Sunday, December 1, 2013

Eliza Johnson

I finally got the book, Eliza Johnson in Perspective by Jean Choate! Happy birthday to me from my parents!

It was fun to hunt down a copy, though. I even emailed the author to see if she had any copies, but she had sold out last fall. It was interesting to find out when I googled the author that she is also a pastor’s wife! All along I have noticed how similar a position first ladies and pastor’s wives have so it is interesting to have an biographer have that perspective while writing.

As a pastor’s wife, one of my favorite opportunities is to do premarital counseling with couples before my husband marries them. We think it’s helpful to the couple to offer both a husband and wives’ perspective. And although we by no means have it all together, I like to pass along what I wish I had known before I got married.

If first ladies had to do premarital counseling, I would most like to see Eliza Johnson in that role. She seemed perhaps the most “normal” wife so far and in the little we know about her, she seemed to have been a down-to-earth, hard-working, loving, wife, mom, and grandmother.  From reading her biography, I can picture what advice she would pass on to a new bride.

Here is what I think Eliza Johnson would say:
  • “Believe in your husband. Be his biggest cheerleader.” When Eliza and Andrew were first married they were young and poor. They lived in Tennessee in a two room home. The front room was Andrew’s tailor shop and the back room was their living quarters. Eliza was the more educated and while Andrew sewed, she read to him so he could become an educated person.

Through talking politics with men who would hang out in his tailor shop, Andrew became interested in debating. Although he was not a student, he gained permission to join a debating club at nearby Greeneville College every Friday night which was a four mile walk. I’m sure that was a sacrifice for Eliza to be on her own with the kids in the evening after Andrew was working all day, but she supported her husband and encouraged him to grow as a person and develop his strengths. Later, as a political candidate, Andrew was known for his speaking ability.

Eliza was also Andrew’s cheerleader through his impeachment trial. When the news of his acquittal came to her, “tears welled in her eyes, but her voice did not tremble.” She cried “I knew he would be acquitted, I knew it.”

  • “Be frugal. Avoid debt. Work hard at home.” As Andrew’s political career grew, he was often absent from home. But Eliza was faithful at managing the family accounts in addition to her regular chores of sewing, cooking, gardening, raising the children, and also being in charge of their slaves (pre-Civil War). Through their hard work and frugality they were able to expand their property. Although they had started out married life with nothing, a little more than twenty years into their marriage, they had an estate worth $50,000.
Eliza must have been a good cook and taught her daughters and her slaves how to cook. Her daughters, Martha and Mary, served as White House hostesses and were known for their attention to food. (Eliza also put in her thoughts on what the White House staff should serve for dinner. The Johnsons were also the first to provide the White House staff with lunch.)

The first slave the Johnson’s bought was a 14 year old named Dolly. Eliza taught also taught her how to cook. After the Civil War, Dolly made her living by selling pies out of Andrew’s old tailor shop.

  • “Be respectful to your husband especially in public.” Andrew Johnson had a temper. He also had jobs that were beyond stressful.  It was said that the thing that could calm him down was Eliza gently laying her hand on his shoulder and quietly saying, “Andy.” She didn’t tear him to shreds in public like Mary Lincoln would to her husband, but just gently used her influence so he could continue to show his good side. We can also tell that she was respectful to Andrew because he relied on her to tear out newspaper clippings for him to keep him informed. This respect Andrew had for Eliza would not have been there if she did not respect him. This respect for each other also set the tone for the whole family. In the White House years, their daughters and their families also lived there and the three families lived together without friction!

Only one letter survives between Eliza and Andrew and it was written in 1863 when he was in Washington and she in Tennessee. He closes the letter by wishing Eliza will “accept for yourself the best wishes of a devoted husband’s heart.” Andrew’s devotion to her was developed over the years of their marriage in which Eliza encouraged him, worked hard at home, and gave him respect. All are lessons any wife could use to draw their husband close with a devoted heart.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Scalloped Oyster's While I'm Waiting...

So I am at a First Ladies book stand still and have been for months. I am ready to read Eliza Johnson, but the book I wanted cannot be found for less than $55 and more commonly for about $90. That price is a little too much for me, so I tried the library. However, the book is not in any public library in the state of Pennsylvania!

So I bought a biography of Andrew and Eliza Johnson jointly, but after reading one hundred of it's six hundred pages, I discovered it's not really about Eliza at all. She is only mentioned here and there, but there was no in-depth information on her. I gave up on that book.

Next I emailed the author of the book I do want and she replied that she was sorry but had sold her last copy last fall.

So now I am just waiting for my birthday (which is this Saturday) in hopes it will turn up (or at least some birthday money will!)

In the meantime, I was hungry for some First Ladies action, so I turned to Mary Lincoln's section of the First Ladies Cookbook and whipped up her Scalloped Oysters. Molly, my 4 year old, was my assistant cook for this recipe. I thought that was appropriate since Mary Lincoln was often called Molly.

Here's Molly with the can of oysters.

We buttered a shallow pan and layered crushed cracker crumbs on top. Next Molly layered some oysters on top. The recipe called for a dozen fresh oysters, but we opted for canned.

She is not quite sure about the squishy texture!

Next we mixed the oyster liquor, cream, salt, and pepper. The recipe called for sherry, too, which we did not have. Then we poured the mixture over the oysters and crackers in the pan.

We baked it in the 425 oven for 15 minutes until golden. What did it taste like? Oysters baked with crackers. It had a very smushy texture which would have been different if we used fresh oysters. Then it would have been rubbery and smushy, I guess. I can imagine it would have been a treat to eat this at the White House since oysters were not an everyday food. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mary Lincoln: Potential for Power

Some First Ladies strongly dislike that their husband is in politics and wish they would have stayed with another profession. But some First Ladies relish the position of their president-husband. Mary Lincoln, Mrs. President or the Republican Queen, is an example of the latter. She craved power herself as demonstrated by her unbridled tongue. But she had the potential for much more power had she chosen kindness over commands.

She certainly had power over Abe Lincoln. Her sharp tongue and explosions had power over him for the negative. If only she would have tapped into the power of her support and affection for him, maybe Abe Lincoln could have held his head up higher and at least knew he had one person who supported him in this divided nation. But instead, Mary unleashed the fury of her tongue. For example, she berated him in front of a room full of soldiers. She threw a fit because Abraham would not agree to a political patronage she wanted and she refused to escort him out until he gave her her way.  Once, President Lincoln was invited to attend a political event and was assured he would not have to speak. However the crowd cheered him so, that he finally rose to his feet and gave a short unprepared speech. The crowd was pleased, but when the event was over Mary berated him on the way back to their carriage saying “That was the worst speech I have ever heard! I wanted the earth to sink and let me through!”

 Even before their marriage she held great power over him. Once Mary graduated from Madam Mentrelle’s boarding school, she moved from Kentucky to Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister. There she meets and falls in love with Abe Lincoln. They were engaged in 1840 but on Jan 1, 1841, Mary broke off the engagement. Lincoln took to his bed for six days afterwards! Finally after a friend set them up to meet again in 1842, they were reengaged and married in November of 1842. During their break up, Lincoln encouraged his friend Joshua Speed to go through with his own wedding despite his fears and later Speed would say that because his own marriage turned out happy, Lincoln was encouraged follow through marrying Mary despite his fears he would not be able to make her happy and well enough provided for.

Even though Mary was through and through the owner of Abe’s heart, she remained deeply jealous of Abraham Lincoln and any attention he gave to any other woman. Before the Lincolns, the president would escort a prominent lady into dinner on his arm while the First Lady followed escorting a prominent male guest. But Mary would not have it! She changed the promenade order to assure the President and his wife came into together first in the promenade. The First Lady’s following Mary kept her tradition.

Mary Lincoln was sensitive about being so much shorter than Abe. She refused to have them photographed standing side by side. She always was sick of his joke that the couple was the "long and the short of it."

Mary’s emotional outbursts gave her much deserved criticism. But she also received a great deal of unwarranted criticism like the constant charge that she was a spy for the South for her Rebel brothers (really half-brothers). These rumors progressed so far that Abe Lincoln stood in front of a congressional hearing to say his wife was not leaking information to the South. These rumors were accompanied by lots of hate mail to Mary Lincoln at the White House, so much so that she asked the Clerk to open all mail addressed to her to be sure it was something she actually wanted to see herself.

If only she had let the public see the good things she did in secret, her visits to the soldiers in D.C., how she shared gifts of food and spirits meant for her use at the White House with these men. She had such potential for power over her reputation for the good yet missed the chance to share these good qualities with the public who only saw her lavish spending and southern, slave-holding family.

Perhaps part of why she craved power was because she had no control over the death that surrounded her.  Aside from having her husband assassinated while she was cuddled up to him at the theater, her mother died when she was 6 years old. As the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, Mary was raised by Mammy Sally, the family’s slave. She also saw three of her four sons die: Ed at age 4 before the White House years, Willie at age 12 in the White House after a fever, and Tad at age 18 of typhoid after the White House years. Even those who did not like Mary Lincoln noted that she was an exceptional mother so these losses must have been devastating to her.

Abraham and Tad Lincoln

After the White House, Mary spent time traveling in Europe with Tad. Tad’s death seemed to have put her over the edge. Mary traveled from Florida back to Chicago to Robert, her remaining son, but wouldn’t stay in his home. She made him stay with her in a hotel even though he was married with a home of his own. She was paranoid that someone was trying to murder her, she didn’t drink her coffee because she was sure it was poisoned, she said an Indian was pulling wires out of her eyes and springs were in her head. She went on shopping sprees buying 17 pairs of gloves at once and spending thousands of dollars on things she didn’t need or use. Poor Robert trying to care for his wife, work, and his mother who needs to be looked after like a child! Finally, her doctor certifies her as insane and she is sent to live in the Doctor’s quarters in the asylum. After some months there, Mary lives with her sister for nine months until she is able to be responsible for herself again. The court lifts the insanity charge, gives her control of her finances, and Mary moves to Europe where she can live among strangers and have peace and quiet. This suits her very well until she is 60 and falls off a stepladder and injures her spine. She decides it is time to come home to her sister’s home and there she lives quietly until her death on July 16, 1882.

What a fighter! Mary’s whole life seems to have been a quest for power and control. My heart goes out to her in the deaths in her family, her insanity, and the criticisms hurled at her by our war torn nation. However, I cannot sympathize with her emotional outbursts and unkindness especially to her husband. If she would have chosen to be his cheerleader instead of tearing him down she would have unlocked a far greater power both in her marriage and in politics. As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

This post was written after reading Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow by Carl Sandburg. Beautifully written! Both sensitive and informative.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Harriet Lane

            Not long ago, my husband and I wrote our will. Although we just did the standard will where our children divide our assets when we are gone, the possibilities are endless about what instructions we could have included. Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan, the fifteenth president, filled her will to the brim with instructions to follow after her death, not just for her executors and her family members, but even to the United States itself!

            James Buchanan is the only president to have never married. He had been engaged, the engagement had been broken off, and the ex-fiancee committed suicide several months after the break up. That did James in. He vowed never to marry. There is possibility that James Buchanan had a homosexual relationship with William Rufus Devane King, but that depends on who you ask if there is evidence beyond a deep friendship.

            Harriet Lane’s mother was James Buchanan’s sister. Harriet was orphaned and then adopted by James Buchanan when she was eleven. They were very close and had a great relationship. He brought her with him to England when he was the ambassador to the court of St. James. Queen Victoria was impressed with Harriet and they spent much time together being of similar age.

Harriet Lane in her scandalously low-cut ball gown for the Inaugural Ball.

             When James Buchanan entered the White House, Harriet Lane came along as the official hostess. She was a fashion trend setter from the beginning starting with her shockingly low cut gown for the inauguration ball. Milton Stern in Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady, calls Harriet the first First Lady who was a fashion leader. I found that hard to believe at first because so many of the previous first ladies were so elegant and well-dressed. However, Harriet had the advantage of the widespread use of photography in the media which no other first lady had previously. Before, you would have had to have been in Harriet’s presence to see what she wore or read a description in the newspaper or in a friend’s letter. But now that the women in the whole nation had access to see for themselves what the First Lady wore, women could accurately copy what she wore.

            My family and I visited Wheatfield, Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, PA, and I asked the tour guide if she thought Harriet truly was more fashionable than previous first ladies or was it merely advances in photography that made her fashionable to the public? The tour guide thought it was both and she pointed me to a picture of Harriet that showed her wearing a belt around the waist of her dress as opposed to the pointed waistline. According to the tour guide, Harriet was the first one to wear a belt like that.

Harriet Lane and her fashionable belt

            Harriet only spent one term in the white house and she was single that whole time. She married at the age of 36 to Henry Elliot Johnston, Jr, a wealthy banker from Maryland. They had two sons. Shortly after her marriage, James Buchanan, her beloved “Nunc” died. Then both her sons died of rheumatic fever, one at aged 14 and one at age 12. Finally her husband died leaving her completely alone in life at the age of 54.

            She moved back to Washington and hardly a week went by from then until the year before her death that she was not mentioned in the newspapers as participating in the social life of Washington. This reminded me much of Dolley Madison who moved back to Washington after she was widowed. Dolley was also socially active especially with First ladies and even guided them at how to hostess at the White House. I don’t know what role Harriet had in First Ladies after her time, but I will be looking to see if her name appears in any future biography I read!

            At the time of her death in 1903 at the age of 73, she left an extensive will which she had amended several times stating which family members should get what candlesticks, china, jewelry and what amounts of money different cousins and nephews should receive. Her estate at the time of her death was worth $11,500,000 (in 2005 dollars).  Her major bequest was in memory of her late sons: the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore. This hospital is still going strong today including a partnership with John Hopkins and also publishes a medical handbook each year. She also set aside $300,000 to establish the St. Alban's School for Washington Cathedral Choir Boys which is still one of the premiere educational institutions in D.C. She also left her art that she had collected to the Smithsonian which renewed the Smithsonian's interest in collecting and preserving pieces of art. Lastly, to the United States, she left $100,000 to erect a monument in D.C. of her uncle within 15 years after her death. Congress finally picked a spot after heated debate 6 days shy of the 15 year deadline. It took them so long to honor her request because although Harriet was well-loved in Washington, James Buchanan was not. The Statue was completed in 1930.

James Buchanan Memorial in Meridian Hill Park, Washington D.C.

            Harriet Lane was intentional about her legacy. It is obvious that she spent a long time pondering and planning how her estate would be used to remember her sons and Uncle and her based on the number of times she amended her will which was printed in full in Milton Stern’s book.

            Harriet Lane is inspirational to me to be intentional about my legacy. Although she had access to millions of dollars to shape her legacy, she also left a legacy through her generosity and her character. I did not marry a millionaire, but I can purposefully craft how I will be remembered by the next generations through my own character and actions.


 My sister recently discovered she had a First Ladies Cookbook!! So we prepared a Harriet Lane feast. The author did not leave any notes telling us why they had selected these recipes for James Buchanan, but it is presumed that this meal would include his favorite foods.

Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States (well, all the presidents through Nixon...)

Pennsylvania Dutch Stuffed Shoulder of Pork

Piling on some more sauerkraut

boiling the cinnamon apples in sugar, water, and cinnamon until tender

The finished cinnamon apples

There are no fresh gooseberries anywhere near to be used in the gooseberry tart, but we did find this gooseberry preserves import from England at Wegmans. Maybe James Buchanan ate this tart while a minister to the court of St. James?

Here is our presidential feast! Notice the mashed potato rosettes as garnish.

My husband, kids, sister and niece ready for our Harriet Lane feast!

My daughter, Molly, 3, in front of the Harriet Lane presidential china on display at Wheatfield. This is what James Buchanan would have eaten his feast on.

My silly kids in front of Wheatfield after our tour

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jane Pierce

Jane Pierce has been called the Shadow of the White House because she was largely absent from Washington during her husband’s presidency. Even when she was there, she was shut in her room. She had seen more than her fair share of grief and hardship.

Jane Pierce
            Just like the last two antebellum First Ladies, there is no biography dedicated solely to Jane Pierce, but I did read an essay entitled ‘A Hell on Earth’ The Pierce Marriage During the White House Years, 1853-1857 by Michael J.C. Taylor from the book Life in the White House. Jane Means Appleton grew up in a prominent Whig family and even as a child was described as stoic and reserved. Franklin Pierce was from a die-hard Democratic family (his dad was governor.) Franklin was outgoing and charming and drank way too much even appearing drunk on the Senate floor and passing out on his desk. They were engaged for eight years before finally marrying probably because Jane’s family was against the match. Jane wished Franklin would do anything else besides politics. She hated politics and the Washington scene.


Jane gave birth to her first son in 1836, but the baby died at just three days old. Their next son died as a preschooler because of typhoid fever. But most tragic of all was the death of Bennie, their third son, in January 1853. Just after Franklin had been elected president, the family was traveling by train when the car they were in broke from the train and derailed. Bennie was thrown from the car. Franklin and Jane emerged from the wreckage and found their son lying still on the ground. When Franklin picked up his body, his little hat fell off and exposed his crushed skull. Jane fainted away when she saw his bleeding lifeless body. Bennie was 11 years old. This most tragic death seemed to suck the remaining life out of their marriage and out of them each personally. Franklin had wanted the presidency so he could make a better life for his son. Jane blamed Franklin for Bennie’s death saying that God took him away so that Franklin wouldn’t be distracted during the presidency.

Jane and Bennie
            Jane mourns for the rest of her life. She locks herself in her room and doesn’t come out for Bennie’s funeral. When she does emerge, she rocks in a chair clutching the box that holds locks of hair from each of her three sons. She refuses to go to Washington with Franklin for his inauguration. She doesn’t come for the next social season either. When she finally musters the energy to come and perform the hostess duties for the New Years Ball of 1855 she is dressed in black satin with a veil and has decorated the White House in black crepe. She spends much time in her room writing letters to Bennie.

            On top of their personal tragedy were their political differences which came to a head with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Franklin was for it and did sign it, but Jane actively worked against him inviting his opponents to the White House so she can discuss how to block the law.

            After Franklin’s one term as president, the Pierce’s travel abroad then settle back in New Hampshire. Jane dies in 1863 of tuberculosis.

            Taylor seems to see both the failed marriage and presidency as all Jane’s fault. He notes that “Franklin tried to be affection and delicate but Jane rarely, if ever, reciprocated.” He also ponders how successful Franklin’s political career could have been if only he would have chosen a compatible wife. But how often is a bad marriage just one partner’s fault? What about Franklin’s drinking? What affect did that have on the marriage?

Laura Holloway's 1881 book

            To find out more I turned to the idealistic Laura Holloway in her 1881 book on the First Ladies. Although she admits that Jane was naturally inclined to pensive melancholy and was peculiarly uninterested in politics, she calls their marriage “a pleasing union of kindred natures and a source of deep and lasting happiness.” (Huh??)  And Laura sets out to put Jane in a good light by quoting the Marshal of the District of Columbia who remembered her as hardly ever missing a public reception and being a hostess with quiet ease and dignity. This seems so different than the account of Taylor’s in which she is wholly absent from White House public life. I especially love in Holloway’s book a letter from Franklin to Laura about his wife in which he says “ She shrank with extreme sensitiveness from public observation. I cannot help being influenced by that very controlling trait of her character, and this, I am sure, is true of all her relatives.” Wow. Doesn’t that sound charged with bitterness? However, Laura does not comment on Franklin’s letter but skips on to describe further Jane’s perfect character. Sorry, Laura, I think your idealism is a lost cause here!  I am not sure how this could be from a marriage with deep and lasting happiness.

             So what is the true picture of Jane as a First Lady? The reserved but present hostess who despite her hatred of politics participates by trying to block the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Or was she merely a shadow casting gloom all around her the few times she did show her face?

            Lastly, I consulted John B. Roberts II in Rating the First Ladies who points out that I am not the only one confused about who the real Jane Pierce was. He says that to those who want to see a tragic figure, there is Jane paralyzed by her grief but to those who want to see a woman rise above her circumstances there is Jane going through the motions of the duties of a First Lady.

            One question that is not answered for me is why they married to begin with? They even had an eight year courtship. That leaves a lot of time for changing your mind based on all their differences and challenges like his interest in politics and drinking, and her lack of affection. Although there was mention of her family’s opposition to the match, I did not read anything about his family’s opinion. What did their friends think of the pair? What did they see in each other? 

            Jane Pierce remains the Shadow of the White House to me. Not because she was barely there, but because she is a mystery.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Abigail Fillmore

In my bedroom at home I have two big bookcases filled with all my books. There are some history, some great children’s literature, some Biblical and theological books, some cookbooks, and, of course, a growing shelf of First Ladies’ biographies. I love lying in bed at night while I’m trying to fall asleep and glance at each title remembering how I felt as I read each book or think to myself “I really want to read that one soon. I’d better move it to the top of my pile.”  I feel comforted and spurred on being surrounded by books. I imagine that’s how Abigail Fillmore felt in her White House library.

Abigail Powers grew up very poor in New York. She was the daughter of a minister who died when Abigail was only two. The father left the family not much money, but lots of books. As a teen Abigail needed to work for a living and did so as a teacher. When she was teaching at the academy in New Hope, New York, she had a Millard Fillmore in her class.

Millard Fillmore also grew up very poor. He grew up in a home that only had a hymnal, a Bible, and an almanac. He worked hard to educate himself and pull himself out of poverty through education and hard work. He married Abigail after a lengthy engagement allowing Millard time to gain enough law business to support her. Even after they were married, Abigail continued to work as a teacher making her the first First Lady to work outside the home for pay after marriage.

Having met in a classroom, Millard and Abigail’s relationship from the very beginning was centered on education and learning. And it continued to be so. Wherever Millard would travel he would be sure to bring back some new books for Abigail. In their surviving letters from their times apart, there are many mentions of what they were reading and studying. Abigail even says “your society is all that I have thought of-have finished studying the maps of ancient geography. O, that you could have been here to have studied with me.” She also says how she misses their evenings together when she would sew and he would read aloud to her.

The Fillmores show us the Era of the Common Man and the emerging middle class in Victorian America. One mark of this time in history is the home as a place where you could be sheltered from the outside world and could better yourself through gaining knowledge. A library became a popular thing in the average home.

After Zachary Taylor’s death, vice-president Millard Fillmore became president in 1850. When Abigail and Millard came to the White House there was not a single book, not even a Bible. All the previous presidents had brought their personal books to use at the White House and brought them home after their term was up. Millard Fillmore changed this by asking Congress to appropriate funds for establishing a permanent White House library.

The library was placed between the family’s living quarters and the cabinet member’s offices so that it could be used for both work and pleasure.  Most of the library was history and law books, but it also contained popular and classic works deemed necessary for a library at the time.

The earliest photo of the White House library, 1870.

Abigail used the room like we would use a family room today. She spent time there herself but also to informally entertain. She left the official hostessing responsibilities to her daughter, but Abigail did entertain select guests in her library. There also was a harp and piano in the room for entertaining of guests. (I am totally picturing a Jane Austen movie here!)

Since there is no published biography on Abigail Fillmore, I choose to read Catherine Parisian’s The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue. Only the first hundred pages or so are devoted to the Fillmores including an excellent essay on Abigail by Elizabeth Thacker-Estrada. But the rest of the book has a list of the titles included in the original library the Fillmores created. As I flipped through the catalogue, I imagined I was skimming the shelves while I visited with Abigail. Which of the one-hundred and ninety-five titles would I pull off the shelf and sit and discuss with her?

The Memoirs of Aaron Burr  (yes. What WAS he THINKING?!!)

The Federalist Papers by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison

Memories of a Hungarian Lady by Theresa Pulsyky, a woman of non-titled nobility who dined with the president after the failed 1848 revolution. She has sketches of Hungary’s social life. Interesting. I know nothing about Hungary.

The American Loyalist or Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown by Lorenzo Sabine who lived in Maine near Canada during the revolution and captured well- researched, unbiased accounts of his neighbors who were Loyalist.

The Adventures of Gil Blas of Sallentine by Alain Rene Le Sage in 1715. One of the first realistic novels written. About the adventures of a young valet as he goes from master to master. Apparently John Quincy Adams read this book once a year.  I’d love to know why and what did he gain by it.

The Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott who created the genre of the historical novel (thank you, Sir Walter!!)

Para or Scenes and Adventures on the Banks of the Amazon by John Esais Warren. Millard commissioned an exploratory trip along the Amazon thinking he could send freed slaves to settle there. Thankfully, he changed his mind about the idea.

There are lots of other books in the library, but mostly law and histories pertinent to the president and his cabinet in their work.

Sadly, Abigail died three weeks after Millard left office in 1853 because she caught pneumonia while standing in the rain listening to Franklin Pierces’ inauguration. But she left a legacy of the importance of study and learning and culture both through her own story and the White House library.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Margaret Taylor

           Well, the next three ladies have no biography written so I am reduced to reading short essays that have been published. It’s always disappointing to have no biography because an essay is just not long enough to make me feel like I know the lady.

            Margaret Taylor is even less known to me because there is no confirmed portrait or photo of her. I read Thomas H. Appleton, Jr’s essay in American First Ladies: Their Lives and Legacy.

            Basically, Margaret was born in Calvert County Maryland to a plantation family that had been on American soil a long time. While visiting her sister in Kentucky she met and married Zachary Taylor. She spent the next almost 40 years of her life moving from army outpost to army outpost. She had six children two of whom died young of illness. One daughter died only three months after her marriage to a young officer, Jefferson Davis. Yes, THE Jefferson Davis. Jefferson Davis went onto remarry and his second wife and Jefferson remained close to the Taylors for the rest of their lives.

            An army outpost was no place to raise and educate children so the Taylor sent their children to various boarding schools and endured years of separation from them.

            When Zachary Taylor was stationed in Baton Rouge, Margaret declined the two story home intented for their stay and instead found a four room cottage on the Mississippi River that she lovingly fixed up as a home with the help of her slaves and off duty soldiers. I can imagine how she must have enjoyed decorating and fixing up the home to be her own after having moved so much and never really having lived in a home designed just for her since she constantly moved from military outpost to military outpost. Fixing up the home must have kept her mind busy and prevented her from worrying about her husband out fighting again.

Once Zachary was ready to retire, Margaret hoped he would stay retired! But when she started to get wind of her husband’s potentially presidency she prayed daily that the lot would fall to someone else! In November of 1848, Zachary won the presidency and Margaret prepared for yet another move.

During her time in the White House, Margaret did not perform the first lady duties but left that to her 24 year old daughter. Margaret did not even attend the inaugural balls! But she was not a total recluse. She would entertain close family and friends in her personal quarters.

To everyone’s surprise, Zachary Taylor died in 1850. Margaret died just 2 years later.

So much loneliness, grief, and moving for Margaret! She must have been a tough lady to endure it all.


****UPDATE**** I asked Carl Anthony about Margaret Taylor's pictures that are now public. Here was his reply:

Dear Rachel – thanks for writing. When I was conducting research and writing my two-volume history entitled First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and their Power, 1789-1900, I did attempt to unravel this but at the time the two known images of her had not yet been unearthed. Her daughter Betty Bliss later in life said her mother never posed for a portrait – and it seems she meant an oil painting portrait since “photographs” were still relatively new and not referred to that way. The two photographs of her do seem to prove that she is the same person. One of them was found within a collection of photos of Mexican War military leaders and young West Point cadets, at least one of whom seems likely to have been a nephew of Betty Bliss. She remarried after her first husband’s death but had no children and so it seems that a descendant of her second husband in Virginia had them and sold them. The second was sold at auction a few years ago (you might find the info. somewhere online – I don’t recall the name of the auction house) along with one of President Taylor and was described as being kept in the family all those years. I don’t know who the descendants were or who owns those images now. Since these were held by the family for what seems like a really long time, it may have been to somehow respect Peggy Taylor’s penchant for privacy and her daughter’s remark may have been saying there was no public image – and would not be, if she had anything to do with it.However, it also seems that the drawing done of it, and later colorized, was in fact adapted from the photo held by Betty Bliss, so she seems to have likely allowed an artist to render a version of it but never released the original to the public.

Check out Carl Anthony's incredible blog

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk grew up in a wealthy household in Tennessee. At the age of 15, Sarah and her sister were sent to a Moravian school in which Sarah and her sister were taught the strict morals and piety of the Moravian church. Her religious upbringing impacted her greatly, but I don’t believe she became a born again Christian until later in life.

On a journey to Washington DC in 1833, when James Polk was in the House of Representatives, James and Sarah stopped for the night when a meteor shower occurred. Sarah was wide awake watching the display in the sky and she was terrified for her life. She was sure the end of the world was imminent!

a meteor shower

The very next year, 1834, she joined the First Presbyterian Church on 4-and-a Half Street in Washington DC and from then on she conducted herself with confidence in regards to all manner of her life whether it be for this world or the next. Although I haven’t found a biographer to make mention of her experience of being saved, I believe Sarah Polk truly was. What else would change a woman from cowering in fear for the end of the world to a confidently pious woman other than forgiveness from Jesus Christ?

Every Sunday morning she would put on her shawl and bonnet, ready for church, and ask her husband and whatever friends he had visiting to come with her to church. (Eventually, political friends stopped their Sunday visits or left before she could ask them to go.) Sarah banned hard liquor, dancing, and card playing in the White House. Dancing “would be respectful neither to the house or the office.” She would not attend horse races or be escorted by men other than her husband. When she was traveling by boat on a Sunday she asked that no music be played.  She was frugal with her money allotted to her to fix up the White House and for entertaining (much to Julia Tyler’s frustration!)

Sarah was also a partner with James in the political world. Sarah would much rather sit and talk politics with the men than retire with the women to the parlor. Sarah read the newspapers for her husband and marked the articles necessary for him to read. James did not consult with his cabinet often since he consulted with Sarah so much. They had no children which freed up Sarah’s time to be involved. She also let the kitchen and the other staff in the White House be in charge of the entertaining. She did not bother to instruct them but let them do their thing.

James promised to be a one term president and he stuck to his word. He died only three months after the end of his presidency at his home in Nashville. Sarah had him buried in a monument of a tomb in the yard. Sarah lived for 42 years longer than James.

James Polk's grave

I would love to tell you that Sarah did wonderful things with her long widowhood, but, frankly, her life was dull after James died. She did raise her niece and when her niece married they continued to live with Sarah. But when I say she raised her niece, the niece lived in the home and Sarah paid for a nurse to care for her, and for her schooling. Sarah did attend church and faithfully read her Bible, but didn’t do much else.

Literally half of the biography I read, Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk by Anson Nelson and Fanny Nelson, were about the latter half of her life and was entirely things like, “a group of young school boys visited and Sarah talked to them about her time in Washington…” and “once she received a letter from such and such a wealthy man praising Sarah for her high morals and lovely character” and “she gave a fancy watch she had to the daughter of a General she admired.”

Sarah Childress Polk

She remained publicly neutral during the Civil War, entertaining officers from the North and the South when they passed through Nashville. Sarah’s land in Mississippi was destroyed during the war including her cotton and she lost all her slaves, but it did not totally devastate Sarah like Julia Tyler was financially devastated. Perhaps because Sarah made a habit of always spending less than she earned and also had far less people to support than Julia did.

Sarah Polk died in 1891 and this biography was written in 1892 so the biographer lacked opportunity to see how Sarah Polk was treated or remembered in history. But on the other hand, her death came 42 years after her time in the White House and what she did in the White House was all Sarah ever did publicly.  I wonder if a biography written today would look any different.

I guess I would sum up Sarah Polk as admirable in character and her love for the Lord, but I was hoping there was more she would have done in her retirement years. She seems so boring after the dramatic and flirtatious Julia Tyler. (Although it was "good-boring" since we are talking about real life here!) She had a little of Abigail Adams about her, with her intense interest in politics, but she lacked Abigail’s big mouth. She was like Dolley Madison in that she was free from raising children which enabled her to put her whole self into her husband’s politics. But part of the beauty of studying the first ladies is seeing how each first lady is different in themselves and different in their executing of the role for both their time in the White House and the time out of it.