White House Weddings: A Brief History

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Valentine’s Day from History First! Is the presidency romantic? Well, couples throughout history have thought so—multiple people have gotten married at the White House since the beginning of the 19th-century. Curiously, only one president has ever been married there.

Join us on a walk down the aisle. Here are some stories about weddings at the White House:

Grover Cleveland: The Only President to Get Married at the White House

Grover Cleveland is the only president to have married at the White House | Library of Congress

History First has had a lot of love for Grover Cleveland, lately. We’ve written about his health scares and how he was the only non-consecutive president in American history. For a president most Americans don’t remember, Cleveland had a lot of “firsts” and “onlys”. One of these is his wedding. Grover Cleveland is the only president to have gotten married at the White House.

White House bachelors are a rare breed. Most were widowers or lost their wives during their administrations. Only three presidents married during their time in office: John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson, and Cleveland. For Tyler and Wilson, it was a second marriage. Tyler married his bride, Julia, in New York. Wilson married his, Edith, at her home in Washington D.C.

Grover Cleveland’s status as a bachelor had been a cause for concern during his campaign. A sex scandal emerged during his 1884 run in which a woman named Maria Halpin claimed that she had had Cleveland’s baby out of wedlock. This was embarrassing for Cleveland, but ultimately his supporters shrugged it off as “boys being boys.” Halpin was sent to an insane asylum; the baby was put up for adoption. #MeToo, this wasn’t.

And this is where it gets weird. Maria Halpin’s baby was named Oscar Folsom Cleveland—a combination of Cleveland’s name, and the name of his best friend, Oscar. Oscar had a daughter named Frances. (Do you see where this is going? If not, spoiler alert: Cleveland marries her.) Frances was younger than Cleveland—much younger. They first met when Frances was a baby, and Cleveland was 27 years old. In fact, Cleveland bought his future bride her first baby carriage.

When Oscar died, Cleveland became the executor of his estate. As such, his ties to the Folsom family remained deep even after Oscar’s death. When Frances went to college, Cleveland asked her mother for permission to write her letters.

Frances Folsom Cleveland | Library of Congress

They began to correspond—and Cleveland made sure her dorm room at Wells College was filled with flowers. When Frances and her mother visited the White House, their correspondence bloomed into romance. They were married on June 2, 1886. Cleveland was 49; Frances was 21.

So let’s talk about that.

The Clevelands’ White House Wedding

Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom wed at the White House | Library of Congress

On May 28, 1886, the president had a surprise announcement for the country — in five days, he would marry Frances Folsom at the White House.

The invitation was short, to the point, and signed by the president:

“On Wednesday next at seven o’clock in the evening I shall be married to Miss Folsom at the White House.

We shall have a very quiet wedding, but I earnestly desire that [you] will be present on the occasion.”

Cleveland meant it when he said it would be a quiet wedding. Only 28 guests gathered on June 2nd, in the Blue Room at the White House, to witness the event.

“Accustomed as were the ladies gathered in the to the dazzle of rich costumes, they could barely restrain expressions of wonder and admiration at the beautiful picture presented by the bride,” the New York Times noted the next day. Frances wore a wedding dress with a six-foot long veil, decorated with orange blossoms, as popularized by Queen Victoria. During the ceremony, she promised to “honor, love, and keep” her new husband, as opposed to the traditional “honor, love, and obey.”

Frances Folsom Cleveland in her wedding dress | Library of Congress

By all accounts, Frances Folsom and Grover Cleveland had a happy marriage. They had five children together. And, here, we find another first: their daughter, Esther, was the first—and only—president’s baby to be born at the White House.

How Many Other People Have Gotten Married at the White House?

The Clevelands may be the only presidential couple to wed at the White House, but they’re far from the only couple. There have been eighteen weddings at the White House since Dolley Madison’s sister got married there in 1812.

Mostly, White House weddings have featured presidential relatives—sons, daughters, nieces, etc.

Richard Nixon and his daughter, Tricia, at her White House wedding in 1971 | Library of Congress

Only twice has a non-relative married at the White House. In 1942, Harry Hopkins—an assistant to Franklin Roosevelt—married at the White House. In 2013—the most recent White House wedding—Barack Obama’s photographer, Pete Souza, married in the Rose Garden.

Of course, there are some downsides to getting married at the White House. The attention is intense, your ceremony might be drowned out by protests—depending on what the president has done, lately—and the White House is, of course, a public place. When Jenna Bush got married in 2008, she opted to hold the ceremony at her parents’ ranch in Texas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Awkward Presidential Transitions

By Kaleena Fraga

On November 3rd, 2020 the United States had an election. By November 7th, it had a winner — and by November 23rd, a loser, when President Trump officially acknowledged the transition to Joe Biden’s presidency.

Now, January 20th, 2021 looms in the distance. What will the transition from Trump to Biden look like on Inauguration Day? If it’s awkward or stiff — or if Trump simply doesn’t show up — it would reflect a long tradition of a “chilly” January day.

Even before Inauguration Day moved to January 20th — it was previously held on March 4th but advances in transportation made assembling the new government easier and faster —presidential transitions were often awkward. John Adams left town before his once friend, now foe, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in in 1801. His son, John Quincy Adams, did the same on the day his rival Andrew Jackson took the oath of office in 1829. When Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated, he refused to share a carriage with the deeply unpopular Andrew Johnson. During Grant’s inauguration in 1869, Johnson remained in the White House.

Today, we’ll take a look back at a few other awkward presidential transitions in the 20th-century.

Harry Truman to Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Truman and President Elect Eisenhower, Jan. 20, 1953 | Library of Congress

When Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 election against Adlai Stevenson, he ended two decades of Democratic rule. And “Ike” had not just won—he swept to victory with 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89.

Harry Truman, the incumbent, had worked with Eisenhower as World War II waned. Since then, their relationship had soured. Truman saw Eisenhower as dangerously anti-communist, especially since Eisenhower had done nothing publicly to denounce the rabble-rousing of Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower had planned to denounce the firebrand senator in a speech in Wisconsin, but backed out. Truman fumed: “[It was] one of the most shocking things in the history of this country. The trouble with Eisenhower . . . he’s just a coward . . . and he ought to be ashamed for what he did.”

Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Eisenhower to the White House after the election, but felt that the former general seemed unsuited to the job. Frustrated, Truman wrote that everything he said to Eisenhower “went in one ear and out the other.” Later, Truman mused that Eisenhower’s military background would prove a disadvantage, writing:

“He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

The former general, Truman noted coolly, “doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.”

Eisenhower also felt frosty. He saw Truman as an inept leader surrounded by cronies. When discussing the upcoming inauguration, he wondered aloud if he could “stand” sitting next to Truman. Eisenhower had a solution for dealing with people he disliked. He wrote their names on index cards and filed them under “To Be Ignored.” The next eight years would prove that Eisenhower meant it—the two presidents had little contact during Eisenhower’s two terms in office. (When Eisenhower was in Missouri and Truman tried to set up a meeting, he was told that the president had no room in his schedule. Reportedly, Truman could not refer to Eisenhower in later years without using profanity.)

Neither man had thawed by Inauguration Day. The clear, simmering hatred between the two was “like a monsoon”, according to White House advisor Clark Clifford. There were petty arguments over what kind of hats to wear—Eisenhower, without alerting Truman, wore a Homburg (similar to a fedora) instead of a silk top hat—and Eisenhower refused to enter the White House before he was sworn in, which meant he declined Truman’s invitation for a pre-inauguration cup of coffee

In fact, Eisenhower refused to even get out of the car. One CBS correspondent called it a “shocking moment.” The White House head usher, J.B. West, said “I was glad I wasn’t in that car.”

But despite the animosity between Eisenhower and Truman, Truman had gone out of his way to make Eisenhower’s inauguration special. Without Eisenhower knowing, Truman had invited the general’s son, John, to temporarily leave his post in Korea to see his father sworn in.

Eisenhower asked Truman who had invited John back. According to Eisenhower, Truman replied, “I did.”

Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan

President Reagan is sworn in. President Carter stands nearby. Jan. 20, 1980 | Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 by setting himself up as the opposite of Jimmy Carter. Instead of “malaise” you had “Morning in America“.

The two men had traded razor-sharp barbs during the campaign. Carter suggested that Reagan was a racist who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. Reagan quipped, “The conduct of the presidency under Mr. Carter has become a tragic-comedy of errors. In place of competence, he has given us ineptitude.” Reagan claimed the country’s economic recovery couldn’t start until Carter lost his job.

The transition, then, was unsurprisingly tense. When the two men met after the election to discuss national security, Reagan listened without comment and took no notes — much to Carter’s chagrin. During the meeting, Carter noted that being president was different than being governor (a role both men had had). For one thing, CIA briefings started at 7am. Regan smiled and said, “Well, he’s sure going to have to wait a long while for me.” Carter was unamused. Reagan didn’t care. He wanted “nothing to do” with Carter.

Reagan’s family did nothing to thaw tensions. A rumor came out that Nancy Reagan had asked if the Carters could move out out of the White House early—so that she could redecorate. Reagan’s son, Ronald, told the press he wouldn’t shake President Carter’s hand because “[Carter] has the morals of a snake.”

On Inauguration Day, Carter cut a weary figure. He had been up for forty-eight hours attempting to free the American hostages in Iran — who had been held in captivity for 444 days.

As they rode in a limousine together on the morning of Reagan’s inauguration, Carter was quiet, deep in thought about the hostages. Several hours earlier, he’d informed his successor that their release was imminent—indeed, they would be released that day. Reagan filled the silence. Later, Carter called Reagan’s anecdotes “remarkably pointless.” One story involved a former studio executive named Jack Warner and as Carter emerged from the car he muttered to an aide, “Who is Jack Warner?”

During Reagan’s presidency, the two men continued to attack each other. Reagan often invoked Carter to show how bad things used to be. “Remember, we were told it was a malaise, and we just had to get used to doing with less?” Reagan said during his presidency. “Well, the people knew different.” Carter also did not restrain from critiquing Reagan’s performance as president.

Still, when Carter opened his presidential library, he invited his former foe to the dedication ceremony. Reagan agreed—perhaps out of presidential duty. One of his staffers quipped that it would be strange to see the two men together, “kind of like mixing peanuts and jelly beans.”

Bill Clinton to George W. Bush (the Staff)

George W. Bush is sworn in, Jan. 20, 2001 | Wikimedia Commons

The transition between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was fairly civil—especially given the controversy of the 2000 election, which came down to a recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision.

There were a few instances of awkwardness. When President Clinton invited President-Elect Bush to coffee at the White House, Clinton arrived 10 minutes later. This irritated Bush, who was so punctual that he often locked doors once a meeting had begun. What’s more, Clinton also invited his vice president—Bush’s campaign rival, Al Gore.

But the real tension came from Clinton’s White House staff. Angered by remarks by Bush during the campaign—especially his insistence that he would restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office—they did their best to make life difficult for their replacements.

The Washington Post reported that departing Clinton staffers left quite a welcome for the Bush people, including scattered bumper stickers, obscene voicemail greetings, damaged furniture, dismantled keyboards (some people removed the “W” from their keyboards), vaseline smeared on desks, unplugged refrigerators, writing on the wall, missing TV remotes, telephones and drawers glued shut, and locks smashed.

One Bush staff member described the office space as “filthy” and one room contained a “malodorous stench.” The Clinton people left behind “unopened beer and wine bottles, a blanket, shoes, and a T-shirt with a picture of a tongue sticking out on it draped over a chair.

One Clinton staffer admitted gleefully to what they had done, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that he had: “left a voicemail greeting on his telephone indicating that he would be out of the office for the next four years due to a decision by the Supreme Court.”

The prank cost the government somewhere between $13,000 and $14,000 to fix.

The campaign of 2020 was certainly a bitter one—even to the end. So, it’ll be interesting to see how President Trump leaves and how President Biden arrives. Will it be as frosty as Eisenhower and Truman? Or will Mr. Trump take a page out of the Adams’ book, and skip town before the celebrations begin?

Woodrow Wilson and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

By Kaleena Fraga

These days, all anyone can talk about is coronavirus. Our conversations are consumed with social-distancing, quarantine measures, and questions about testing. Many have drawn similarities between the pandemic of today to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

So how did Woodrow Wilson respond to the Spanish flu?

To listen to this post in podcast form, click HERE

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

The 1918 influenza had competition when it came to the world’s attention span: the first wave hit during WWI. Military camps throughout Europe reported cases, but European governments chose to keep reports of the illness secret.

Spain, however, had no stake in the conflict. The country had chosen to remain neutral. Having no reason to suppress reports of the flu, Spanish newspapers reported the spread of a new illness.

For this reason, the world dubbed it the “Spanish influenza.”

The illness seemed to run its course. But a more powerful, second wave of the Spanish flu hit that summer. This time, it was so deadly that it could kill a healthy person within 24 hours.

The U.S. Government and the Spanish Flu

When the second wave of the flu hit, the U.S. government sought to downplay the crisis. They aimed to maintain morale in wartime by avoiding negative news stories. In Europe, governments censored any mention of a flu pandemic.

Wilson never made a statement about the Spanish flu. Even when, in the month of October 1918, 195,000 Americans died.

Because of the wartime circumstances, negative reports were severely discouraged. Wilson had created the Committee of Public Information a week after declaring war, which sought to downplay any negative news.

The Committee believed that: “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

In Philadelphia, where one of the worst outbreaks occurred, the Philadelphia Inquirer shrugged off increasing panic. “Do not even discuss influenza,” the paper suggested. “Worry is useless. Talk of cheerful things instead of disease.”

Across the country, as the flu spread, public health leaders toed the line. They stated that the Spanish flu was nothing more than a common form of influenza.  Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.”

Woodrow Wilson and the Flu

Wilson in Paris | The Atlantic

Behind the scenes, Wilson did worry about the flu. Ships full of troops arrived daily from the battlefields of Europe, and Wilson wondered if such crossing should be halted. Generals reassured him that there was no need.

“The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause,” Gen. Peyton C. March told the president.

In April of 1919, the president traveled to Europe himself. The war had ended in November. But the spread of the flu continued. And Wilson got sick. The president’s condition deteriorated so quickly and drastically that his personal doctor, Cary T. Grayson, worried that Wilson had been poisoned.

Even as Grayson told reporters that Wilson had a cold, he fretted about the president’s condition. ” I was able to control the spasms of coughing,” Grayson wrote, “but his condition looked very serious.” The president couldn’t even sit up in bed.

Worse, in the midst of fragile negotiations, the president began to act strangely. He acquiesced to French demands that had once seemed impossible; Wilson believed he was surrounded by spies; one colonel noted that the president had lost “his quickness of grasp, and tired easily.”

Wilson did recover. But he suffered a stroke months later that crippled his administration, and set up his wife as a de facto president.

Wilson chose to ignore the spread of the Spanish flu. Today, the Trump administration has been critiqued for its slow response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Important differences exist between the two presidents and the two diseases. Wilson lived in an era where presidents weren’t expected to offer a personal response to crises. In addition, Wilson was a wartime president. President Trump exists in the Twitter age—an immediate, personal response is expected.

Presidencies are defined by crises in any era. Just as Wilson is judged for his actions during WWI, it’s certain that history will measure the success of the Trump administration by the president’s response to this pandemic.

Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.

Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.

No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.

Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.

Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.

Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.

“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.

Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”

In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.

From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.

The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?

 

Ghosts of the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Halloween from History First!

Since John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, the executive mansion has had its fair share of inhabitants–from this world and the next. Jared Broach, who offers tours of haunted places in America, calls paranormal sightings in the White House “verified.” To say otherwise, he noted, would be “calling eight different presidents liars.”

One of the first people to live in the White House–Abigail Adams–is reported to continue to roam the halls. Witnesses have claimed to see her en route to the East Room–where she once would hang laundry–and some White House staff have smelled wet laundry and the scent of lavender. Why Abigail Adams would prefer to spend her time in the afterlife doing laundry at the White House, instead of relaxing at home in Massachusetts, is beyond the comprehension of History First.

Harry Truman wrote a letter to his wife in 1945 expressing the haunted feeling of his new home–he was only two months into his term at the time.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Truman wasn’t the only one to imagine Jackson’s lingering presence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who wanted desperately to believe in the afterlife after the death of her sons, and then her husband, also felt Jackson. She told friends that she had heard Jackson “stomping and swearing.” Jackson has also been spotted lying in his bed in today’s Rose Room, and others have heard his “guttural laugh” in the White House since the 1860s. In addition to Jackson, Mary Lincoln also once reported seeing the ghost of her dead son, Willie, at the foot of her bed, and even thought she heard Thomas Jefferson playing the violin.

In 1946, Truman wrote another letter to his wife detailing a more concrete supernatural experience. He writes that he went to bed, and six hours later heard a strong knock on his bedroom door.

“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s [the president’s daughter]. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Perhaps the White House’s most famous ghost is Abraham Lincoln–killed only a month and a half into his second term in office. Grace Coolidge first reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the 1920s, staring across the Potomac at old Civil War battlefields. Other first ladies also sensed Lincoln’s presence. Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked out of a room near the Lincoln Bedroom, said she strongly felt Lincoln’s presence one night. Two European visitors, staying down the hall, said that they had felt the same thing. Lady Bird Johnson, after watching a documentary about Lincoln, admitted to similar feelings in the private residence, where Lincoln had once worked out of his office.

Other visitors to the White House have had more tangible crossings with the assassinated president. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited the White House in 1942, and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. She claimed to have heard a knock on the bedroom door, and to have discovered Abe Lincoln on the other side–an experience so frightening that she fainted outright.

Winston Churchill liked to tell a story about his own ghostly Lincoln encounter during a visit to the White House in 1940. As Churchill tells it, he had just stepped out of the bath and picked up a cigar. Walking into the next room wearing nothing and still dripping wet, he found Lincoln by the fireplace.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s dog, Rex, seemed to sense something unsettling about the Lincoln Bedroom. It was the only room in the White House that the dog refused to enter. Reagan himself said that Rex had twice barked “frantically” in the Lincoln Bedroom, then backed out and refused to come back in. The president went on to say that one night while the Reagans were watching TV in the room below the Lincoln Bedroom, Rex began to bark at the ceiling. The president thought the dog might be detecting some sort of spy equipment, perhaps an electrical signal too high pitched for Reagan to hear himself.

And yet Rex the dog wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about the Lincoln Bedroom during the Reagan administration. The president related a story in which his daughter Maureen and her husband both saw a ghosty figure in the bedroom, looking out the window.

It seems that the ghosts of the White House have been fairly quiet in recent years–or perhaps the current and recent inhabitants are hesitant to tell their stories.