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Curator’s Picks: Surrogate First Ladies

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(The following article is featured in the January/February 2017 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

Manuscript Division specialists Julie Miller, Barbara Bair and Michelle Krowl discuss some non-spousal first ladies.

3a53321u.tifMartha Jefferson Randolph
Because Thomas Jefferson was a widower when he became president, Dolley Madison, along with his daughters Martha Randolph and Maria Eppes, helped him entertain. Jefferson did not believe that women should participate in politics, as he had seen them do in Revolutionary Paris, so his daughters’ role at his dinners was mainly ornamental. Not so Dolley Madison, who seated herself at the head of the table when she became first lady.





3a53327u.tifSarah Yorke Jackson
Andrew Jackson was newly widowed when he came to the White House in March 1829. He was helped in his hosting duties by his daughters-in-law, Emily Donelson and Sarah Yorke Jackson. Emily, his wife’s niece, was married to his foster son and his presidential secretary A. J. Donelson. Sarah was the wife of his adopted son. Sarah continued as hostess following Emily’s death near the end of Jackson’s second term in office.





06697vAngelica Singleton Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was a widower when he became president in 1837. He was aided in White House social functions by his daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton Van Buren, the wife of his son Abraham. Former First Lady Dolley Madison had been their matchmaker. Angelica was well-tutored in the social graces, having attended a female academy in South Carolina and a French school in Philadelphia.





3a48060u.tifHarriet Lane
James Buchanan was a bachelor when he became president in 1857. His niece, Harriet Lane, for whom he was legal guardian, managed social events in the White House. While Buchanan had a troubled presidency, Harriet is ranked among the most popular first ladies. She used her position to promote music and the arts and to advocate various reform causes – setting a trend for first ladies of the future.





3a53345u.tifRose Cleveland
Grover Cleveland first entered the Executive Mansion in 1885 as a bachelor and consequently hostess duties fell to his sister, Rose Elizabeth Cleveland. A scholar, lecturer and teacher by training, the feminist Rose continued her intellectual pursuits while first lady and in 1885 published “George Eliot’s Poetry and Other Studies.” President Cleveland’s June 1886 White House wedding to the young Frances Folsom ended Rose’s tenure as first lady, and she gladly returned to her successful literary career.

All photos are from the Prints and Photographs Division.

Comments (4)

  1. John Tyler’s first wife, Letitia Christian, was too ill when he became president to officiate. Their daughter in law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler (wife of their eldest son Robert) took on the role until he married the much younger Julia Gardiner from New York.

  2. Excellent background article. Thank you!

  3. If we ever had a bachelor or widower as president in this century, how do you think hostess duties would be handled?

  4. Why are only these women featured?

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