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.”

First Lady Feature: Nellie Herron Taft

By Kaleena Fraga

If William Howard Taft’s hold on the collective American memory is that he got stuck in a White House bathtub (likely false), his wife Nellie’s grip is weaker still. Yet Nellie played a crucial role in propelling her husband to the White House, and her subsequent stroke during his term in office irrevocably changed his presidency for the worse.

Née Helen Louise Herron, Nellie grew up immersed in American politics. Her father was a college friend of future president Benjamin Harrison, and shared an office with another future president, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes and Nellie’s father were especially close. When she was sixteen, Nellie was invited to accompany her parents to the Hayes White House for the president and his wife’s silver anniversary. Later in life, Nellie told journalists that, “Nothing in my life reaches the climax of human bliss, which I felt as a girl of sixteen, when I was entertained at the White House.”

Indeed, she told President Hayes that the visit had convinced her that she would marry “a man who will be president.” Hayes is reported to have responded, “I hope you may, and be sure you marry an Ohio man.” Hayes, Harrison, and the Herrons were all proud Ohioans (as was Nellie’s future husband).

nellie taftNellie herself was bright–she had a gift for languages, and studied French, German, Latin and Greek. She wrote in her diary that, “A book has more fascination for me than anything else.” Nellie wanted to continue her education–her brothers went to Yale and Harvard–but her father told her he could not afford to send her to college. Anyway, she was expected to find herself a husband, instead.

But this sort of lifestyle didn’t suit Nellie at all. Out of school, unable to take as many music lessons as she wanted because her father didn’t think they were worth the money, Nellie found herself “blue as indigo.” She wrote in her journal that, “I am sick and tired of my life. I am only nineteen. I feel as I were fifty.” The solution, she thought, was to find a job. “I read a good deal to be sure…but I should have some occupation that would require active work moving around–and I don’t know where to find it…I do so want to be independent.”

One has to wonder what Nellie could have accomplished if her father had coughed up the money for her to pursue her own education–although in the 1880s, neither Harvard nor Yale admitted female students.

In the end, Nellie enrolled in less expensive classes at the University of Cincinnati, where she studied Chemistry and German.

Although it horrified her mother, Nellie eventually decided to take a job teaching at a private school for boys. Nellie’s mother wrote her a letter detailing her alarm at this decision:  “Do you realize you will have to give up society, as you now enjoy it…it is quite the thing for a young girl in your position to teach in a boys school–and where there are no other ladies?” Nellie’s friends too questioned her “queer taste.” To this, Nellie wrote in her journal:

“Of course a woman is happier who marries, if she marries exactly right, but how many do? Otherwise I do think that she is much happier single, and doing some congenial work.”

At this point in her life, Nellie began to spend more time with William Howard Taft, a young lawyer whom she had had known as a girl and who had “[struck her] with awe.” Taft, for his part, started carrying books when he was around Nellie to gain her favor.

The first time he asked her to marry him, Nellie turned him down. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Nellie feared that marriage would “destroy her hard-won chance to accomplish something worthy in her own right.” Taft persisted. Perhaps he sensed that Nellie had ambitions beyond that of a wife and mother. Writing to try and convince her to change her mind, Taft said, “Oh how I will work and strive to be better and do better, how I will labor for our joint advancement if only you will let me.”

Nellie agreed and they were married in 1886.

When Taft became president in 1909, Nellie’s greatest dream had been realized. She had encouraged her husband to turn down President Roosevelt’s offers of a seat on the Supreme Court to keep his options open for the presidency (Roosevelt asked three times). Her great ambition of returning to the White House had become a reality. Although her husband admitted he felt “like a fish out of water” (indeed, Taft would later state that he hardly remembered his term in office–his true ambition, which he attained after his presidency, was to be the Supreme Court Justice), Nellie was right at home.

The New York Times noted that few had been so “well equipped” to be First Lady. Nellie had been a governor general’s wife during Taft’s tenure in the Philippines. She was social; she understood the ceremonies of the office; and she spoke Spanish, French and German, so she could hold conversations with diplomats from around the world. The new First Lady received accolades for her conversational skills, and her ability to converse on a variety of topics. She was quite a contrast to her predecessor, Edith Roosevelt, who believed, “a woman’s name should appear in print but twice–when she is married and when she is buried.”

As Taft began to take on the demands of the office, Nellie took on responsibilities of her own. She became an honorary chair of the Women’s Welfare Department of the National Civic Federation to advocate for workers in government and industry. Nellie refused the commonly accepted logic that college wasn’t for women, and publicly said so. Her own daughter eventually attended Bryn Mawr. When asked about women’s suffrage, Nellie stated:

“A woman’s voice is the voice of wisdom and I can see nothing unwomanly in her casting the ballot.”

cherry treesAlthough some muttered that Nellie should focus more on “the simple duties of First Lady,” Nellie was equally eager to expand this role. Upsetting many New Yorkers, Nellie stated that she wanted to make Washington D.C. a social hub for Americans. Nellie set out to beautify the city. From her time abroad, Nellie had fallen in love with Japanese cherry trees and brought one hundred to Washington. When the mayor of Tokyo heard of this project, he sent 2,000 more.

“In the ten weeks of her husband’s Administration,” wrote the New York Times, “Mrs. Taft has done more for society than any former mistress of the White House has undertaken in many months.”

It was only a few weeks into Taft’s term that tragedy struck. Nellie, only 48, suffered a debilitating stroke. The right side of her face was paralyzed. Although the public was kept in the dark, Nellie had lost the ability to speak or express her thoughts in any way. She went to the family’s summer home in Massachusetts to recover. Taft needed his wife–needed her social drive and partnership. Weeks into his presidency, he had lost her.

Although Nellie recovered much of her facilities, she wasn’t able to play the part she so taft silverdreamed of in Taft’s administration. It certainly wanted for her influence. Without her, Taft was not able to play the dynamic social role he needed to fill the shoes of his bombastic predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.

Still, despite a second stroke in 1911, Nellie and Taft were able to celebrate their silver anniversary at the White House–the same event that Nellie had attended as a girl. One can only wonder what someone like Nellie could have accomplished if she’d had access to education; and if she’d lived in a world where women could pursue a career without judgement. Perhaps we’d be writing about her presidency, instead.

Special thanks to our girl Doris Kearns Goodwin & her wonderful Taft/Roosevelt biography: Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt & The Golden Age of Journalism.

Theodore Roosevelt and Valentine’s Day 1884

By Kaleena Fraga

On the day after Valentine’s Day, there’s plenty of presidential material to sort through. There are the longest presidential marriages (George and Barbara Bush are the winners here, with a logged 73 years of marital life), Richard Nixon’s surprisingly poetic love letters to his wife, Pat, and Harry Truman, who says that he first fell for his wife, Bess, when he was six years old.

Among the most poignant, and certainly the most tragic, is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s Valentine’s Day in 1884. Just twenty-five, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day, to unrelated causes. Both died young–his wife, Alice, was only twenty-two, and had just given birth to their daughter. His mother was forty-nine. Roosevelt marked the day with a simple, wrenching entry in his diary. X The light has gone out of my life.


It was unmistakably the lowest point of Roosevelt’s life. But, as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked in her Roosevelt biography Bully Pulpit, Roosevelt believed that “frantic activity was the only way to keep sorrow at bay.”

To anyone who has studied Roosevelt’s life, this philosophy is abundantly clear. For those who haven’t, Goodwin describes Roosevelt as someone who simply couldn’t stand still–ever. Journalist Louis Brownlow wrote how Roosevelt, as president, couldn’t stop even for his midday shave. (Journalists were invited to attend, so that Roosevelt could answer questions or give more detail on his ideas). “The President would wave both arms, jump up, speak excitedly, and then drop again into the chair and grin at the barber, who would begin all over.”

When the French ambassador Jules Jusserand visited Roosevelt, dressed for a formal occasion, he was whisked away to the woods with the exuberant president. Describing the event later, Jusserand recalled that they moved at a “breakneck pace” and that when they reached a river, rather than resting, Roosevelt declared that they had better strip “as to not wet our things in the creek.”

After his tragic Valentine’s Day in 1884, Roosevelt would go on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, and have five more children. Roosevelt’s “frantic activity” would propel him to the vice presidency, and then the presidency. If anything, the story of his tragedy is a reminder that someone can go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.

Please Pose, Mr. President: A Brief History of Presidential Portraits

By Kaleena Fraga

Yesterday, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled for the first time. Suffice to say, they’ll stand out. Barack Obama was painted sitting with an intense look in his eyes, against a backdrop of bright green leaves and flowers. Among other presidential portraits, which have been more traditionally done, it will certainly draw the eye. Both portraits were painted by black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald–the first to do so.

The Obama portraits themselves are not the only thing that stood out about the unveiling. They were presented at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where many presidents’ portraits are hung. This in itself isn’t unusual. But over the last couple of decades, the unveiling seems to have traditionally taken place at the White House.

In 2012, George W. Bush and Laura Bush were invited back to the White House for the bush portraitunveiling of their official portraits. Bush’s father and fellow president George H.W. Bush tagged along too. It was a light hearted occasion, with friendly barbs on both sides.

Likewise, Bill and Hillary Clinton returned to the White House for the first time in 2004 to participate in the unveiling of their official portraits, which would hang in the White House. (Clinton also attended an unveiling at the Smithsonian in 2006, for a portrait that would hang in the museum). It was during this unveiling that President Bush remarked that the portrait of Hillary Clinton, then in the U.S. Senate, would be the only portrait of a sitting senator hanging in the White House.

reagan portraitIn 1989, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were invited to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits. Reagan remarked in his diary that there was “a feeling that [my portrait] could be better. Even the artist, Shikler feels that way & is going to make some changes.” Indeed, Reagan’s portrait was later replaced.

Controversy around a presidential portrait then, is nothing new, including from the subject himself.

Teddy Roosevelt reportedly destroyed the first version of his official portrait, tr portraitbecause he thought it made him look like a “mewing cat.” The second painter he hired, John Singer Sargent, found him to be a difficult subject. After the two had tried several different rooms on the first floor, Roosevelt accused Sargent of not knowing what he wanted as they walked up the stairs to the second. Sargent responded that Roosevelt didn’t know how to pose for a portrait. Roosevelt swung around, gripping the bannister, and said, “Don’t I?” The rest is history.

Lyndon Johnson–surprising no one–also had difficulty getting along with his portrait artist, Peter Hurd. He called Hurd’s first attempt “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” When Hurd felt he needed more time, Johnson informed him that Norman Rockwell had been able to complete a portrait of him in 20 minutes. Hurd got his revenge. He gave the first portrait, the one Johnson had hated, to the National Portrait Gallery. It was later replaced.

There has also been a fair amount of symbolism in presidential portraits. The flowers in the bush behind Obama in his portrait represent his life path–they are from cities and countries from around the world where he has lived. Artist Elaine de Kooning depicted John F. Kennedy sitting awkwardly in a chair–a quiet nod to the back problems he suffered from for most of his life. In 2015, Bill Clinton’s portrait artist Nelson Shanks admitted he’d included symbolism of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress in his painting of the former president. This portrait, according to the Smithsonian, has been “rotated out of view,” and replaced with a portrait of Clinton by artist Chuck Close.

The Obamas’ portraits are colorful, playful, and stand apart from the serious presidential portraits that most Americans are used to seeing. That the unveiling took place away from the White House seems to be a subtle nod to the rocky history between Obama and the current president, Donald Trump. Still, in other ways the portraits follow the unveiling tradition–they caused some controversy, and Barack Obama’s includes symbols of his path to the presidency. At the end of the day, both will be hung in the National Portrait Gallery, among the presidents and first ladies of days past.

American Military Parades, A History

By Kaleena Fraga

Last week, Donald Trump made some waves by professing his wish to have a military parade. While many balked at the suggestion, it’s not all together an un-American tradition. Still, past military parades have been held largely for one of two reasons: they were during/directly following a war, or they were held for the inauguration of a president.

There were several military parades in the 1940s to either support troops fighting in WWII, or to celebrate the victory. These parades could last hours–one lasted eleven hours–and would attract thousands and thousands of people. One parade in 1942 even featured an enormous bust of the current president, Franklin Roosevelt (pictured above).

1991.jpgSimilarly, two military parades were held following the United States’ victory in the Gulf War, one in Washington D.C. and one in New York City. The D.C. parade attracted 800,000 people and cost a cool twelve million dollars. Aside from the soldiers, wrote the Washington Post, the parade’s real stars were the “seven-block-long array of weaponry that helped defeat Iraq.” The subsequent New York parade, noted The Post, would make D.C.’s look like a dress rehearsal.

Other military parades have coincided with the inauguration of a new president. Both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy made military parades a part of their inauguration festivities.

Eisenhower had military style parades at both his inaugurations. These parades presented IKE_paradeall the latest military technology as well as soldiers, bands, and floats. In 1953 they featured an 85 ton atomic cannon; in 1957 the belle of the ball was the first successful ballistic missile. For Eisenhower, who came to office not as a politician but as a war hero, this sort of display reflected both his background and the country’s stance as a new military power during the early days of the Cold War. Eisenhower’s parade was over the top in other ways as well–in addition to missiles, it reportedly featured hundreds of horses, three elephants, and an Alaskan dog team.

Eisenhower had several advisors who wanted him to throw military parades more often, like those seen in Soviet Russia. But Ike refused. According to historian Michael Beschloss , Eisenhower believed imitating the Soviets would make the United States look weak–there was no need to flaunt the fact that the country was the most powerful on earth.

John F. Kennedy, another Cold War president, likewise had a military style inauguration kennedyparadeparade, which, like Ike’s, showed off American military technology. Alongside the dozens of missiles on display, the parade also included soldiers and sailors sitting atop Navy boats, which were towed along the parade route.

In between Kennedy’s inauguration and the Gulf War Victory parades thirty years later, military type parades seem to have fallen out of fashion, including for presidential inaugurations. This may be because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam war–presidents likely did not want to draw too much attention to the military on the days they were inaugurated. Many vets returning from Vietnam found little celebration–rather, they were met with anger. When New York threw a parade for Vietnam veterans in 1985, one vet remarked that the parade was “ten years too late,” and that when he came home originally, “people booed.”

Whether or not Trump’s military parade will happen has yet to be seen. If it does, it will be somewhat of an outlier, as the United States is not celebrating a military victory, attempting to strum up support for its current wars, or marking the inauguration of a new president.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Ronald Reagan Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today, February 6th, 2018, would have been the Gipper’s 107th birthday. In celebration, here are ten of History First’s favorite Reagan facts:

  1. Reagan earned his nickname “the Gipper” from his time as an actor in Hollywood. In the film Knute Rockne: All American, Reagan played a football player named George Gipp who, upon becoming ill, urges his teammates to “win one for the Gipper.” Somewhat ironically given recent events, the film is about a Norwegian immigrant who reinvents football at Notre Dame, and later returns to the school to coach.

2. Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984; his opponent, Walter Mondale, carried only Washington D.C. and his home state of Minnesota.

3. Disunity in the Democratic party in 1980–incumbent Jimmy Carter faced an intraparty challenger in Ted Kennedy-prompted one party operative to declare that the Dems had to take their “unity medicine”: turn around three times and say President Ronald Reagan.

MAGA reagan style4. Reagan-Bush ran a slogan in 1980 that will sound familiar to many Americans today: “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

5. Reagan was known for his quips. After he survived an assassination attempt in 1981, he famously said to his wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” When Reagan met his team of surgeons he’s reported to have remarked, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Facing accusations of growing too old for the office during his reelection campaign in 1984, Reagan averred during a debate: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

6. At the time of his second inauguration, Reagan was 74–making him the oldest president at the beginning of his term.

7. Some found Reagan’s endorsement of his successor, George H.W. Bush, less than sdoenthusiastic. The New York Times called the run up to the endorsement “one of Washington’s longest-running and least suspenseful political dramas,” after Reagan insisted on waiting for the end of the Republican primary to announce his pick. Despite his nickname as the “Great Communicator” and Bush’s eight years of service as VP, Reagan flubbed Bush’s name during the endorsement, pronouncing it George Bosh.

8. Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Her nomination fulfilled one of Reagan’s 1980 campaign promises. O’Connor was confirmed by a Senate vote of 99-0.

9. Famous for loving Jelly Beans, Reagan hated brussel sprouts (maybe never tried roasting them!)

10. Reagan shares a birthday with Aaron Burr, infamous for his role in the death of the first Secretary of the Treasury (and current Broadway star) Alexander Hamilton.


“My Fellow Americans”: A Brief History of the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

On January 30th, Donald Trump followed presidential tradition in obeying the words written in the Constitution: that the executive, from time to time, should give Congress information on the state of the nation.

The first ever address was given by George Washington, in 1790. He and his successor, John Adams, both gave speeches to Congress.

Thomas Jefferson ended the short lived tradition of a spoken address, either because he thought it too king-like, because it took too much time, or perhaps due to his fear of public speaking. He instead sent a letter to Congress.

teddy and wilson
Teddy Roosevelt depicted reacting to Wilson’s spoken SOTU

It would take over one hundred years for the speech to return. Woodrow Wilson went to Congress to give his State of the Union, prompting the tradition that Trump followed on Tuesday.

Although most presidents post-Wilson have elected to give a speech, others have fallen back on written messages to Congress. The American Presidency Project has a comprehensive table of presidents giving oral or written addresses–after Wilson they clearly tilt in favor of addressing Congress in person. Still, there have been moments in recent history in which the president has forgone a formal, oral address to Congress. Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of a formal address, when the address coincided with the election of a new president (1953, 1961, and 1981). Carter was the last president to do so.

The reach of the State of the Union (indeed, of all presidential addresses) has grown since its inception. Americans have gone from reading about it in the newspaper to hearing it on the radio (after Calvin Coolidge’s national broadcast in 1923) to seeing it on TV (with Harry Truman’s 1947 address) to sitting at home and watching it on the internet (which Bill Clinton did for the first time in 1997).

Two SOTU traditions were born under Ronald Reagan: first, the invitation of guests by the president and First Lady, and second, a response by the opposition party directly following the president’s speech (this had existed before, but would take place a few days later).

Clinton, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds the record for the longest address at one hour and bjctwenty-eight minutes. Each of his addresses to Congress were around or above the one hour mark. His speech was also the longest at 9,190 words (Washington’s, by comparison, was the shortest at 1,089 words).

Trump’s address on Tuesday was one of the slowest in history–in terms of words per minute. Richard Nixon spoke the most words per minute since the metric was recorded during the Johnson administration. He’s followed by Reagan and Clinton, with a near tie between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Only two presidents never delivered a State of the Union, through letter or otherwise–William Henry Harrison and James Garfield. Both died (Harrison of pneumonia, Garfield by assassination) early in their presidencies.

As for that that ubiquitous phrase “my fellow Americans”? Lyndon Johnson coined that for the first time during one of his State of the Union speeches.