to be educated at home

Marriage: John Tyler (married 1813, he was widowed upon her passing)

Bio: Born to a wealthy planter, little is known about her early life. She was known to be a very kind, pious and loyal person to all who knew her. Tyler met her future husband in 1808 and the pair had an unusually long courtship of five years, with her not even receiving a kiss on the hand until three months before the wedding. She was shy, didn’t like the limelight and only took one visit to Washington before her husband’s election. Two years before the White House, she suffered a stroke.

Due to being left an invalid by her stroke, her daughter-in-law assumed White House duties, and she only came downstairs once for another daughter’s wedding. She died in the White House due to a stroke, a year and half after arriving. Her husband remembered her fondly as a loving and thoroughly unselfish person.

Most Badass Moment: Gaining the strength for her daughter’s wedding.

Best Known For: Being the first First Lady to die in the White House and for being a FLOTUS in name only

Political Influence: None that we know of

 

  1. Julia Tyler (née Gardiner)

Life: 4th May 1820- 10th July 1889

Education: Chegary Institute

Marriage: John Tyler (married 1844, widowed 1862)

Bio: She was born in the privately owned island Gardiner Island to a State Senator and his wife. Tyler was educated at the Chegary Institute but caused controversy when she posed with a man on an advert for a store, calling herself ‘The Rose of Long Island.’ She was then sent to Europe until the controversy died down. Tyler met her future husband at a White House Reception, but they weren’t well acquainted until after his first wife’s death. The President pursued the woman 30 years his junior, but she resisted- he was a stiff, cold southerners and she was a young, spirited northerner. He proposed several times, including in public, but she ignored him. They did not become close until her father died in front of them both, during which she fainted in his arms. Tyler was devastated, but was comforted by her future husband.

The pair married in New York. She was a glamorous and chattering hostess, playing her role well. Her insistence of using ‘Hail to the Chief’ to announce the President became official practice from the next administration. To finish the admistration of her husband, she hosted a ball for 3,000 people.

After the White House, the Tylers settled in Virginia. She was a supporter of the Confederacy, with her house nearly being burned down, her brother cutting ties with her and suing her out of their mother’s will. After her husband died in 1862, she converted to Catholicism and eventually lost her money in a financial crash. With the help of her children and a congressional pension, she recovered. Tyler died of a stroke, 27 years after her husband died of the same condition in the same hotel.

Most Badass Moment: Her constant initial refusal to be courted by Tyler

Most Known For: Having two living grandchildren and for being younger than her step children

Political Influence: None during the Presidency, but she was pro Confederacy and slavery during the Civil War

 

I hope that you enjoyed this piece!

Next Time: Sarah Polk to Lucretia Garfield

 

 

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