James Madison, the Theory of Expansion, and Purity Tests in Politics Today

By Kaleena Fraga

Long, long before the presidency linked itself with Twitter, James Madison gathered with his fellow Americans to retool the government, discarding the Articles of Confederation for what would become the United States Constitution. The men who came to the Constitutional Convention came armed with different ideas and doubts. Madison lay out what he believed were the greatest problems with democracy, and how he proposed to solve them.

Madison believed in two things: that a large country would allow for a variety of ideas and opinions to thrive, safe from a looming majority, and that friendship was possible even when the two parties disagreed politically. However, the Internet Age has threatened both Madisonian ideas. In the United States, not only do most Americans belong to one of two parties, and view citizens of the opposing party with distrust, they are increasingly likely to demand purity tests within their own parties, and to cast out anyone with a nuanced opinion on a controversial subject.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 1787, Madison laid out his view of democracy. “All civilized societies,” Madison told the assembled delegates, inevitably, “[divide] into different sects, factions and interest…in all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.”

Madison’s response to this was his theory of expansion:

“The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or that of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it.”

In other words, the size of the country would allow for so many different opinions and ideas that no one party could monopolize the national discussion. Madison wrote this at a time when many Americans were wary of changing the national makeup from a loose array of states into one country. Madison argued that doing so would multiply the number of interest groups, therefore protecting them from each other.

Future Madison-foe Alexander Hamilton jotted down his own notes on Madison’s proposal. He speculated that “paper money” would unite people no matter what their location. He also thought that even a large republic could be vulnerable to a demagogue, writing, “an influential demagogue will give an impulse to the whole.”

As the country became increasingly partisan, Madison eventually morphed this theory to fit his political aims. As the de facto leader of the Republican Party, opposing Hamilton and the Federalists, Madison relied on increasingly partisan language. He shifted his belief to say that while there could be disagreement among Republican ranks, anyone on the other side was an enemy to the notion of America itself (this in a time when leading Republicans believed that leaders of the opposing party, the Federalists, aimed to bring monarchy to America). In 1792 Madison wrote an article encapsulating this idea, entitled “The Union: Who Are Its Real Friends?” The answer: anyone who agreed with him and his fellow Republicans. Madison’s view of a large country, then, with many different views and opinions, had begun to wither on the vine.

Although he came to embrace partisanship, Madison believed strongly in maintaining friendships amid political disagreement. He believed in the difference of ideas, as long as he could trust that the other person shared his larger goals (i.e. the good of the nation, that is to say, that the nation would remain a republic instead of a monarchy). He and James Monroe are a good example. Although they ran against each other, Madison eventually made Monroe his Secretary of State. Similarly, although Madison’s friend Edmund Randolph didn’t support the Constitution, Madison later recommended him for a job in George Washington’s cabinet.

Although partisanship and distrust of those with opposing views may be a stance as old as the nation itself, the interconnectedness of the country in the Internet Age has not only deepened the divide between the two major parties–it has increased the demand for purity of its candidates. Senator Kamala Harris, speaking to David Axelrod on his podcast The Axe Files, argued that Democrats need to support candidates across the political spectrum–not just those furthest to the left or who ascribe to a strict set of liberal principals.

The political action committee “We Will Replace You” has vowed to do just that–vote out any Congressional Democrats (largely representing red states) who cooperate with the Trump Administration. On the right, the G.O.P. has seen an exodus of its more moderate members–Jeff Flake and Bob Corker chose to not run for reelection, citing their belief that, as Republicans who sometimes opposed the president, they could not win in their districts.

James Madison began his political career with two strong beliefs: that the size of the country would allow for a variety of opinions to thrive, and that friendships were possible even in the face of political disagreement. He faltered on his first point early on as partisanship ran rampant; but Madison applied it to his second–that a big country could allow for a variety of views as long as, overall, the people wanted the best for the country. In this way, Madison found it easy to remain friends with fellow Republicans who disagreed with him.

But today, as Americans are becoming more likely to identify people in the opposite party as endangering the nation, they also are turning on members of their own party.

Madison’s theory of expansion, then fails spectacularly in the Internet age. Americans still live far apart, but are closer than ever in their shared experience of national and international events. The two biggest political parties are able to spread information across a wider platform than ever before, leaving little room for competing voices or third party candidates (although American history is dotted with attempts by third party candidates, they have never succeeded).

As a result, Madison’s belief in friendships beyond politics is also in jeopardy. As American voters and their representatives drift further and further toward extremes, it’s becoming easier for candidates on the fringes to demand political purity across the spectrum, and to cast out any candidates who do not fit their desired, purist mold. Political compromise, in the age of social media, seems increasingly out of reach.

Will, We Hardly Knew Ye: the Legacy of William Henry Harrison

By Kaleena Fraga

William Henry Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the shortest term in office; and being the first American president to die in office. In honor of the anniversary of his untimely death (April 4th, 1841), let’s review what WHH accomplished while still alive.

His presidency: William Henry Harrison was inaugurated on March 4th, 1841 and died exactly a month later. At the time he was the oldest person ever inaugurated–today he’s beat by Donald Trump, 70, and Ronald Reagan, 69. His death launched a mini constitutional crisis–no one was sure what to do if the president died in office. Harrison’s VP, John Tyler, insisted that it meant that he became president–not “acting president” as some argued at the time. The nation wouldn’t definitively solve the issue of succession until 1967 and the passing of the 25th amendment.

His nickname: Harrison went by the moniker Tippacanoe, a nod to the Battle of Tippacanoe against Native American forces in 1811 during the lead-up to the War of 1812. Although Harrison would later use this battle to his political advantage, James Madison’s Secretary of War originally interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Americans. The skirmish left 62 Americans dead and 126 wounded; thirty six Native Americans were likewise killed.

His legacy: Although Harrison died in office after one month, his grandson Benjamin Harrison was also elected to the presidency, and completed one full term in office. William Henry & Benjamin Harrison are the only grandfather-grandson to serve as president.

His campaign: In what would become known as the Log Cabin campaign, the 1840 battle for the White House pitted the Whig Harrison against Democrat Martin Van Buren, who was running for a second term in office. Democrats, mocking Harrison’s age, wrote in a party newspaper:

“Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

Whigs leapt on this, portraying Harrison as a man of the people–someone who, you know, you could grab a beer with. Van Buren, they claimed, was an elitist, out of touch with the common man. Ironically–and in a sign of campaigns to come–Harrison was the aristocrat, having been born to a wealthy family on a plantation. Van Buren’s father was a tavern keeper.

This was not a contest of the Founding Fathers’ day, when it was sacrilegious to campaign. Among other antics, a group of Whigs pushed a ten foot ball made of tin and paper slogans of Harrison’s for hundreds of miles (from this comes the phrase “get the ball rolling”). Other Whig supporters passed out whiskey in log cabin shaped bottles which came from the E.C. Booz distillery (from this comes the word “booze.” See, there are reasons to remember William Henry Harrison!).

It was, as John Dickerson points out in his podcast, Whistlestop, in many ways the first modern campaign.

His speech: At one hour and forty-five minutes, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address is the longest in history. It’s 3,000 words longer than the runner up’s speech (William Howard Taft, 1909). Given on a cold Washington day, it’s also in all likelihood what killed him.

And so we’ll keep it short. Happy death-day, President Harrison.

George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the National Rifle Association

By Kaleena Fraga

The teenager survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken to the streets to protest lax gun laws–laws endorsed by the National Rifle Association, which they say allowed their ex-classmate to legally and easily purchase a gun and murder 17 of their peers.

Although sixty-six percent of Americans have expressed support for stronger gun control, the rhetoric between the two sides is hotter than ever. Many conservatives have doubled down in their support of the N.R.A., going after the student survivors of the Parkland shooting as “crisis actors” or mocking them on Twitter.

george-h-w-bush-swearing-in-1So it’s worth noting that one prominent conservative, George H.W. Bush, walked away from the N.R.A. in 1995 when he found that their messaging had grown too fiery in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s the kind of quiet courage that defined much of his time in public life–and an action that would be met with scorn by many on the right today.

The N.R.A had been on the offensive since 1993, when federal agents stormed a compound belonging to a cult called the Branch Davidians. The siege left dead on both sides. In its aftermath, as the Washington Post noted, “the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound only proved what [many N.R.A members] have been saying for years — that the Treasury Department agency is recklessly out of control, smashing into private homes to trample basic civil rights.”

In between the siege at Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing, N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre (in the same role he holds today), wrote a “special report” in the magazine American Rifleman. Among other things, it alleged that LaPierre had received a “secret” document, which warned that “the full scale war to crush [Americans’] gun rights has not only begun, but is well underway.”

A week before the bombing in Oklahoma City, LaPierre also signed a fund-raising letter that warned that President Clinton’s ban on assault weapons would result in “jackbooted Government thugs [with] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” The N.R.A. in 1995 endorsed the idea that the government was coming for Americans’ guns and their freedom. They pointed to Waco as the prime example.

Six days later, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh had been an NRA member for four years. He embraced many of the same positions as the NRA—he was a gun owner and believed that the government wanted to take his guns away. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, many of them federal employees. The N.R.A. found itself under increased scrutiny—it had pushed the idea that government could be the enemy of the people, and someone had taken this rhetoric and acted upon it.

Yet even after the bombing, LaPierre refused to soften his language.  When asked if, Wayne LaPierrein light of the tragedy, he’d like to take back what he’d said, LaPierre replied, “That’s like saying the weather report in Florida on the hurricane caused the damage rather than the hurricane.”

To George H.W. Bush the rhetoric and the refusal by the N.R.A to repudiate LaPierre had crossed a line.

He wrote a letter to Thomas L. Washington, the president of the N.R.A. resigning his membership. The letter, in part, stated that Bush felt:

“outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre…defended his attack on federal agents as ‘jack-booted thugs.’ To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as ‘wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms’ wanting to ‘attack law abiding citizens’ is a vicious slander on good people.”

Bush went on to name several Secret Service agents and A.T.F. members whom he knew, and whom he endorsed as honorable people. One man, a Secret Service agent named Al Whicher who had served on Bush’s security detail, had been killed in Oklahoma City. The men that Bush listed, he wrote to Washington, “were no Nazis.” The officers he had known, Bush went on, “would [never] give the government’s ‘go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.’ (Your words).”

Bush acknowledged that he was a gun owner and an avid hunter. He agreed with the N.R.A’s objectives and believed in the importance of its education and training.

“However,” he wrote,  “your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”

In light of this, Bush wrote, he would resign from the N.R.A., effective immediately.

In between 1995 and 2018, the N.R.A.’s rhetoric hasn’t changed. If anything, it has become angrier, more reactionary. At the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) LaPierre warned that the “left -wing socialist brigade” sought to destroy “Western civilization.” At CPAC 2018, a few weeks after the Parkland shooting, LaPierre stated that the goals of the country’s “elite” was to “eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.” Gun control advocates, he said, “don’t care about our children. They want to make us all less free.”

Although Bush had been out of office for two years at the time of his resignation, he showed political courage that seems to be lacking in Washington today. Two days after the Parkland shooting President Donald Trump tweeted that “[La Pierre]…and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country trump gun controland will do the right thing.” Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush to be a member of the N.R.A.

Yet for a few days after the shooting it seemed that the survivors of Parkland and other advocates of gun control might find a surprising ally in the president. During a televised meeting Trump stated that while he “loved the N.R.A.” action was needed. He also appeared to endorse the idea that guns should be taken from anyone who seemed to be threatening violence. “Take the guns first,” Trump said. “Go through due process second.”

But any hope at a bipartisan solution–or for the president to show any political bravery in the face of the N.R.A.–was short lived. Soon after a visit in the Oval Office between the president and N.R.A. representatives Trump reversed course, endorsing N.R.A ideas like arming teachers, and tweeting that gun control did not have “much political support (to put it mildly).”

To change the America’s gun laws, then, the nation looks not toward the White House or any political or moral leaders, but rather to a growing group of young students who are determined to end gun violence once and for all.

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.