From Villain to Vice President

How campaign rivals become running mates

By Kaleena Fraga

Who will Joe Biden pick as his running mate? The former vice president reportedly has a shortlist of names to fill his previous White House role. Some, like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, battled Biden for the nomination.

Harris, in particular, launched a grenade at Biden during an early debate. The California senator levied charges of racism against Biden, because of his opposition to busing in the 1970s. Today, Biden insiders bristle at her “lack of remorse” over the incident.

Should Harris’ attack be held against her? If chosen to be Biden’s VP pick, she would in fact join a long tradition of campaign rivals who became running mates.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams (right). Friends, then rivals, Jefferson served as Adam’s VP.

Arguably, this tradition has roots in the very beginning of the Republic—although candidates then had no say over their vice president. The runner-up automatically became VP, which is how Thomas Jefferson came to serve his frenemy John Adams in 1796.

The two men were a study in contrasts. Adams, the rotund, loquacious Northerner represented the Federalists; Jefferson, the statuesque, quiet Southerner stood for the Democratic-Republicans.

As friends, the two men had accomplished great things. Both had served in the Continental Congress and had worked together to create the Declaration of Independence. But their relationship had soured. When Jefferson became Adams’ vice president most agreed that perhaps it didn’t make sense to make the runner up in the election the vice president—especially if he represented the opposing party.

In 1800, they would run against each other again. This time, they would pick “running mates” to join them in battle. (This caused significant confusion —while the Federalists carefully divided their votes between Adams and his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the Democratic-Republicans voted enthusiastically for both Jefferson and Aaron Burr, causing a tie.)

The 12th amendment, ratified in 1804, would forever change how elections work. It created a system where electors would cast one vote for president, and one vote for vice president.

However, it wouldn’t mean the end of rivals becoming running mates.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson

John F. Kennedy (left) and Lyndon B. Johnson (right) joined forces after a bitter campaign

Once Lyndon B. Johnson was picked to be John F. Kennedy’s vice president, he had his staff look up the odds of a V.P becoming president. They weren’t bad.

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

Johnson to journalist Clare Booth Luce

Kennedy and Johnson had first worked together in Congress. Johnson, the Texan Senate Majority leader, thought little of the young senator from Massachusetts. Johnson called Kennedy “pathetic” and “not a man’s man.”

When both men threw their hats in the ring to become president, the attacks escalated. Johnson seized upon the issue of the day—that Kennedy, if elected, would be the nation’s first Catholic president. He also called his opponent, who suffered from various health issues, a “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”

Despite this, Kennedy saw the appeal of having Johnson on his ticket. He knew he needed the South and Johnson—from Texas—could deliver crucial votes. Not everyone in the Kennedy camp agreed. Bobby Kennedy, the future president’s brother, openly despised Johnson—and Johnson despised Bobby.

This animosity only deepened when Bobby tried to get Johnson to withdraw from the ticket. Bobby tried three times. Three times, Johnson refused. LBJ, who had hated Bobby since knowing him as a Congressional staffer, called the future president’s brother, “a grandstanding little runt.”

On election night, Texas did prove crucial to Kennedy’s victory. And LBJ made sure that Jack Kennedy knew it. “I see you are losing Ohio,” he told Kennedy during an election night phone call. “I’m carrying Texas.”

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

Ronald Reagan (left) and his campaign rival, then running mate, George H.W. Bush (right)

During the 1980 election, George H.W. Bush competed against Ronald Reagan in 33 primaries, losing 29 of them. At times, the race to the nomination became openly acrimonious.

Bush feared that Reagan was too conservative. So, he remained in the race, even as he lost primary after primary. Bush stuck to his moderate guns. He famously labeled Reagan’s economic plan as “voodoo economics.”

Reagan, for his part, believed that Bush “lacked spunk” and bowed too easily to political pressure. This opinion was partially formed in New Hampshire. Bush agreed to a 1:1 debate in New Hampshire, but Reagan then turned around and invited all the other candidates. (From the confusion came Reagan’s famous line: “I paid for this microphone!”) Reagan wasn’t impressed by how Bush just sat there. He believed it showed a “lack of courage.”

Once he secured the nomination, Reagan did not especially want to pick Bush as his running mate. He postured to bring the former president Gerald Ford to the ticket, but Ford’s ambivalence toward the idea, and the whispers of a “co-presidency” turned this plan into dust.

Running out of time, Reagan turned to Bush. Bush, sitting in his hotel room at the Republican convention and watching the wild speculation over the Ford rumors, believed that Reagan had called to let him know that he’d picked the former president. Instead, Reagan offered Bush the vice presidency.

Despite becoming running mates, the two men lacked chemistry. A few weeks into Reagan’s first term, Bush even sighed that, despite his efforts he, “couldn’t understand Reagan.”

Who will Joe Biden pick as his running mate? Biden has said he will make an announcement in August.

Biden insiders may dislike Kamala Harris for her attacks on their candidate. They may dislike her for her “lack of remorse” and her “ambition” to be president. But if Harris is chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, she would join a long line of men who struck an alliance with former campaign rivals.

We’re kind of obsessed with the vice presidency. Next, read about LBJ and the Odds of Becoming President, The Path from the Vice Presidency to the Presidency, and about the 25th Amendment.

First Lady Feature: Lou Henry Hoover

By Molly Bloom

Lou Henry Hoover brought her passion for the outdoors and humanitarian projects from Iowa and California to China and London. Many credit Lou with the transformation of the position of First Lady from the primary role of entertaining guests to a more concerted focus on volunteerism and activism.

Her partnership with President Herbert Hoover allowed her to pursue their shared interests. While he lived in the spotlight, Lou took advantage of her own small platform and made the most of every opportunity.

Love Based on Adventure

Like her future husband, Lou Henry was born in Iowa and moved west, eventually attending Stanford University—where she met Hoover during his final year in college. Their shared experience of living in different parts of the country connected them, and Lou’s love of the outdoors and spirit of adventure seriously attracted Hoover, who was gearing up for a career in mining that would soon take him to Australia.

Hoover left for Australia to start his career while Lou finished her studies at Stanford. The two promised to keep in touch. And once Lou graduated, she launched into an adventure of her own, joining the local Red Cross Chapter to roll bandages for troops in the Spanish American War. (She would eventually become the chapter’s secretary-treasurer.)

Hoover, upon discovering that his work would take him next to China, came home to marry Lou in 1899. More adventure loomed on the horizon. Next, the newlyweds would sail to Shanghai.

The Meaning of Marriage

For Lou, her marriage meant an opportunity for adventure and advancement that would be difficult to achieve as a single woman in her era. Despite graduating Stanford as the first woman with a degree in Geology, she lamented to friends that her A.B. degree did not stand for “A Boy,” and she would not be easily granted a job in her field.

Lou spoke about Hoover’s position in China in her diary and letters to friends, and she asserted herself as an equal partner, saying “we” when referring to his position and career decisions. In Lou Henry Hoover, Nancy Beck Young writes, “Instead of rebelling against male privilege…Lou moved toward marriage and an unpaid public career… she expected a coequal partnership with her husband and used her marriage to expand her public, political rights.” (13).

Lou was seen by Hoover’s colleagues and friends as an equal, independent, and sometimes stubborn companion to the future president. In the Ladies Home Journal, Frederick Palmer shared an account of Hoover requesting Lou leave the city of Tianjin, China as the early stages of the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900. Lou stubbornly refused until he acquiesced grumpily, “All right, Lou.”

In the same article, Palmer tells the story of approximately 70 bullets firing on the Hoover household during the rebellion. Lou continued playing a game of solitaire while the wood of the house was splintered by bullets and there was a “fog of disintegrated plaster” (Mayer 79-80).

Stories of her bravery were widely circulated: she armed herself with a .38 pistol, refused to leave her friends and neighbors, rode her bicycle close to walls to avoid bullets, and volunteered medical assistance at the hospitals in the wake of the attacks. Even when her obituary prematurely appeared in a California newspaper, Lou seemed to shrug off the danger and continue the service that she deemed essential.

An Equal Partnership

Hoover’s mining career moved his family to London before the outbreak of WWI. When Belgian families faced starvation and Hoover established the Committee for the Relief of Belgium to provide a supply of food, Lou was in California with her sons. Hoover asked her to rally efforts, so Lou made public speeches that resulted in successful shipments of food reaching Belgium.

Lou also took things further, helping to market Belgian lace to Americans in order to support the Belgian craftswomen in need (Allen 64-5). She created an aid plan for American travelers stranded in Europe and assisted with clothing, childcare, and local accommodations. As Hoover’s career evolved towards public service, Lou matched (and sometimes outmatched) his efforts.

Lou also had projects of her own, separate from her husband’s service. One such endeavor was her work with the Girl Scouts. In 1917, Lou was asked by Girl Scouts founder Juliette Low to join the organization’s leadership. She’d go on to serve many positions over the years, from president to chair of the board.

The role of helping young girls develop social and homemaking expertise, as well as the “scouting” skills that she enjoyed in childhood, resonated with Lou’s love of the outdoors. During the organization’s formative period, Lou helped raise money, improved the Brownie program, and is even credited by some with the original sale of Girl Scout Cookies. She eventually recused herself from the formal leadership position when Hoover was elected to the presidency, but she continued to serve as the honorary president, a position held by the First Lady of the United States since Edith Wilson (who initially accepted the role at Lou’s urging). After the Hoovers left the White House, Lou returned to the Girl Scouts due to her passion for the program.

In the years leading up to Hoover’s presidency, Lou accompanied her husband and asserted herself as a subtle, yet equal, partner in his world travels and philanthropic efforts. Once in the White House, Lou continued to support the Girl Scouts and her other projects, even as she adapted to the role of First Lady. She supported the arts in Washington D.C. and the careers of musicians while also working on campaign strategies for her husband’s party. However, Lou also understood the importance of entertaining and her position as a model American wife, wholesome, unpretentious, and tasteful (Allen 128).

Lou’s Legacy

Lou Henry Hoover’s legacy encompasses not only the position of First Lady, but also her lasting public services and programs. In a 1914 letter, she wrote:

“The ambition to do, to accomplish, irrespective of its measure in money or fame, is what should be inculcated. The desire to make the things that are, better- in a little way with what is at hand [or] in a big way if the opportunity comes.”

Lou took advantage of opportunities large and small to make a difference. Today, she serves as a reminder of the importance of supporting humanitarian organizations to further their impact and the value in helping others during difficult times.

Sources:

Lou Henry Hoover: Activist First Lady by Nancy Beck Young

Lou Henry Hoover: A Prototype for First Ladies by Dale C. Mayer

An Independent Woman: The Life of Lou Henry Hoover by Anne Beiser Allen

Hebert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa

Bachelors, Boos, and Cory Booker

By Kaleena Fraga

If elected president, Cory Booker would join a small club of men who held the presidency without a wife

(to listen to the piece in podcast form click here)

During a radio interview on February 5th about his 2020 White House run, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker acknowledged that he has a girlfriend. Still, Booker has endured speculation (much as Lindsey Graham did) about what his presidency would look like if he entered the White House as a single man.

It’s rare in American history, but not unheard of. The single men of the White House fall into a couple of narrow categories. They were widowers; men whose wives died during their presidencies; single or widowed men who married during their presidency; or presidents who never married at all.

Widowers 

Thomas Jefferson’s wife died almost twenty years before his presidency. Although the role of first lady was not strongly defined, various women close to Jefferson resided over social functions at the White House. These included his daughter, Patsy, and the wife of his best friend, Dolley Madison. Dolley Madison played an important role building relationships with the powerful in Washington D.C.–especially since Jefferson and her husband much preferred books to people.

Andrew Jackson’s case was a bit different. He and his wife, Rachel, had endured vicious attacks during the campaign over their marriage (Rachel had been married to another man when she met Jackson, and there was some overlap between her first and second marriages). She died shortly after his election in 1828. Although she’d always suffered health problems, Jackson blamed his political enemies and their attacks for exacerbating her illness and causing her death.

“My mind is so disturbed,” Jackson wrote to a friend, shortly after his election and Rachel’s death, “that I scarcly [sic] write, in short my dear my heart is nearly broke.”

Martin Van Buren, like Jefferson, entered the White House as a widower. His wife similarly died almost two decades before his presidency, and Van Buren never remarried.

Chester A. Arthur’s wife, Nell, died about a year before Arthur entered the White House–although he initially did so as James Garfield’s vice president in 1881. Arthur, who ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Garfield, never remarried.

Tragedy at the White House 

John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Woodrow Wilson all lost their wives during their administrations.

White House Weddings

There’s an overlap between the last category and this one. John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson remarried during their presidencies. (Harrison also remarried, but not until after his presidency).

Grover Cleveland entered the White House as a bachelor in 1884. He also arrived on a wave of controversy surrounding the paternity of a child born of wedlock.

Cleveland, at 49, would eventually marry the daughter of his former law partner, Frances Folsom. Folsom had known Cleveland since she was 12. At 21, she would become the youngest first lady in American history.

Bachelor for Life

James Buchanan, while regarded as one of the nation’s worst presidents, is perhaps best known as the nation’s only bachelor president. Buchanan never wed, and presided over the White House alone. Today, there is speculation that Buchanan may have been America’s first gay president.

Buchanan’s bachelorhood did not go unnoticed by the American public (and certainly not by his opposition). One campaign ditty went:

Whoever heard in all of his life,

Of a President without a wife?”

Andrew Jackson once sneered that Buchanan, and his close friend Rufus William King, who died before Buchanan’s presidency, were “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

There’s no definitive proof that Buchanan was gay–especially since male friendships of the era were largely more intimate than today. Still–the two men shared a fifteen year friendship, a room in a Washington boardinghouse as congressmen, and letters, which their respective nieces burned.

***

As for Booker? After admitting he had “someone special” in his life, the exchange went on:

“Oh, so Cory Booker’s got a boo?”

“I got a boo,” Booker responded.

Will Cory Booker’s boo follow him to the White House, should the 2020 race lead him there? Perhaps. But if Booker does arrive at the White House, and if he arrives solo, he certainly won’t be the first to preside over the presidency alone.

Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Rome, Italy on his way to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. His voyage capped off years of incredible violence and uncertainty, and Wilson was greeted throughout Italy with cries of “Viva l’America!”

Wilson’s trip to Europe was part of a six-month journey (the longest any president had ever spent outside of the country) meant to end the war for good. He came home triumphant in July–armed with the idea of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would prevent future world wars. It was perhaps the high point of his presidency. Unfortunately, there was no where for him to go but down.

Despite initial widespread support, political infighting would doom American participation in the League of Nations. Mere months after he returned to the States, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and much of his presidential duties were secretly assumed by his wife, Edith.

Although the 1920 election was just around the corner, Americans in 1919 were not as eager to start the election process as they are today. In the waning days of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced her candidacy, and other Democrats are expected to quickly follow suit. Politics moved at a slower pace in 1919. That year had seen the loss of political giants–Theodore Roosevelt was now dead; Wilson, a shell of himself after his stroke, was an increasingly unpopular president. The election would not start in earnest until the next year.

Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be nominated in June of 1920 with a promise of a “return to normalcy”.

“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…not surgery but serenity.”

Although not explicitly said, Harding’s determination for the country to turn inward is reminiscent of the America First sloganeering of today.

Harding, Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, was popular despite his general incompetence (which he even noted himself, stating “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”) Gladwell attributes this to Harding’s physical appearance (a political insider at the time of Harding’s nomination argued that he looked like a president), personality, and commanding voice.

Harding and the Republicans would win in a landslide, in a direct rebuke to Wilson and his internationalist policies. Harding did not have much time to enjoy his new job, however ill-suited he found himself: he died unexpectedly in 1923 after a sudden stroke. This catapulted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.

The candidate for the Democrats, James Cox, would go on to be a footnote in history. Things turned out differently for his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later win election to an unprecedented and unmatched fourth term in the White House.

Despite the optimistic start of the year, 1919 would prove to be a tumultuous one. Half a million Americans would die from Spanish flu; Prohibition ushered in an era of bootlegs and speakeasies; violent race riots rocked the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The year 1919 also saw the introduction of dial telephones, the 19th Amendment which secured women’s suffrage, and new fiction by Sherwood Anderson and Virginia Woolf.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between 1919 and 2019–new technology making the world seem smaller, the precipice of another election year, the ongoing debate about America’s role in the world. No one can predict what next year will bring. Rather, we go into 2019 with Wilson’s words in mind:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

American Presidents & Royal Weddings

By Kaleena Fraga

Royal wedding fever swept the world last week as Prince Harry of England married Meghan Markle, an American actress. Alongside the nuptials were questions in the United States surrounding the invitations–would Donald Trump merit an invite? Would former president (and friend to the groom) Barack Obama?

In the end, neither attended. This in itself isn’t unusual. Over the past several royal weddings, American presidents have sent notes of congratulations or perhaps a high-level envoy, but have never attended  themselves.

In 1947, President Harry Truman sent a notes of congratulations following the engagement of Elizabeth & Phillip to both the bride-to-be and her parents, the King and Queen of England. There’s no indication that Truman was invited or sought to attend.

truman telegram to king

Instead, Truman assigned an envoy to represent the U.S. government at the wedding, the ambassador to Great Britain Lewis Douglas.

Neither President Eisenhower or his wife Mamie were invited to the next royal wedding, that of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, in 1960. The American ambassador to the U.K had to convince the president to send a gift. Eisenhower objected because he’d never received any formal notification, but eventually followed his ambassador’s advice and sent a “small wedding ring ashtray.”

The next royal wedding was in 1981, when Queen Elizabeth’s son Charles married Diana Spencer. Ronald Reagan did not attend, although it appears he was invited. He sent the first lady, Nancy Reagan, to represent his administration. The New York Times speculated that President Reagan did not want the wedding to be his first trip to Europe.

Nancy Reagan created a bit of a stir in Great Britain, where one tabloid dedicated its Royal wedding 1981 - Nancy Reaganfront page to her decision to not bow to the Queen. The Guardian expressed irritation at her refusal to reveal any details about her wedding outfit until 24 hours before Diana released hers. And Nancy Reagan’s presence also prompted speculation of where she would sit during the ceremony. “I can’t image she’d be in the front row,” said a palace spokeswoman at the time. “Obviously, there are lots of other people besides Nancy Reagan coming.”

At Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, no heads of state were invited, so the Obamas did not attend. However, the lack of invitation did release a fury of speculation as to whether or not it was a “snub” of the American president. The Daily Mail noted that since Prince William was not yet heir to the throne, his wedding was not a state occasion. As such, it was normal that heads of state were not invited.

There does seem to be somewhat of a tradition regarding gifts–President Truman and President Reagan both sent the respective newlyweds Steuben glass bowls. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, however, requested donations to seven charities of their choice in lieu of gifts. Accordingly, Donald & Melania Trump confirmed via a White House spokeswoman that they will be making such a donation.

First Lady Feature: Lucy Webb Hayes

By Molly Bloom

Like many First Ladies, Lucy Webb Hayes devoted herself to charitable causes, exercised a great influence over her husband’s politics, and left her mark on the role of the First Lady of the United States. Most identified in the modern era by her nickname of “Lemonade Lucy,” she was notable for not serving alcohol in the White House more than 40 years before the start of Prohibition—although her husband Rutherford B. Hayes likely barred alcohol from the White House due to his support of the temperance movement, and Lucy followed suit.

Lucy Ware Webb met Rutherford B. Hayes at Ohio Wesleyan University when she was a lucy and rbhyoung teenager. Her brothers were studying at the University, and Lucy attended college prep courses. Too young to establish a relationship, they reunited years later when they were both members of a wedding party and married in 1852 when he was thirty and she was twenty-one. Lucy was a major influence on Hayes’ life during his entry into politics. The Ohio-born Hayes followed a fairly typical trajectory to the White House, checking off many of the most common boxes for U.S. presidents—he was educated at Harvard Law School and opened a law practice before serving in the military, then became a Congressman, and then Governor of Ohio. He won the presidency as the Republican nominee in 1876 and moved with Lucy and their family to Washington.

Lucy and her husband wrote letters to each other during the entirety of their relationship, and much of their correspondence took place during the Civil War. They expressed their love for each other and a deep appreciation of their relationship. In an 1851 letter, Hayes wrote,

“I feel that you will not only be the making of my happiness, but also of my fortunes or success in life. The truth is I never did half try to be anything, or to do anything… Only now I believe I shall have purpose and steadiness to keep ever doing, looking to your happiness and approval as my best reward.”

Lucy, though less eloquent than her husband, expressed strong sentiments as well. She wrote in 1864, I am thinking of you constantly- longing to hear from you thinking of the dangers and suffering through which you are passing- but while sad thoughts are with me- I think of your love- your tenderness and kindness to me- and feel that could I only be with you- could I only know that you will be returned to me- Oh darling one what would life be without you.”

Once in the White House, Hayes famously quipped, “I don’t know how much influence Mrs. Hayes has with Congress, but she has great influence with me.” Lucy and her husband had a close relationship, and Hayes valued her opinions. Lucy’s stances on major political issues of the time have been well-documented; she was an abolitionist and supported the new Republican Party during its anti-slavery developments. She was rumored to have encouraged her husband to join the Union Army during the Civil War. As was traditional for the time, Lucy’s primary role was as a wife and mother to her eight children; yet she also held progressive views and was committed to charitable causes. She was known to visit prisons, mental health facilities, and the National Deaf Mute College in Washington (now Gallaudet University). Despite these open-minded views, she never took a strong stance on women’s suffrage, and her husband was not an advocate either.

lucy hayes cartoonThe “Lemonade Lucy” moniker was not a title used during Lucy’s lifetime, but a name used by journalists, political cartoonists, and historians to poke fun at the strict nature of the First Family of teetotalers. Later historians credited Lucy’s husband with the decision not to serve liquor in the White House. As Emily Apt Greer, author of First Lady: The Life of Lucy Webb Hayes, explains, “many factors entered into it: a wish to set a good example; Lucy’s life-time abstinence from liquor; a desire to keep the temperance advocates in the Republican ranks rather than have them join the Prohibition Party; and Hayes’ firm conviction that government officials should conduct themselves at all times with discretion and dignity.” The decision to abstain from serving alcohol has been attributed to Lucy’s moral, religious upbringing, but in reality, politics were also at play.

Lucy Webb Hayes inspired one recognizable First Lady tradition: the annual Easter Egg Roll. Children used to roll eggs on Capitol Hill on the Monday after Easter, but the ruckus led Congress to pass a law in 1877 forbidding children from playing on the Capitol Hill grounds. In 1878, Rutherford and Lucy Hayes held the first Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. Subsequent First Ladies have added their own traditions to the Roll. Pat Nixon provided a costumed Easter Bunny for the occasion, and Nancy Reagan included signed wooden eggs as keepsakes for the children. First Lady Melania Trump will host the Easter Egg Roll on April 2nd, 2018, 140 years after the inaugural event, continuing the legacy of Lucy Webb Hayes.

First Lady Feature: Edith Wilson

By Kaleena Fraga

Over the course of Women’s History Month, we’ve featured several remarkable first ladies who had the wits and wisdom to be president themselves. Edith Wilson, who hid the depth of her husband’s illness from the country, is the only one who actually got close to assuming the presidency.

2-ebw-electric-car_1_origEdith met Woodrow Wilson during a chance encounter at the White House. His first wife, Ellen, had died of Bright’s disease only seven months earlier. They had a quick and passionate courtship which alarmed many of Wilson’s advisors. Not only would the president soon run for reelection (his advisors fretted that his pursuit of a woman so soon after the death of his wife would hurt his chances), but Edith was known in town for being one of the first women to ever drive a car, and was shunned by Washington’s elite because her money came from her (deceased) first husband’s jewelry store.

Three months after they met, the Wilsons wed.

Then in 1919, two years into Wilson’s second term, and four years into their marriage, Wilson suffered a devastating stroke that left him paralyzed. The president had been barnstorming around the country in the aftermath of WWI, trying to whip up support for his inspired but doomed plan for a League of Nations.

As the 25th amendment wouldn’t be ratified for almost fifty years, there wasn’t really anedith and woodrow answer to what the government should do if the president became unable to perform his duties. Wilson wasn’t dead, so there didn’t seem to be a reason for the vice president to step into his role. Without the 25th amendment, Congress and the Cabinet had no real power to act (and the extent of Wilson’s condition was kept top secret). To Edith, protective of her husband and his presidency, the answer was clear.

Anything that came to the president first had to go through the first lady. This included Cabinet members, policy papers, and any other pressing issues. As such, Edith Wilson decided what was important enough for the president to see–and what he could live without knowing.

Although Edith Wilson denied ever becoming president herself, she did acknowledge her “stewardship” during the Wilsons’ waning White House years:

“So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

President Wilson slowly recovered from his stroke, but remained paralyzed on one side. He died five years later, having remarked, “I am a broken piece of machinery–when the machinery is broken–I am ready.” When he died on February 2nd, 1924, his last word was the name of his wife, who’d guided him through his illness and the final years of his presidency. Edith.

Edith Wilson would live for almost forty years after her husband’s death. She was active in political life, speaking at the 1928 Democratic Convention and attending the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Although Americans have never elected a female president, Edith Wilson got close. During her husband’s illness, she arguably ran the country in his stead.

First Lady Feature: Mary Todd Lincoln

By Duane Soubirous

Like Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd was born in Kentucky, but their childhoods were worlds apart. The Todds were as well off as the Lincolns were poor. While Lincoln educated himself by reading in the candlelight after laboring all day, Mary Todd was sent to exclusive schools. The one childhood similarity they shared is what led them to meet: the death of their mothers. Mary Todd did not get along with her new stepmother, so she came to Springfield to live with her sister, who was married to a former governor of Illinois. Lincoln worked in Springfield as a state legislator, and their paths crossed in the Springfield political scene.

abraham-lincoln-youngLincoln wasn’t exactly smitten with Mary Todd. After they got engaged, Lincoln had second thoughts and he tried to get out of their engagement. Several of Lincoln’s friends recollected his misgivings about Mary, which Michael Burlingame documented in his book Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Lincoln confided to John J. Hardin “that he thought he did not love her as he should and that he would do her a great wrong if he married her.” To Mrs. William Butler, Lincoln declared, “it would just kill me to marry Mary Todd.”

Shortly after Lincoln and Mary Todd reunited, they shocked Mary’s family one morning by announcing  they would get married that day. Despite his apparent urgent desire to marry Mary Todd, Lincoln didn’t seem enamored by her. Lincoln’s best man recalled Lincoln telling him “directly and indirectly” that “he was driven into the marriage,” Burlingame wrote. While Lincoln dressed for the wedding ceremony, “he was asked where he was going. ‘I guess I am going to hell,’ came the reply.” Historian Wayne C. Temple hypothesized that Mary Todd had seduced Lincoln and convinced him he was honor-bound to marry her. This argument is supported by the birth of Abraham and Mary’s first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, which happened just three days shy of  nine months after the wedding.

Lincoln patiently listened to Mary’s many opinions, but he didn’t often follow them. One time Lincoln did yield to her was when she vetoed his plan to become governor of Oregon, a position offered to Lincoln by president Zachary Taylor’s administration after Lincoln campaigned for Taylor in the election of 1848. Mary Todd Lincoln refused to move to the frontier. “During her husband’s presidency,” Burlingame wrote, “Mary Lincoln ‘did not fail to remind him that her advice, when he was wavering, had restrained him from “throwing himself away” on a distant territorial governorship.’”

The White House was in a dilapidated state when the Lincolns arrived in 1861, and Mary Todd Lincoln immediately set to work refurbishing it. In contrast to Abigail Adams using the East Room to hang laundry, Mary Todd Lincoln used that room to host receptions. “The most exquisite carpet ever on the East Room was a velvet one, chosen by Mrs. Lincoln,” wrote Mary Clemer Ames, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. “Its ground was of pale sea green, and in effect looked as if ocean, in gleaming and transparent waves, were tossing roses at your feet.”

Mary Todd Lincoln overspent her $20,000 budget (about $560,000 in today’s dollars) by $6,800 ($190,000 today). She tried to hide her opulence from Lincoln in several corrupt schemes, explained by Goodwin. She asked the White House groundskeeper to inflate his budget and pass the extra money over to her. She offered patronage in exchange for cash from wealthy donors or reduced bills from vendors. After failing to raise all the money she needed, Mary sent an intermediary to ask Lincoln for help. Lincoln was indignant when he heard the news. “He said it would stink in the land to have it said that an appropriation of $20,000 for furnishing the house had been overrun by the President when the poor freezing soldiers could not have blankets,” the intermediary said, quoted by Goodwin. “He swore he would never approve the bills for flub dubs for that damned old house!”

Mary Todd Lincoln’s lavish East Room hosted a mob of people vying to get a glimpse ofhith-10-things-lincoln-assassination-E General Ulysses S. Grant at his first appearance in Washington, D.C. as the top general in the Union army. That reception, a journalist noted, was the first time Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the center of attention in the East Room. Grant was elected president in the first election after Lincoln’s assassination. He might have been assassinated with Lincoln on April 14, 1865, if Mary Todd Lincoln hadn’t thrown a tantrum a few weeks earlier in front of Grant’s wife Julia Dent Grant. Even though the morning newspaper reported that the Lincolns and the Grants would attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, Julia persuaded Ulysses into traveling home to New Jersey instead of going out with the Lincolns. Julia Grant later said she “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln,” Burlingame wrote. “Grant said ‘we will go visit our children … and this will be a good excuse.’”

Loss of a loved one was a recurring theme in Mary Todd Lincoln’s life. Between losing her mother in childhood and witnessing her husband’s assassination, she lost three brothers who all fought for the Confederacy, even though Kentucky officially remained loyal to the Union; one son died before Lincoln was elected president and another died in the White House. In 1871 her youngest son died shortly after turning 18. Four years later, Mary was declared insane and sent to an asylum. Her sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, testified against her. “There was a second trial, at which she managed to convince the jury that she was perfectly sane,” Richard Norton Smith wrote in First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. “She and Robert never really reconciled.”

Mary Todd Lincoln spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity, and died while living with her sister back in Springfield, Illinois–in the same house where she’d wed Abraham Lincoln 40 years before.

First Lady Feature: Dolley Madison

By Kaleena Fraga

Dolley Madison is best known for rescuing a portrait of George Washington from the White House during the British attack on Washington D.C. in 1814. She, like Nellie Taft, was an indispensable member of her reticent husband’s presidency.

dolley madisonIn David McCullough biography’s of Madison-foe John Adams, the nation’s fourth president is described as “a tiny, sickly-looking man who weighed little more than a hundred pounds and dressed always in black.” When Dolley Madison caught his eye and he asked for an audience with her (bonus trivia: mutual friend Aaron Burr set them up), she wrote her sister that “the great, little Madison” wanted to meet her. Great because of Madison’s political reputation; little because at 5’7, Dolley Madison was several inches taller than her future husband.

When Thomas Jefferson won the election of 1800, James & Dolley Madison moved in with the new president to the White House (James Madison was the new Secretary of State). Jefferson had been a widower for several years, and his daughters had not come to live with him in Washington. Although the Madisons eventually found a home of their own near the White House, Dolley Madison became the de facto First Lady.

Whenever Jefferson held dinners at the White House where women were invited, Dolley Madison was the hostess. To her husband, who was a prolific writer, and who had conducted much of his politicking through letters, Dolley was an immense asset–especially in a city like Washington D.C. where politics were based more on social relationships. Dolley thrived in such an environment.

As Secretary of State, Madison needed to become better at face-to-face interactions. In james madison1the James Madison biography The Three Lives of James Madison by Noah Feldman, Feldman writes that Dolley was instrumental in forming Madison’s ability to converse with diplomats and their wives. “Under Dolley’s tutelage,” Feldman writes, “Madison developed what would become a lifelong habit of telling witty stories after dinner, the ideal venue for his particular brand of dry wit.”

Dolley Madison presided over the first inaugural ball when her husband was elected in 1808. While Dolley “looked like a queen” according to an attendee, her less social husband remarked to a guest that he “would much rather be in bed.”

In the eight years of her husband’s presidency that followed, she went on to shape the role of first lady more than her predecessors. She was the first one to live full-time in the White House, and as such set out to transform the executive mansion, and to make it a social center of the nation’s capitol.

When the British invaded Washington D.C. in 1814, Dolley was alone at the White House, her husband out rallying the troops. He had sent messengers telling her to flee, but she white house burningwanted to wait for his return. According to an account by Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery at Madison’s estate of Montpelier and then working at the White House, the table had been set for dinner when a rider came charing to the mansion with the message that they must evacuate immediately. Dolley wrote her sister that she insisted on waiting until they could unscrew the portrait of George Washington from the wall.

“This process was found to be too tedious for these perilous moments. I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out.”

It was then rolled up and sent to New York, where it would be safe. Dolley Madison instructed its guardians that they should destroy the painting rather than allow it to fall into British hands. When the British troops arrived they found the table set for dinner. They ate their fill, and then burned the house to the ground.

Dolley outlived her husband by thirteen years, and continued to play a social role in politics after his death. She often told stories of the Founding Fathers and their generation, and advised other First Ladies on their role in the White House. Her last public appearance was on the arm of then-President James K. Polk.

First Lady Feature: Abigail Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

While John Adams convened at the First Congress, Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter reminding him to:

“Remember the ladies…remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

In his reply, John Adams was light-hearted, telling his wife:

“Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems…in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Her early (early) wave feminism continued. Later in life, Abigail sent a note along with a abigail-adams-9175670-1-402book she’d purchased for her niece, which she’d discovered portrayed women as unequal to men. The note was a warning to read the book with a grain of salt. Abigail wrote: “I will never consent to have our sex considered in an inferior point of light.”

Abigail Adams had no formal education, but benefited from the libraries of her father and grandfather, of which she had free reign as a girl. She took a special interest in philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, the classics, history, government, and French. Her wit and intelligence is preserved in the letters she wrote in her lifetime–to her husband, to friends, and to political frenemies like Thomas Jefferson.

She advocated for equal education for boys and girls, believed in emancipation for American slaves, and, above all, in the cause of independence. Although they spent many years apart (once, while John Adams lived in Europe, they spent a consecutive five years without seeing each other), Abigail and John Adams remained close throughout their marriage. Abigail Adams was a political partner as well. During her husband’s presidency, some even darkly referred to her as Mrs. President.

aaAbigail Adams was the first First Lady to live in the White House. She and John Adams moved to Washington D.C. from Philadelphia once the mansion was finished. As she wrote a friend, the executive mansion was huge and sparse. “It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” Abigail used today’s East Room to dry the family’s laundry.

When she died, Abigail’s son John Quincy Adams (who would go on to be president himself) wrote in his diary, “My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity. She [had no] feelings but of kindness and beneficence; yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle.”

Despite her forward-thinking views, and despite Abigail Adams’ relationship with men in power like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, she would not see equality between men and women in her lifetime. Women would not have the right to vote for another 143 years from the time she asked her husband to “remember the ladies.”