OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895


MEETING # 1586

4:00 P.M.

APRIL 10, 1997

First Ladies of the White House
& the Presidents They Served

Part 1, Washington to Lincoln

by Richard L. Wilkerson

Dolley Payne Todd Madison


Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library

Americans have been fascinated by the first ladies since the time we became a nation. The first family is our democratic version of royalty. Our first ladies have represented the standards of womanhood of their time, standards that have changed many times during the course of our history.
Reading about their remarkable lives is like looking at a display of our changing images of men and women, homes and families, society and culture. But being a national image is not easy.

I was born in 1926 and raised in Long Beach, California. I volunteered for service in the United States Navy in World War II. I received TUBA and MA in American history at the University of Redlands. Since that time, I have studied in nine other colleges and universities. I have taught from elementary through graduate level and have served in libraries, junior high through universities. My final years in education was serving as director of a Leaming Center in a community college. I was elected to two school districts board of trustees. I directed theater for twenty three years and currently work with three opera companies.
Americans have been fascinated by the first since the time we became a nation. The first family is our democratic version of royalty. Our first ladies have represented the standards of womanhood of their time, standards that have changed many times during the course of our history. Reading about their remarkable lives is like looking at a display of our changing images of men and women, homes and families, society and culture. But being a national image is not easy.
The first lady is in the spotlight because her husband holds the highest political office in the land. In the twentieth century, she has often had to work hard to help him get elected. Once in office, everything she does reflects on the president's popularity with voters. If she is well liked, has an appealing personality and is respected by the press it makes him a more successful president. (Ironically, until 1920 women could not vote in national elections, and during much of the nineteenth century they were discouraged from being involved in politics at all.) Having to live up to the expectations of others, having to fulfill their ideal image of the perfect woman, has been a challenging job, but a job for which the first lady does not get paid. Every first lady has responded to these pressures in her own way. Some first ladies saw their role in the White House as a way to continue the supportive role they played in their marriages. Others joined with their husbands in the political issues of their times. Others took on social causes. Whatever decisions they made about their roles as first ladies, their stories are as varied and interesting as is the history of our nation.
Part I The New Nation 1775 - 1830

In reading about the first ladies, we discovered that very little is known about some of them. It is not unusual for there to be no written records of a woman's life prior to the late nineteenth century. Several factors have made women much less visible than men in our nation's history. For most of this nation's past, "history" was defined as the lives and deeds of great men whose activities took place in the world of military, economic, or public life.Presidents, and generals; wars, battles;, or major economic changes were what historians (mostly men) wrote about. The details of women's lives--their homes and families, their work in helping their husbands succeed in farming, business,, or a career--often were not kept or considered important enough to record.Because first ladies were married to presidents, who were powerful and influential men, we should expect these women's letters and papers to have been preserved as part of the family's history. But it is even hard to find information about some of the early first ladies -either because they didn't write many letters or keep a diary, or because their descendants didn't save them.


G. Washington Administration 1789 - 1797
While George Washington's wife never got completely used to being singled out for special attention, she was a likable and warmhearted woman who as the nation's first lady earned her own place in American history. Martha brought two important things to the marriage—wealth and social position—that helped George to advance in his career as a military and political leader. In 1775 George was elected commander in chief of the colonial army. From then on Martha lived her life under almost constant public scrutiny.

Their marriage had taken place at the Curtis home, called the White House. (The presidential mansion known today as the White House wasn't built until after George left office, and it wasn't referred to as the White House until much later.) By 1789 there could be no doubt that Washington would be elected the first president of the United States. "Lady Washington," some people started calling his wife. It was difficult to know what to call the president's wife as there were few nations whose example the new country could follow. Washington would be president, but what would his wife's role be? George and Martha, and members of the president's cabinet, discussed this a great deal. They realized that they were setting precedents that other presidents and their wives would follow. The Washington's answered the question by behaving in a dignified and formal manner, but not acting like royalty. Her role as first lady took its toll on Martha Washington. In a letter to her sister, she wrote: "I lead a very dull life and know nothing of what passes in the town. I never go to any public place, indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There are certain bounds for me which I must not depart from and as I cannot do as I like I am obstinate and stay home a great deal." Martha Washington was the first of many in her position to feel this way.


J. Adams Administration 1797 - 1801

Our second first lady was as reluctant to take on the role as our first, but for different reasons. Martha Washington regretted the loss of her privacy; Abigail regretted the loss of her freedom. Mrs. Adams was a woman of strong opinions, used to speaking her mind freely with her husband and his colleagues on social and political issues. She feared that the role pioneered by Martha required patience, tolerance, and discretion beyond her own. It was a difficult role for a woman of her outspoken temperament. It was no secret that John Adams consulted his wife on important decisions, and many believed her role went far beyond mere consultation. Mrs. Adams was called "Mrs. President" and "Her Majesty" by some who thought her too outspoken for a woman; she ignored their remarks and continued to advise her husband and attended meetings of the House of Representatives.


T. Jefferson Administration 1801 - 1809

Mrs. Jefferson died in 1782. Legend has it that her last wish was that her husband not marry again, as would have been the custom for a widower of his time. Whether or not this is true, Jefferson was deeply saddened by the loss of his wife and did live the remainder of his days a single man.


J. Madison Administration 1809 - 1817

Martha Washington and Abigail Adams were reluctant first ladies; they always believed themselves to be unsuited to the public role. Dolley embraced her role at the White House. She brought a spirit and strength to Washington that are admired to this day. As a gesture of great admiration and respect, Congress voted in 1844 to grant Dolley Madison the privilege of a seat in the House of Representatives "whenever it shall be her pleasure to visit the House" and to attend its sessions. This honor had never before been granted to an American woman.


J. Monroe Administration 1817 - 1825

Although Elizabeth Monroe played a leading part in one of the most dramatic episodes of her husband's long political career, not a word of her own has ever turned up to give any clues about her own thoughts and feelings. She kept out of the public eye as much as possible after her husband became the nation's fifth president. She clearly lacked the outgoing warmth of her immediate predecessor, Dolley Madison. The date of her birth has never been definitively established. Elizabeth was fiercely independent and seemingly unconcerned with conforming to public expectations. Dubbed "Queen Elizabeth" by those who thought her haughty attitude unfitting for her position. She chose to ignore these obligations.


J. Q. Adams Administration 1825 - 1829

Above all, J. Q. Adams yearned to become president himself, and now he bent every effort toward this goal. Even when he finally achieved his aim, his difficult personality made him one of the least popular men ever to occupy the White House. His wife hated living there. "That dull and stately prison in which the sounds of mirth are seldom heard." Louisa described it as she sat by herself writing her thoughts on many subject—especially about the position of women. Pondering over her own experience, she advances far ahead of her own time and foresaw a new era when "timid females" would no longer allow men to treat them as inferiors. Then she wrote,, the world would discover that the mind of woman "is capable of solid attainment as that of man."PART II. Growing Pains, Slavery and the Civil War 1830 - 1865The expansion of the nation to the west was another important feature of this time. More first ladies began to come from "the frontier," where their husbands gained fame in clashes with the Indians or in the war with Mexico over territory. This expansion had mixed meanings for women. Often the actual trek from an established home to a frontier settlement brought great difficulties. In a sense it was a trip backward through history. On the new farms, women's days
were filled with the kind of never-ending household work they had done in the colonial period. They had neither the time nor the opportunity for the reform campaigns of the East. Yet with western expansion also came new political pressures that ultimately made it possible for women to be participants in the political life of the nation.


A. Jackson Administration 1827 - 1837

In 1828, Jackson became a candidate for the presidency, and old rumors concerning his wife suddenly burst into print. Newspapers sympathetic to his political enemies viciously smeared Rachel. Just over a month after Jackson won the presidency, Rachel suffered a severe heart attack and died five days later, on December 22, 1828. The vicious attacks on her character probably hastened her death. Her presence was felt throughout his administration. An independent, strong minded man, he was fiercely loyal to the memory of his late wife and sorely unforgiving of those who had failed to give her the respect she deserved.


J. Tyler Administration 1841 - 1845

Like many women of her time, nothing about her early life would ever be recorded. Throughout the nearly thirty years their marriage lasted, his wife only rarely appeared in public with him. She remained at home, caring for their nine children and occupied with housekeeping responsibilities. In 1839 she suffered a severe stroke that left her partly paralyzed. When her husband became vice president of the United States two years later, she accompanied him to Washington. Then, a month after President Harrison took office, he died—and John Tyler became the first vice president elevated to the nation's highest post by the death of the president. Letitia made only one public appearance at the White House (a family wedding). She had a second stroke.


J. Tyler Administration 1841-1845

Julia agreed to marry President John Tyler thirty years her senior less than two years after the death of his first wife. Julia brought great changes to the White House in the short eight months she was to preside as first lady. She left little doubt in anyone's mind that the role of president's wife was one she was happy to fill. She loved the spotlight and made every attempt to turn the White House into her own royal court. She rode about in a carriage pulled by six white Arabian horses and was attended at all times by twelve personal maids. Known as the "Lovely Lady Presidentress," Julia initiated the practice of playing "Hail to the Chief" at the president's entrance and hosted many formal balls, one with a guest list of over three thousand. She also exerted great political influence on President Tyler, and it was publicly acknowledged that he valued her opinion greatly on all matters, personal and professional.


J. Polk Administration 1845-1849

Unlike so many first ladies before her, Sarah Polk wanted nothing more than for her husband to become president of the United States. Unlike so many of her predecessors, however, Sarah did not envision a White House life full only of endless social occasions and obligations; rather, the bright, outspoken, opinionated, and ambitious Sarah looked forward to sharing in the work of running the nation. Sarah and James brought to Washington something the American people were not used to seeing a marriage that was a true partnership of equals.When the Polks moved into the White Houses Sarah immediately made her presence felt. Her strict religious beliefs eventually led her to ban all dancing, card playing, and drinking in the president's home. "To dance in these rooms would be undignified," she remarked. Sarah also let it be known that she was not to concern herself with the purely social functions that had either intimidated or delighted her predecessor. She was the initial first lady to play a truly active and acknowledged role in her husband's administration. She served as his personal assistant, She loved to talk politics, and she did so with skill and intelligence. So devoted were the Polks to the work of the presidency that they did not take a single vacation during their White House years.


Z. Taylor Administration 1849-1850

Much like Martha Washington and Anna Harrison before her, Margaret was looking forward to a peaceful retirement with her husband when she found herself instead headed for Washington, D.C. and the White House. She stated that it was a "plot to deprive me of his society and shorten his life by unnecessary cares and responsibility. "Because Margaret was never seen in public, rumors circulated that she was purposely kept hidden due to her rough frontier habits. It was said around Washington that the wife of the president had no manners and was even known to smoke a pipe. This of course was not true.


M. Filmore Administration 1850-1853

Abigail stands out as the first lady who ever held a job outside her own home. In the White House, her main contribution was in urging her husband to remedy a lack she quickly discovered: The Executive Mansion had no collection of books for the use of its official families. Thanks to her, a library was established in one of its upstairs rooms, which endures to the present day.


F. Pierce Administration 1883-1857

For the first half of her husband's term in office, Jane did not appear in public. In the next two years, she did occasionally appear, but she never truly emerged from her grief. The one thing that seemed to direct her attention away from her sadness was her increasing work for the cause of abolition. Unfortunately, this cause put her at odds with her own husband who still clung to the belief that the Union could survive half-slave and half-free and refused to support the end of slavery.


A. Lincoln Administration 1861-1865

Perhaps no first lady suffered so much in the role as did Mary Lincoln. She came to the White House full of hope, but tortured by insecurities. Eventually she would lose a son, her husband, and her sanity.

Through all her troubles Mary enjoyed the support and affection of her husband. She remained loyal, and her husband always sought her advice and opinions. Mary was devoted to achieving freedom for the black men, women, and children of America. She was the first president's wife to invite black Americans to the White House as guests of her family.


The Complete Book of United States Presidents, W. A. Degregorio, 4th Edition, Barricade Books; Inc. N.Y., 1993

First Ladies of the White House, N. Skanneas. Ideas Publications Incorporated, Nashville, Tennessee, 1995

Lives and Graves of our Presidents, G. S. Weaver, Elder Publishing Company, Chicago, 1884

The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, Wyatt Blassingame, Revised Edition, Random House, N. Y. 1993

Presidential Campaigns, P. Boller Jr., Revised Edition, N. Y., Oxford University Press, 1996

Presidential Trivia, E. Couch, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1996

Presidential Anecdotes, P. Boller, Jr., Revised Edition, N. Y., Oxford University Press, 1996

The Presidents of the United States of America, F. Freidel, White House Historical Association, Washington D.C., 1995

The Presidents of the United States of America, N. Best, A Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Co., N. Y., 1995

The Smithsonian Book of the First Ladies Their Lives, Times and Issues, E. Mayo, Henry Holt andCo.. 1996


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