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.

First Lady Feature: Pat Nixon

By Kaleena Fraga

p nixonIn honor of Women’s History Month, History First is going to spend some time talking about the women standing beside American presidents. First–one of our favorites: Pat Nixon.

Pat Nixon, who holds the honor of being the first First Lady with a college degree, had a remarkable life long before meeting Richard Nixon. Born Thelma Ryan, she went by the nickname “Buddy” as a girl and “Pat” when she got older–apparently changing to Pat after the death of her father, who’d often referenced her birth being only a few hours before Saint Patrick’s day. By the time she was seventeen, both her parents had died–leaving her to care for her brothers.

When she graduated high school, Pat moved to New York City and worked in a Catholic hospital in the Bronx. Upon returning to California, she worked her way through college and earned a degree from the University of Southern California. Her tuition cost 240$. Pat worked 40 hours a week to pay it.

Having worked for this degree, and having attained a job as a teacher in Whittier, California, Pat Ryan had no desire to find a husband and settle down. But her acting partner in a local theatre group had other ideas. Richard Nixon pursued her with a persistence that many would see today as over the top and creepy. When he first asked her out, she said no. When he asked her again, she laughed. “Don’t laugh,” he told her, according to John A. Farrell’s Nixon biography, Nixon, The Life, “someday, I’m going to marry you.”

Indeed, Richard Nixon went to great lengths to keep Pat in his life, including driving her to dates with other men. When she moved without telling him her new address, he sent a letter to her school, writing that he had to see her again–anytime “that you might be able to stand me!”

pat and dickStill, the two came from similar backgrounds of hard work and tough luck, and Pat seems to have changed her mind. Two years after they met, she accepted his proposal of marriage.

As First Lady, she encouraged Americans to volunteer their time to good causes, and continued Jackie Kennedy’s project of preservation of the White House. She had the first wheelchair ramps installed at the White House (which is remarkable, since twenty years earlier, the president himself used a wheelchair). She also created White House tours for visitors with trouble seeing or hearing.

Many within Richard Nixon’s inner political circle saw Pat as the human side of the president they needed to project to the public. Charles Colson, a White House aide who would later be incarcerated for charges relating to Watergate, wrote a memo to the president about First Lady Nixon’s recent humanitarian trip to Peru. (Pat Nixon would be the most traveled first lady until Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the White House):

“As you know we have tried hard…to project ‘color’ about you, to portray the human side of the President…because of the hostility of the media, it has been an exceedingly difficult, frustrating and not especially successful undertaking. Mrs.  Nixon has now broken through where we failed. She has come across as warm, charming, graceful, concerned, articulate and most importantly–a very human person. It would be hard to overestimate the political impact…She is an enormous asset.”

Pat Nixon’s other legacies include the White House being lit at night, historical markers along the White House fence so that visitors could learn about the house and its history, and the refurbishing of the White House itself.

nixon at pat's funeralThe marriage was far from perfect–Pat once wrote a friend that when it came to household chores, “Dick is always too busy, at least his story, so I do all the lugging, worrying and cussing,”–but their relationship remained solid. It takes only a look at Richard Nixon’s face at the funeral of his wife to see the impact she had on him. And not only him–but the on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who visit the White House, and the First Ladies who followed in her footsteps and her example.

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.