Monday, December 10, 2012

Julia Tyler

I can't believe I read the whole thing! And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Tyler by Robert Seager II was 550 pages, 12 point font, single spaced, with lots of politics to follow. Before reading the First Ladies I considered a 200 page book to be long, so this is a big accomplishment for me.

Also new to me was enjoying reading about the Civil War. I've never been much interested in battlefield history which is all I have come across so far, but each member of the family was heavily affected by the war so it gave so much personal interest. John Tyler was president of the peace conference in early 1860 at the end of James Buchanan's presidency to try to avoid war. But once John Tyler talked to Abe Lincoln in secret several weeks before his inauguration, John knew peace was hopeless and began planning Virginia's cessation. He even was elected to the Confederate congress. However, John passed away before the war was over. Later, his son Gardie would say John was lucky that he did not have to try to live in post-war South. Gardie fought in the war as a teenager and never gave up hoping that the South could try again to conquer the Yankees.

Julia was greatly affected by the war personally and financially. She fled the south to take her younger children to safety with her mother on Staten Island. (The two older boys stayed in school in the south.) This escalated the friction in the crowded house since Julia's brother David was also living there. David was a die hard Yankee and political discussions were heated- so heated that David once knocked Julia to the floor! After that Julia's mother ordered David and his wife out. They never made peace in their lifetime. After their mother died, David contested the will which had left much to Julia and they went to court after court to sort it out.

Julia Tyler

Financially the war ruined Julia. Her vacation home, Villa Margaret, was occupied by the Union soldiers who turned it over to the American Missionary Society who used the property for a "Negro school" complete with little shacks for houses all over the grounds. After the war, Julia wrote letter after letter and went to different courts to sort out who had the authority to kick the missionaries out and give her her property back. When she finally got possession of the property back, it was so ruined that she didn't even want it anymore. She tried to sell it to the government but that did not work. She ended up selling it privately for less than a third than it was worth before the war.

Sherwood Forest, her plantation, was also ruined by former slaves who came into the property and smashed and broke everything then lived in it until Julia's teenage son came and took it over to attempt to farm it with a couple of farm hands he could find for hire. But working men were scarce and supplies were expensive. And the son was only 16 when Julia left Sherwood Forest in his care! Julia tried to sell it but there were no buyers. The children were glad that their home was still theirs reminding them of happier times.

Sherwood Forest Plantation

In all honesty, the Tylers, like other Virginia plantation presidents before them, did not have financial problems solely because of the war. It was solely because they did not "act their wage." They had the appearance of wealth, but mostly just had debt. Instead of saving money, John would "play the lottery" with land speculations in Kentucky and California.  Julia loved to throw huge parties and she loved shopping for clothing. John would not tell her no. She just bought what she wanted and he borrowed from one bank to pay the other bank. Like when their vacation was coming up she went out and spent $500 on new dresses! Even after the war when her properties and plantations were ruined she was sending her sons about 20 cents a week spending money during college which did not curb their spending, but caused them to rack up debt. At the same time, she went and spent $700 on clothing and shoes for herself! Even today that is an outrageous amount for clothing. So, do I feel bad for her that her properties were ruined? Yes. But at the same time, she never really did handle money properly and she lived the consequences of that her whole life.

Julia was only first lady for one social season, 1844-1845, but it was a glorious one! The author says it was not matched until over a hundred years later. For her grandest party, she had her sister, Margaret, hand write over 2,000 invitations! Since Congress was still not giving John Tyler any stipend for White House expenses all was paid for by the Gardiner family.

Julia actually referred to her time as first lady as her "reign." Not in jest, but she actually called it that. She had taken a European tour before she was married which obviously influenced her view of the rulers of a nation. Julia even had a court composed of her sister, some cousins and friends. At balls she would arrive fashionably late, seat herself in a comfortable chair, and have her ladies stand around her.  But her court was a sensation with the men in Washington and they enjoyed flirting and dancing with them. Julia was a huge flirt and had several offers of marriage in Washington before falling in love with John Tyler.

Those were her glory days and she loved to relive them. Even in her last years, she took an apartment in Washington and enjoyed the attentions from the newspapers and those who remembered her "reign."

Reverend Father Patrick F. Healy, S.J. guided Julia in investigating the Catholic Church. He was later president of Georgetown College.

Also unusual about Julia was that she converted to the Roman Catholic church at age 52. When the war was over she was trying to decide where to send her children to school. Schools in the south were closed and she certainly wouldn't send them in Yankee territory! Her two older sons went to Germany, but her oldest daughter went to a convent in Nova Scotia and had such a wonderful experience. In all the tumult of Julia's life, she investigated the Roman Catholic church and was drawn to its stability and order. Makes sense since her whole life had been turned upside down by the war and financial uncertainty. It also gave peace to her soul as she grieved so many who were close to her including her beloved daughter, Julie, who died in childbirth at 21. At first, she sent Roman Catholic literature to all her family and friends and tried to convert them all, but ultimately she let them be and was content with her faith. The next president or wife to be Roman Catholic would be JFK.

Friday, November 2, 2012

In the Footsteps of Priscilla Cooper Tyler

The author of Priscilla Cooper Tyler's biography had included the exact addresses in Bristol, PA of where Priscilla had grown up and also where she lived with her husband and children after she was White House hostess. Since Bristol is only a little over an hour away, my mother and I decided to visit the places mentioned. Thankfully, we just happened to pick Historic Bristol Day to visit so a lot more was open in the town than what would have been had we picked any other day of the year!

First we came upon St. James Episcopal Church where Priscilla and her family attended. The congregation itself was was founded in 1712, but the building we visited was erected in 1857. Priscilla and her husband Robert Tyler attended the church at the time.

The front door of the Episcopal Church. The church is still used for worship today.

Inside the front door is the baptismal font used when the church first opened. The biography said that Priscilla's baby, Robert Tyler, Jr, was the first baptized in this church. However, a local historian we met that day said Robert Jr was actually the fourth baby baptized. Either way, it was in this font. I could just picture Priscilla holding her little baby on his special day right in this very church!

I knew Priscilla's father, Thomas Cooper, was buried somewhere in the vast cemetary. We set out to search for his stone and found it in the first row we walked down! The stone was not readable, but there was a little green flag set out to mark the stone because it was Bristol Day. Thomas Cooper was America's first prominent Shakespearean actor and the first idol of American theater. He died in 1849. His wife, Mary Fairlie, is buried in the same plot but there is no headstone. Also in 1849, Priscilla and Robert's two year old son died. He is buried in the same plot according to the biography, so the rector looked in her old cemetary records for us, but there was no mention of the baby's burial.

Next we went to 610 Radcliffe St which is the house that Priscilla and Robert rented from Captain Hutchinson when they lived in Bristol sometime after leaving the White House until 1861 when they were forced to flee a lynchmob who was after Robert Tyler. At the time he was a prominent state politician and was also vocal that he was in favor of state's rights.

 When the Tylers rented the home, it was a simple Federal style home. Now it is the Margaret R. Grundy Memorial Museum and is elaborately set in the Victorian manner and greatly expanded. This picture is the back of the home which faces the Delaware River. 

Here I am standing in front of what was 722 Radcliffe St. which was where Priscilla grew up. Legend has it that Thomas Cooper won the property and the little cottage that stood on it while gambling at cards in Paris.

When the Cooper family out grew the little cottage at 722 Radcliffe St., Thomas Cooper bought this property next door and built this "white house" to house the children and the governess while Thomas and Mary remained in the cottage.

 This huge tree must have been in the yard when Priscilla was a girl. I could picture her swinging on a swing there or just playing in its shade on a hot day.

 This has nothing to do with Priscilla, but it is a stone trough that is engraved on the front with "Free drink" and on the end with "1874." I have never seen anything like it before.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"A Northern Bride with Southern Principles"

John Tyler has made me work twice as hard. In his short time as president (1841-1845), he had two wives. Not only that, but the biography of his second wife, And Tyler, Too: a Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler by Robert Seager, II, is 550 pages long, 12 point type, single space. Not exactly a quick read. However, to my great relief, it is wonderfully written and easy to read. There is far too much information for one blog post, so for Julia Tyler, I will jot down my thoughts in several posts.

Four months after his first wife passed away, John started to court Julia Gardiner who was 30 years his junior. They were married the next year, April 1844, in a near-elopement style wedding making John Tyler the first president to marry while in office. There were many eyebrows raised because of the age difference. John Tyler had children older than his new bride! But there is nothing surviving in any of their correspondence to indicate that they had any issues or hesitations based on the age difference. They were very affectionate and loving to each other and went on to have seven children.

After their wedding ceremony in New York near her parent's home, John and Julia went on a wedding trip with many stops including his new home Sherwood Forest in Virginia. The author describes the occassion of Julia's first meeting with her newly acquired 60 plus slaves on the plantation. I thought to myself, what was running through her mind as she, a Northern born wealthy woman, was meeting her slaves for the first time? Was this awkward for her? Did she detest slavery and just do what she had to do because she married a southern plantation owner? Or, being from a very wealthy family, was she used to someone else doing the work and what did it matter if they were called slaves or servants?

An old duplex slave cabin on Sherwood Forest Plantation

The author must have read my mind. He answered that very question in the next chapter of the book which describes the Gardiner family. Lion Gardiner came to America in 1635 with the Connecticut Company to protect the settlement from Indians, first by killing them and then Lion sought another way by seeking to understand and communicate with them. For ten pieces of cloth he purchased Manchonake Island off the coast of Long Island and continuted to buy more and more real estate on Long Island. Those purchases stayed in the family and made them wealthy.  Manchonake Island is now Gardiner Island and is still owned by the family today. The Island was passed down through the generations until 1816 when Julia's father, David, became its caretaker while its rightful heir was only 12 years old. The farming on Gardiner Island was worked by Indian and African slaves from Lion Gardiner's time until 1817 when New York manumitted its slaves! I was shocked! I have never heard of slavery above the Mason-Dixon line!

But this answered my question about Julia's state of mind while looking over the slaves of Sherwood. Slavery was not foriegn for her. Although slaves were manumitted before she was born in New York, her family must not have objected. It was their way of life for almost two hundred years. Maybe they were even bitter that they lost their work force! The author quotes the New York Herald who, in 1844, called Julia a "Northern Bride with Southern Principles" drawing attention to the similarities in her family's way of life to those of the southern plantation owners.

Now I am very curious about slavery in the north. How many other Northern states freed their slaves before the Civil War? Who else in New York had slaves? Why were they freed in 1817? Who on the state level worked that legislation through and why?

Gardiner Island Manor House built in 1947

And also, who will go with me to go visit Gardiner Island??

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Priscilla Cooper Tyler

Priscilla Cooper Tyler and the American Scene, 1816-1889 was one of those books you think about during the day and cannot get wait to get back to reading before bed! Priscilla and her sisters left scads of gossipy, dramatically detailed letters and journals which the author quoted often so I could really feel the emotion behind the facts. Priscilla's personality reminds me of Josephine March from Little Women. She would encourage her younger sisters to put on little dramatic plays at home. She edited a family newspaper. She was not good at domestic tasks. All those were left to her older, more responsible sister, Mary Grace.

Her father was the famous Shakespearen actor, Thomas Cooper and her mother was Mary Fairlie whose family never accepted or loved Thomas, but stayed close to Mary and their children. When Priscilla was a teenager her mother passed away from a long illness. Her father’s popularity on the stage had dwindled as he had gotten older and the family was strapped for cash. So to support her family, Priscilla went on stage with her father putting on the Thomas Cooper Benefit Tour. The family was careful to shield Priscilla from the rough backstage life. Her older sister Mary Grace went as costumer and chaperone to help out. They toured from New York all the way down to New Orleans for four and a half years. Priscilla’s journals and letters reveal that acting was merely a job for her. She must have been good at it based on the newspaper reviews quoted in the book, but she does not speak of enjoying the attention or praise or the work.

During one performance in Richmond, Virginia, Robert Tyler, son of governor John Tyler, saw Priscilla on stage and he apparently fell in love at first sight. He pursued her and they were married shortly there after.  Priscilla left her home in Bristol, Pennsylvania to live at the Tyler plantation in Virginia. It seems to have been a happy family together and Priscilla called John Tyler, Father, all her days.

When John Tyler became president, his wife, Letitia, was an invalid confined to her chair, his older daughters were married, and his younger daughters were still children. So Priscilla was it! And she did a fine job! The author says that although politically John Tyler could do nothing right, socially, the Tylers could do nothing wrong.

When John Tyler moved his family to the White House, he sat everyone down for a family meeting reminding them that they would only be in this high office for a short time then the would be the plain Tylers again, so they should remember to conduct themselves with humility.

I like to think how her career on the stage prepared Priscilla for life in the White House. She was already used to having an audience and performing when the spotlight was on her. She was used to paying attention to details of a performance like her costume, the scenery, in essence setting the stage so that the atmosphere is just right. Even knowing a script in a play is not too much different from preparing proper topics of conversation for important dinner parties. By the end her time as hostess she wrote that she felt born to the role.

However, she did display some stage fright during her first cabinet dinner. She fainted away at the table! Daniel Webster took her from the table to try to revive her at the same time, Priscilla says, John Tyler “deluged us both with ice-water, ruining my lovely new dress and, I am afraid, producing a decided coolness between himself and the Secretary of State.”

Priscilla’s success may also be due to her wisdom in seeking advice from Dolley Madison who was often in Washington and was close friends with the Tylers. During one particularly trying time for John Tyler, Priscilla decided to get him to lighten up. She dressed up her four year old daughter like Dolley Madison, coached her in imitating Dolley’s speech and then ran to John in his office and said “come quick! Dolley needs to see you in the drawing room!” John rushed down to see his granddaughter as Dolley and they all had a good laugh!

When John Tyler remarried in 1844, Priscilla’s time as hostess was up, but not her time mixing with politics. While he reluctantly practiced law, Robert Tyler remained active in his political party and helped to get Pierce and Buchanan elected. His potential political career in Pennsylvania was ruined by the outbreak of the Civil War. When he mentioned he was for state’s rights, he was run out of Bristol by a lynch mob. He eventually escaped to his father’s home in Virginia and fought for the Confederacy. By the time the war was over, Robert Tyler was completely ruined and he and Priscilla were staying with her family in Alabama. At this time, his faithful friend James Buchanan wrote him a letter extending his friendship and also a check for $1000. Robert Tyler returned the check but appreciated the support.  The Tylers stayed in Alabama where Robert helped greatly to keep integrity and honesty in the government during reconstruction.

610 Radcliffe Street, Bristol PA
home of Robert and Priscilla Tyler when he was run out of state by a lynch mob
This house is now the Grundy Museum.

The First Ladies each have a different home life and background before they come to the White House that either helps or hinders them in their role as hostess. Priscilla thrived because of her background on the stage. This makes me look ahead to Reagan. How did his background in acting help him in the presidency? Were there other actors and actresses in the White House?

Although her family and in-laws were so different, both were so loving and supportive. This reminds me of Louisa Adams’ unhappy family and her feelings of being imprisoned in the White House. She was stuck with her miserable husband and unhappy children! The Tylers were a loving family so although it was a lot of work, there were a lot of fond memories in the White House. Of course, Tyler’s emphasis on humility allowed them to live in reality too. I’m sure John Tyler did not nit pick his family when they weren’t perfect (sound familiar, John Quincy??).  He allowed them room to make mistakes, like fainting at a cabinet dinner. Love and humility can go a long way in the success of any house as we see from the families that have called the White House home.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Anna Symmes Harrison

Once again, I have come to a first lady who does not have a biography written about her so I relied again on Laura Holloway’s book. There is more information available about Anna Harrison than Hannah Van Buren, but Anna never functioned as first lady since her husband, William Henry Harrison, was only president for 30 days and during his short presidency, Anna spent the whole time at her home in Ohio. Since she wasn’t feeling well when it was time for William Henry Harrison to go to Washington for his inauguration on March 4, 1841 Anna stayed at home and was to join him later. But she never saw him again. He caught pneumonia and died April 4. 

Anna Harrison never had the chance to function as first lady, but her life story is important because, like Rachel Jackson before her, it shows how America had changed from being ruled by the upper class that were schooled in European courts to Americans who were pioneers of unsettled parts of our country. She was born in New Jersey and her mother died shortly after her birth. When Anna was four years old, her father took her to be raised by her grandparents on Long Island. This was during the American Revolution and in order to have safe travels he dressed as a British soldier to take her there. Anna then was raised by her grandparents until she was 19 and her father took her with him to settle in Ohio.

There in Ohio Anna met William Henry Harrison who was a popular general and married him when she was 20. William Henry Harrison was appointed governor during Adams, Jefferson, and Madison’s presidencies. A lot of his work was with Indian relations.

Anna gave birth to 10 children. There was no school in the neighborhood so she hired a tutor for her children and also invited the children in the houses nearby to come benefit from the tutor also. How generous of her!

Sadly, Anna saw 9 of her children die and also 10 of her grandchildren in addition to her husband. Yet through all her grief the religion of her grandparents who raised her gave her peace and comfort. Before her own death she choose Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know I am God” to be spoken on at her funeral. Oh, how often she must have meditated on that verse during her life.

Even though I was able to find bits and pieces of info on Anna Harrison, I still don’t feel like I really know her as a woman. I am anxiously awaiting a biography on her which will hopefully someday be written by a new acquaintance, Cynthia Ogorek, from the Public Historian at

When I was looking for information on Anna Harrison, I emailed her historic home, Grouseland, and was directed to Cynthia who recently researched Anna for a presentation about First Ladies from the Midwest. I wish I was close enough to see her presentation and someday I hope to see that she has published an Anna Harrison biography!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hannah Van Buren

A simple Google search turned up no biography for poor Hannah Van Buren. Of course since she died long before her husband, Martin, became president this does not surprise me. I was hoping there would be a little booklet or something at the Van Buren’s home in New York, but an email to the park ranger at their home simply said there was nothing. I even asked about a biography of Martin that would tell me about Hannah. But there really isn’t any. He doesn’t even mention her in his autobiography. Ouch. That hurts!

So I decided to invest in a new anthology of First Ladies. This time I choose the reprint of an older one by Laura Holloway written in 1881 entitled The Ladies of the White House; or In the Home of the Presidents. Being a Complete History of the Social and Domestic Lives of the Presidents from Washington to the Present Time--1789-1881. The section on Hannah was very short, only a couple of pages. Basically, Hannah and Martin grew up together in the same tight knit Dutch community near Kinderhook New York. They got married when she was 25. She had 5 children but one died in infancy. Then she passed away after being married for only 10 years. That was it for detailed information on her! But there was a reprint of her obituary and also a couple pages describing the perfect gentility and graciousness of her character. One story sticks out in my mind. (Actually, I think it was the only story.) Hannah was sick a long time before she passed away and during that time she asked her niece to make sure that when she died that the tradition of the family spending money on grieving scarves would be replaced by the family spending the same amount of money on the poor.

Then I flipped through some other write ups in the book and noticed that most of them left out information like dates of birth, marriage, children being born, whereabouts of where they lived, how they met their spouse, etc. Instead all the write ups focused on the ladies’ character and painted their qualities in extreme terms like they never had a bad day in their lives, but they were ALWAYS patient and ALWAYS hospitable. Was this just the style of the author? Or the style of writing in the late 1800’s?

Although this writing did not satisfy my curiosity to know about Hannah Van Buren, it reminded me that who I am is more important and lasts longer that what I do.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rachel Jackson

A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady was a breath of fresh air after the depressing saga of Louisa Adams. Sure, Rachel had her share of sorrows. When she was twelve her family braved an incredibly dangerous trip down a river facing Indian attacks, bitter cold winter, disease, and hunger to become among the first white settlers in what is now Tennessee. Then, as a teenager she married a young man who turned out to be angry, jealous, and unfaithful. Not having any legal rights to a divorce, she lived separate from him with her own family after trying to reconcile.


But then Andrew Jackson, a dashing, hot-headed lawyer came to the Tennessee area and boarded with Rachel’s family while he was starting his law business. The two fell in love and eloped to Natchez where they passed themselves off as a married couple. Did they actually have a marriage ceremony there? No one knows. There is no record. However, in the frontier where preachers were hard to come by and Rachel had no rights to a legal divorce, the fact that they passed themselves off as man and wife made them married. (Eventually, the first husband wanted to remarry, too, so he legally divorced Rachel.)

The love Andrew and Rachel shared was deep and life long. Reading snippets of their letters to each other reminded me of Abigail and John Adams and how they were so emotionally connected and beared their souls to each other. Andrew and Rachel loved to spend the evening together sitting in front of their fire place each smoking their pipe.

 Rachel was unable to have children, however, they had various nephews and nieces they cared for at different times and three nephews in particular that they raised (two of which were named Andrew Jackson!). They also raised an Indian baby that Andrew had found lying in his dead mother’s arms after a battle he had fought against her tribe. Andrew had been an orphan himself and this baby’s plight tugged at his heart so he took the baby and sent him home for Rachel to raise.

Rachel Jackson was also very down to earth which I could relate to. So far the other first ladies were wealthy (or very in debt so they appeared wealthy!) and had experience with European courts and royal etiquette. Rachel and Andrew Jackson entertained just as much as the other presidential couples, yet without overwhelming debt or fancy etiquette to measure up to. In fact there was time when money was short so they actually downsized! If you were to visit the first Hermitage, a three-room log cabin, you might drive up to find Andrew Jackson rocking on his porch smoking his pipe while Rachel herself was sweeping with her apron on and her large key ring on her belt. If you stayed with them, you would sleep in the loft area of the home with whomever else was visiting or living with them. Yet the couple was praised for their warm hospitality and good food.


Rachel never got the chance to be First Lady. She died of a heart attack shortly after Andrew was elected president. After she drew her last breath, Andrew refused to accept the truth and stayed by her side all night long hoping she would wake up. He never truly recovered from her death and wore her miniature about his neck from then on.

On the one hand I would have liked to see what Washington would have been like with Rachel as hostess of the White House. How would her frontier taste and style have refined the etiquette of the day? On the other hand, it could have been the Lord’s mercy that she did not have to live in Washington. Rachel’s first marriage was used against Andrew in political campaigns for years and she was branded in the public as an adulterer. Would she have been shunned and ostracized by the ladies of Washington? Certainly the treatment of one of Andrew’s cabinet member’s wives with a similar background as Rachel’s gives us a hint that Rachel would not have been welcomed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Louisa Catherine Adams

Cannibals of the Heart by Jack Shepard is the personal biography of John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams. As you may guess by the title, their marriage was anything but perfect. And neither was Louisa's life. She faced great loneliness, grief, and a constant search for purpose in life.

Louisa was born to wealthy America parents who lived and worked in France. When she was a young girl, the close knit family moved to England. Louisa was the boarding school outcast because she was foreign to the other girls. Louisa was also sickly and spent a lot of time to herself. Before her marriage she had never been away from her mother for more than a couple of hours. Imagine the shock of a new husband (who was never very affectionate or emotionally present) and then moving to a new country (Prussia, where John Quincy was appointed minister). Then again to a new country when she finally set foot on American soil for the first time as a young adult. Then again to a new country when he was appointed to St. Petersburg (a post he accepted without consulting her at all.) Then to France, then England, then back to America. All with an emotionally cold husband for company!

But her loneliest time was her time "imprisoned in the White House" as First Lady. She fulfilled her duties of entertaining and calling but confided in her son that she had "no one to break the dreadful tedium of an almost entire solitude" and that she "could not bear the loneliness of my life." 

I'm sure the grief she experienced in her life compounded the feelings of loneliness. First of all, her beloved father faced complete financial ruin shortly after her marriage. It probably didn't help that John Quincy continually brought it up and felt her father passed himself off as wealthy to dump Louisa on him. In truth, her father was ruined in part because he had to wait in England for John Quincy to stop stalling the wedding so he could return to America to take care of his business. By the time John Quincy got around to marrying Louisa after delaying for over a year, it was too late to save the business.

She also grieved the loss of eight babies through miscarriage. And her only daughter died as a toddler while in St. Petersburg. When John Quincy was appointed to St. Petersburg, he arranged with Abigail Adams for their two sons, George and John, to be left with Abigail without consulting Louisa at all. Then they did not see their sons for eight years! Although they were reunited later, the damage had been done. John Quincy's demanding, harsh parenting which lacked a loving relationship had ruined their sons. George committed suicide and John literally worked himself to death trying to please his father. Out of her 12 pregnancies, only their son Charles lived a full life.

Women in America in the early 1800's lived boring lives of hanging on their husband's arm as a pretty little ornament with not much meaning in life besides. Gone were the colonial days when men needed women to join in the Revolution by boycotting and holding down the home front while they were fighting for freedom. Louisa keenly felt this purposelessness thorough out her life with the exception of acting as John Quincy's campaign manager. But after the election, she was again purposeless.  After John Quincy's one term as president, he was elected to the house of representatives and worked towards abolition of slavery and the right of the people to petition. Louisa here found purpose as she saw the similarities between slaves and the lack of women's rights. She studied her Bible and other writings (including her mother in law's papers) for thoughts on individual freedoms and rights, not just for white men. She also compiled petitions for John Quincy to present to the house. While John Quincy worked on the floor of the house for slave rights in general, he never helped one slave in particular. However, in 1849, Louisa bought the freedom of her slave cook, Julie, a decided move from a woman who had finally found a purpose.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe

Some first ladies are more well known than others. I knew when I started this project there was a possibility that there would not be a biography for each one. I thought that was the case when I first started looking for Elizabeth Monroe. A simple Amazon search and Google search came up empty. I wasn't sure what to do next. After a couple of weeks, I tried an Amazon search again. This time there was a used biography of Mrs. Monroe for $40! That was little more than I was willing to pay. Especially when I looked at the details of the book and discovered the book only contained 35 pages. So I went to the library. There was only one copy of the book in any library in the state. But they were not willing to lend it out. Hmmm. Then my brother suggested that I call Ash-Lawn Highland, the Monroe's home. Jack-pot! I called the gift shop and after yelling my name and address into the phone several times so the kind, but hard-of-hearing volunteer could get my information, the 35 page booklet was in the mail. For only $4!! It came addressed to Rachel Moyer! Close enough!

It turns out that so little has been written on Elizabeth Monroe because so little is known. Her personal papers were destroyed when she died. She was born into a well-known and prominent family in New York and was married to James Monroe when she was 17 and he was 27. James was a Virginia representative to the Continental Congress which met in New York at the time.

One story about Elizabeth stands out which happened when James was minister to France during the French Revolution. The Lafeyettes were considered enemies of the state since he was imprisoned in Austria and Madame Lafayette was imprisoned in France along with the rest of her family. James Monroe wanted to help her out of prison, but could not directly do anything as a foreign minister. So Elizabeth climbed into a beautiful carriage and visited the Madame in prison. When the Madame was summoned from her cell to see her visitor she thought her time had come to be executed since her grandmother, sister, and mother had recently been executed. When she saw Elizabeth was there to visit she "became hysterical with joy!" Elizabeth's attentions swayed public opinion and eventually led to the Madame's release. The Lafayette's were ever grateful to the Monroes.

The people of America were not so kind to Elizabeth when she took on the role of First Lady. Cokie Roberts in her book Ladies Of Liberty comments that Elizabeth's lack of hospitality and calling on others "was the cause of crisis cabinet meetings, summons to the secretary of state, and grousing gossip gaggles."

When she did entertain in the White House, the atmosphere was lofty, formal, and elegant. No longer were the parties a mix of the common people and the upper class. This was a relief to some Washington watchers, but to others this was a loss of the uniqueness of American "court." Elizabeth announced she would be happy to receive calls and visits, but would not make calls, let alone the first call to someone new to town the way Dolley Madison had.  Elizabeth's daughter Eliza would pay some calls, but she was haughty since her French boarding school experience and most people couldn't stand her. Many women were personally offended and angered by this tone of privacy and formality brought to the White House.

In fairness to Elizabeth, she was sick much of the time and could not physically keep up the demands of the social schedule that Dolley Madison had kept. Could ANYONE have kept the schedule Dolley kept? She set the bar so high! After 8 years of Dolley creating the unwritten rules of the role of first lady as the capital itself was being created, anyone following Dolley would be scrutinized in comparison to her. Elizabeth Monroe, unfortunately, was the one to sit in that hot seat.

This is not unlike a pastor's wife. In many churches the congregation expects the pastor's wife to do things a particular way or to fill a particular role. Like the joke of when a congregation goes to hire a new pastor and the number one concern is: does his wife play the piano? And none of these expectations are written down. They just exist in each individual's own assumptions of what a pastor's wife should be like.  Fortunately for me, the congregations I've been a part of have been kind and gracious in allowing me to be myself. Some of my pastor's wife friends have not been so fortunate. Like Elizabeth, all we can do is be ourselves and do the best with the energy and time we are given. And "whatever we do, work heartily as unto the Lord, not to men" Colossians 3:23.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hostess with the Mostest

All first ladies are responsible to entertain in the president's home. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams did so in the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia. In Washington, the swamp of a new capital,  Jefferson, having no first lady, did the entertaining himself by having small dinner parties inviting only one political party at a time and even dismissing the servants so he did all the serving himself. (He wanted to create political unity with this method. It had the opposite effect.) But the first lady who outshines them all is Dolley Madison.

She hosted more formal dinners than any president's wife before or since. After working with Henry LaTrobe to decorate the drawing rooms in the presidential mansion, she opened those drawing rooms to the public every Wednesday night for the duration of Madison's two terms of office. Two to three hundred people attended each week and during war time, there were upwards to five hundred people attending Dolley's "squeezes."

Dolley is described as moving about the room greeting everyone in attendance with elegant ease. She was noted for her entertaining since she was able to put others at ease and make them forget they were visiting.

But why were these parties and drawing rooms so memorable? What is their significance in history?

That is what is explored in A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor.

First of all, the drawing rooms were an experiment in democracy. ALL were invited. Most congressmen of the time stayed in boarding houses in Washington. It would not be unusual to see your landlady at the drawing room. Or even to see Dolley cordially greeting them.

Secondly, she was able to unify the government by creating opportunity for politicians to see each other as people not just a political enemy. And this did not happen by accident! Dolley purposefully introduced and socialized with particular groups of politicians who she knew needed to come together for a law or other matter of government. She even was able to pacify politicians at odds and in one case was able to convince two men to call off their duel!

Most importantly, Dolley's entertaining showed off the strengths of her husband. James Madison was small, sickly, and lacked public speaking skills. But when he was at ease in his own home, he was in an environment in which he could pitch his ideas to the politicians around him. Dolley actively created that environment for her husband.

Many years ago, I heard that some churches call their pastor's wife the "first lady." How conceited and presumptuous, I thought. But through reading about Dolley Madison, I realize that I feel called to do a lot of the same things she does. I feel the Lord wants me to entertain in my home to bring people from church together. And I also feel as a wife I am responsible to create an environment at home in which my husband is able to use his strengths. Perhaps a pastor's wife is not too different than a First Lady after all.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Women Jefferson Loved

Thomas Jefferson didn't really have a First Lady. His wife died before he was elected president and Jefferson had his daughters visit now and then, but they were busy having babies and raising children and couldn't permenantly be in Washington to act as the president's hostess. Not that Jefferson would have wanted a hostess anyway. He was far too Republican (Democratic) for that. He wanted to avoid any hint of a "royal court" feel creeping into the Presidential mansion.

So the question for me was "who should I read about if Jefferson had no First Lady?"

An Amazon search gave me the answer: The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff.

This book is divided into four sections that cover the lives of the women in Jefferson's life: his mother, his wife, his slave mistress, and his two daughters. A fifth section finishes the story of Jefferson's life and also comments on his granddaughters. It was so well written and well researched. During the day, when I saw the book on my nightstand, I was tempted to drop everything and read to find out what happened next!

Three things impressed me through the reading of this book.

First of all, Jefferson was a slave owner who married a slave owner. Slave-owning, plantation lifestlyle was all they knew. Such a contrast to the Adamses who paid neighbors to work on their farm and did much of their daily work themselves. Jefferson, the man who wrote "all men are created equal", owned men. 

Secondly, Jefferson was a shop-a-holic.  The debt he left behind after his death ruined his family. In today's dollars, he left between 1-2 million dollars of debt! Although he inherited some of this debt, much was accumulated because he was constantly buying things beyond his means! And spending on building projects. After his death many of his possessions were sold including Monticello to try to pay the debtors. Moral of the story? Don't spend what you don't got! Also: a refined person is refined because of their character, not because of their fancy stuff bought on credit.

Thirdly, Jefferson had some strange views on women. While in Europe, he was appalled when he noticed women doing men's work. He called this "an unequivical indication of extreme poverty." It was both a cause and symptom of social injustice. He also thought women had absolutely no place in politics. They shouldn't even discuss it. I don't know enough history of the time period to know if this view of his was unusual for the time, but what I do find strange is he often discussed politics with Abigail Adams while holding this view. And while writing that women should be focused on domestic pursuits, his daughters and granddaughters were well educated.

While discussing this book with my father, he said, "the more I read about Thomas Jefferson, the less I like him." I have to agree. I felt the same way when I read how he had a slave mistress, how he fled Monticello as the British troops were arriving, how he tricked his young daughter onto a boat to sail to France against her will, and how he purposely did not escort Elizabeth Merry, wife of the British ambassador, into dinner which possibly was a cause of the War of 1812. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The First First Lady

I had a hard time finding a good biography of Martha Washington. First I tried my public library. The only one in the adult biography section was Washington's Lady by Elswyth Thane.

This book was not at all what I was looking for. First of all, it was novelized. Which doesn't always mean the book will be bad. I have really enjoyed some novelized books. Like Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark. I read this book about six years ago or so and it was excellent in revealing the heart of historic figures and giving a basic overview of their lives.

But this time I really wanted to read a biography about Martha Custis Washington and the details of her life. And the details were certainly not in Thane's book. In fact, it was more about George Washington. And it also portrayed Martha as an idiot. I stopped reading the book a third of the way through after the author describes her in her sitting room with George and all his political friends and Martha thinks to herself she had no idea what they were talking about all this conflict with the British. What did it all mean?  Since I had already read about Abigail Adams, I now knew that women DID know what was going on in the political scene. Especially the wife of a war hero!

So I returned that book and purchased  Martha Washington: A Brief Biography by Ellen McCallister Clark.

Martha Washington: A Brief Biography (The George Washington Bookshelf)

This book was brief but full of information. Martha was known as a charming hostess and was greatly admired by the troops because she stayed with George every winter wherever he was encamped during the Revolution and functioned as a nurse and morale booster.

Martha was quite rich! Her resources and money from her first marriage threw George into the right circles to advance him politically.

She had two children from her first marriage. Her daughter was very sickly and died at the age of 17. Her son "had been given every advantage but lacked ambition and direction as he grew into manhood." Basically, Martha (and George) were over indulgent with her son and did not give him proper discipline. The author does not explore why. Maybe because their attentions were given to the country's formation? Maybe she was too broken over having been widowed at a young age and burying two babies then her teen aged daughter? Whatever the reason, this seems to be a pattern that is emerging as I read the First Ladies: successful in politics doesn't necessarily mean successful in parenting (stay tuned for Dolley Madison...) But it's a good warning to me as a mother. I have lots of duties outside the walls of my home, but I cannot be lax in discipline and attention to my own children.

I do not feel like I "know" Martha like I "know" Abigail Adams. I think that was because I choose a brief biography. After I finished this book in June 2011, I determined to read longer biographies so I could know the First Ladies more fully. And to challenge myself to become a reader of long books rather than a reader of short books.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

It Takes a Village

On January 27, 2011 I finished reading Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie S. Bober.

Another first lady talked about "it takes a village to raise a child" but Abigail Adams truly lived it! She was constantly raising and educating nieces and grandchildren. All while running the farm while her husband was away. And watching her back as the revolution was creeping closer to her front door. And keeping her finger on the political pulse of the nation. (And telling John what to do about it.) How did she balance it all?

But as much as she "gave" in the "it takes a village" scenario, she also took. She left her young boys with her sister when she and her daughter sailed to France to join John there. My mother's heart was so grieved when I read this! How could she leave her little boys and not know how long it would be before she would see them again? Or even hear from them? I just cannot imagine!

Although she was not able to get the Continental Congress to "remember the ladies," she was witness to women gaining political importance. Men wanted to boycott goods from Britain. However, many of the goods they wanted to boycott were all purchased and used by the ladies in the running of the household. Therefore, the women needed to be informed of the political happenings to gain their participation in the boycotts.

Abigail Adams was bold, well-educated, and able to maintain a loving marriage despite long seperations from John. Her pride and tongue got her (and John) into trouble at times (Alien and Sedition Acts? not a good idea), but she was all-in-all a remarkable woman!

"Remember the Ladies"

Back in December of 2010, my husband and I watched HBO's John Adams. It was so compelling and we felt enlightened learning about his crucial role in the foundation of our nation. However, while watching, I found Abigail Adam's character unbelieveable. Especially the scene where she asks John to "Remember the ladies" as the Continental Congress gathered to form a new code of laws for our nation. "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." When this came out of the actress's mouth I thought "no way would a women back then say something like that. It must be feminist propaganda!"

When I told my mother my reaction to Abigail Adams, she said "no...I believe that Abigail Adams would have said that!" So I had to find out for myself. I found a biography of Abigail Adams. (I actually borrowed it from my grandmother the week before she died of a heart attack. I kept the book when she died. She hadn't had a chance to read it yet and I'm sad I didn't get to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.)

But I was fascinated about her life from the first page! And what a shock to find out that "remember the ladies" was not feminist propaganda, but a direct quote from a letter Abigail wrote to John.

In the biography, Abigail meets Martha Washington and that made me wonder..."What was Martha Washington like? Was she as instrumental to George's political career as Abigail was to John? I ought to read about her next...Actually I'd like to read about ALL the first ladies!"

So that's what I'm going to do. It may take awhile. I've only read five in the past year. But, as my mother said, "what's the hurry?"