Posts Tagged ‘First Ladies’

#ThrowbackThursday: The First First Ladies – Dolley Madison

July 18th, 2013

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison, wife of James Madison (1768-1849)

Much more so than her predecessors, Dolley Madison embraced the role of First Lady as we think of it today.  In fact, she pretty much created it, setting the bar upon which all later First Ladies have been judged.  While Abigail Adams acted as a private adviser to her husband, Dolley was a very public partner to James.  In the eulogy he gave at her funeral in 1849, President Zachary Taylor called Dolley “the first lady of the land for half a century.”  It was the first time a president’s spouse had been referred to as a “first lady,” although the term did not become an official title until the 1860s when newspapers began using it for Mary Todd Lincoln.  When she died, Dolley Madison was the last public figure from America’s founding generation.

Dolley was born to John and Mary Coles Payne, both strict Quakers, on May 20, 1768.  She was raised in the Quaker faith, which taught equality between women and men.  Dolley took that teaching with her throughout her life, never seeming to act like she was of lesser status because she was a woman.  Her parents relocated the Payne family to Philadelphia when Dolley was young and it was in that city in 1790 that she married John Todd.  The Todds had two children, John Payne and William.  The yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia in 1793 took the life of John on the same day the infant William died.  Though John had made Dolley the executor of his will, her brother-in-law kept everything from her and left her in near-poverty until she took legal action to obtain what was rightfully hers.  Because she was a woman, she also had to fight in court to be the guardian of her own surviving son. Read the rest of this entry »

#ThrowbackThursday: The First First Ladies – Martha Jefferson

July 11th, 2013

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

3. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, wife of Thomas Jefferson (1748-1782)

Of the first four First Ladies, we know the least about Martha Jefferson.  Though she died about 18 and a half years before Thomas Jefferson became president, she is still considered a First Lady because she is the only spouse he had.  No portrait of her is known to exist and, like Martha Washington did with her letters to and from George, Thomas destroyed nearly all their personal communication after her death.

Martha Wayles was born in Virginia on October 19, 1748 to the well-off family of John and Martha Eppes Wayles.  Her mother died shortly after she was born due to complications from the birth.  She was raised by her father, two stepmothers, and tutors.  As a child, she was well educated.  She became an accomplished musician who played the pianoforte and spinet, and also sang.  When she was 18, she married Bathurst Skelton with whom she had a child named John.  Less than two years after the marriage, Bathurst became ill and died in 1768.

After the acceptable period of mourning was over, the wealthy and beautiful (all physical accounts of her describe her as such) new widow began attracting many suitors, including Thomas Jefferson.  Thomas fell in love with Martha nearly straightaway, however, she did not share the same feelings for him when he first started calling on her.  Neither did her father, who did not approve of the lower status Thomas Jefferson’s interests in his daughter.  Thomas proposed to Martha in early 1771, but she did not accept.  Thanks to an encouraging letter written to him by a friend, Mrs. Drummond, Thomas continued to pursue the relationship.  According to family lore, two men waiting outside the Wayles’ house to see Martha heard her and Thomas, who got there before the other men, playing music and singing together.  Upon hearing this, they gave up and went home.  Bonding over things, such as their mutual love of music and literature, Martha accepted Thomas’ proposal by June, 1771.  Unlike marriages of generations past that considered monetary and social reasons for tying the knot over romantic feelings, the couple was one of a growing number of couples getting married out of love. Read the rest of this entry »

#ThrowbackThursday: The First First Ladies – Abigail Adams

June 27th, 2013

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

2. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), wife of John Adams

Abigail Adams is one of the most popular First Ladies.  She is often referred to as John Adams’ intellectual equal, confidant, closest advisor, and soul mate.  Many people are aware of her “Remember the Ladies” letter to John, which she wrote while he was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the planning and writing of the Declaration of Independence.  In the letter she famously states, “in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”  For urging her husband to consider giving women the vote and other rights when setting the new laws of the land, Abigail is lauded as an early suffragist and feminist.

Unlike the lack of remaining correspondence between Martha and George Washington, Abigail and John wrote over 1,100 letters to each other that continue to provide us with a great deal of information.  Being such close partners (John thanked her in one letter for being his partner), the two missed each other greatly when John was away on political business and kept in regular touch.  According to some, the couple was acutely aware of the importance of their personal letters and wanted them to be saved for historical purposes.  John even bought a leather-bound book to keep his letters from Abigail in and suggested Abigail get one to do the same with his letters to her.  The Adams’ letters shed a great deal of light onto the kind of woman Abigail was as well as her relationship with John.  Also unlike Martha and George, there is no debating that Abigail and John’s marriage was one full of love, romance, admiration, and respect. Read the rest of this entry »

#ThrowbackThursday: The First First Ladies – Martha Washington

June 20th, 2013

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

We posted on Facebook last week about Rachel Jackson on the anniversary of her birthday.  Some of you commented that the First Lady’s story was interesting and Facebook user, Susan, said she wished history like Jackson’s was more well-known.  Inspired in part by Susan and other Facebookers, here is the first of a four part Throwback Thursday miniseries all about our first First Ladies.  We all know about their Founding Father husbands from school, but not nearly as much information about the women themselves is common knowledge.

1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802), wife of George Washington

Before George Washington, Martha Dandridge was married to her wealthy godfather, Daniel Custis.  Daniel’s father was a volatile man who did not approve of his son’s love for the lower-status Martha.  He had to be heavily persuaded before finally giving his permission for Martha and Daniel to wed.  Though she and George never lived in the White House when he was president, Martha did move to Daniel’s large estate, “White House,” upon their marriage.  Martha’s first father-in-law regularly made life difficult for the couple and Martha blamed Daniel’s untimely death in 1757 on the stress put onto him by his father.  Daniel died without having made a will, which meant Martha became the executor of his estate and also meant she had more legal rights than women were normally permitted in the eighteenth century.  Though she owned 300 slaves and over 17,000 acres of land, and was worth over 40,000 pounds, she lived in a time when women did not manage property or financial matters.  Martha began looking for a new man to take over for her and the new widow was an attractive catch. Read the rest of this entry »