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: Barbara Bush

By Kaleena Fraga

On a late spring day in 1990, Barbara Bush stepped up to the podium at Wellesley College to deliver the school’s commencement address. Her invitation had prompted furor across the student body. To many students at Wellesley, Barbara Bush was no role model. One hundred and fifty students signed a petition which read:

‘Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”

Her defenders said the outrage was generational. When asked about the controversy herself, the First Lady said that she understood the students’ perspective. “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective,” Mrs. Bush said. “I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at. But I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”

Her husband didn’t mince words. In his diary, George H.W. Bush wrote that the “elitist kids” of Wellesley dismissed her accomplishments as a wife, a mother, a volunteer, and a “great leader for literacy.”

Barbara Bush was made of presidential stuff long before she met her husband–she’s a descendent of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. She and Abigail Adams are also the only women in history to be both a wife and a mother to a president.

bush and hwBarbara Bush met her husband at sixteen and married him four years later, after his brush with death during WWII. Before marriage Mrs. Bush had enrolled in Smith College–she was a voracious reader as a girl–and helped out in the war effort by working at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943. As the wife of George H.W. Bush–who, over the course of their marriage, was the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Vice President of the United States–Mrs. Bush had the opportunity to see the world. She oversaw moving her family twenty-nine times.

Within a few weeks of her husband’s inauguration to the presidency in 1989, Barbara Bush made literacy her cause as First Lady. At the launch of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Mrs. Bush stated that, “In 10 years of traveling around the United States of America, visiting literary programs, libraries, kindergarten groups, day-care centers, single-parent classes for high school dropouts, public housing projects, food banks – you name it, I’ve visited it – it has become very apparent to me that we must attack the problem of a more literate America through the family. We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems.” The foundation today is active in all 50 states. It seeks to support parents who are improving their reading level, with the goal that the parents will read to their children.

Although during her husband’s presidency Barbara Bush rarely drew attention on her bbush conventionown political views, she was more outspoken before and after H.W.’s term in office. During his vice presidential run she expressed support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and embrace pro-choice views on abortion. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush stated that the abortion debate had no place in the party platform at all. Abortion, she said, “was a personal thing.”

Barbara Bush would also redefine the role of first spouses when she became the first First Lady to deliver prepared remarks at the 1992 Republican Convention. During the (increasingly bitter) campaign, Mrs. Bush also defended Hillary Clinton, who was under fire for her own outspoken political views.

As for that speech in 1990, Barbara Bush (whose husband voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) left the Wellesley class of ’90 with this:

“Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day  follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse–and I wish him well.”

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.