Other First Ladies

Harriet Lane (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
James Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane is by far the most famous and the most adored of any of the de facto First Ladies. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As President Trump's wife, Melania, has elected to stay in New York -- at least for the time being -- it has been widely speculated that the President's daughter, Ivanka, will take on some of the traditional duties of the First Lady in Washington. Many are worried that this is another break from tradition by America’s unconventional 45th president; however, there have been numerous other times in US history when the ‘First Lady’ has been a woman other than the president’s wife. Sometimes, it’s because the president is a bachelor or a widower; other times, the First Lady is too ill to fulfill her duties as hostess and appoints a substitute. Or, as often seemed the case in the 19th century and perhaps now, the president’s wife took one look at the job and said “No, thank you!”

Dolly Madison and Patsy Jefferson Randolph, 1801-1809 (Thomas Jefferson's Presidency)

The presidency was still a new idea when widower Thomas Jefferson took office, and two different women filled the role of official hostess during his presidency: his daughter Patsy and leading lady Dolly Madison. Jefferson eschewed high society, and disliked involving women in politics, so the two women did not have much slack to pick up.

Emily Donelson, 1829-1834 (Andrew Jackson's Presidency)

Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died after a long and harsh campaign, never stepping foot in the White House. Despite the way it had treated Rachel, the nation loved her replacement: Andrew’s niece, Emily Donelson. A hardy Tennessee woman of 21, she was reportedly on the short list of people who weren’t afraid to stand up to President Jackson. She fulfilled her duties well and more besides, giving birth to three children during her years as hostess!

Angelica van Buren, 1838-1841 (Martin Van Buren's Presidency)

The role of Martin van Buren’s First Lady was empty for the first two years of his presidency, until his son Abraham married a niece of Dolly Madison, Angelica Singleton. The 22-year-old southern belle wasn’t disliked in any significant way, but made at least one major faux-pas that is still remembered. After a trip to Europe, Angelica decided she’d give up the American reception (the democratic shaking-of-hands) for what Queen Victoria was doing in London: Angelica posed on a platform dressed in white and adorned with flowers, surrounded by her friends, and allowed guests to gaze upon her. The American public hated it, and she was soon forced to shake peoples’ hands again like a normal person.

Jan Harrison, March – April 1841 (William Henry Harrison's Presidency)

Ann Harrison was mightily displeased when her husband, William Henry, became president. She sent her daughter-in-law, Jane, to Washington in her place. She was liked well enough, but of course William Henry soon died and Jane’s term was ended.

Priscilla Tyler, 1842-1844 (John Tyler's Presidency)

Letitia Tyler sent her daughter-in-law out in Washington society in her place, citing illness. The 25-year-old Priscilla was reportedly a ‘mean girl’ who enjoyed having fun at other people’s expense. Despite this, she was considered, in her words, “Charmante by the Frenchman, ‘lovely’ by the Americans, and ‘really quite nice, you know’ by the English.” Priscilla kept her place when Letitia died in 1842, but stepped down in 1844, when President Tyler married 22-year-old Julia Gardiner.

Betty Bliss, 1849-1850 (Zachary Taylor's Presidency)

Margaret Taylor, the wife of Zachary, abhorred the spotlight so much that there is very little actually known about her today. She stayed out of Washington society and sent the couple's daughter, Betty Bliss, in her place. The 22-year-old found a place in the capital that wasn’t afforded to Margaret, who suffered rumors about her appearance and manners.

Mary Abigail Fillmore, 1850-1853 (Millard Filmore's Presidency)

In her capacity as the president’s wife, Abigail Filmore did just two things: she established a White House library and she promoted her 18-year-old daughter as hostess. She then retired with a good book and let Mary take over. As opposed to the other women on this list, however, Mary never eclipsed her well-read and well-mannered mother in popularity.

Abigail Kent Means and various, 1853-1857 (Franklin Pierce's Presidency)

Jane Pierce is said to have fainted when she learned that her husband Franklin had been nominated for President. Shortly before entering the White House, the couple lost their son Benny in a horrific train accident. Excusing herself from hosting duties, she appointed her aunt Abigail Kent Means to take care of everything, with wives of Cabinet members as a backup if Abigail was away. One such lady was Varina Howell Davis who likely used the knowledge she acquired as White House hostess when became the First Lady of the Confederacy several years later.

Harriet Lane, 1857-1861 (James Buchanan's Presidency)

Bachelor James Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane is by far the most famous and the most adored of any of the de facto First Ladies, claimed by some to be the first to hold the actual title “First Lady.” Her time as First Lady directly preceded the Civil War, and is therefore perhaps remembered with more than a bit of rosy nostalgia by contemporaries, but Lane herself can be given credit for doing her job extremely well. It was said that Northerners and Southerners would tolerate each other only at her parties.

Martha Patterson, 1865-1869 (Andrew Johnson's Presidency)

Eliza Johnson had watched Washingtonians mock Mary Todd Lincoln for years, and was utterly uninterested in facing the same sort of high society abuse when her husband Andrew became president. Her daughter Martha was called in from Tennessee. The young woman covered the White House carpets with muslin and raised Jersey cows on the property (not the last to have farm animals on the White House grounds), gaining respect for her frankness and straight forward comportment.

Mary “Molly” Arthur McElroy and various others, 1881-1885 (Chester A. Arthur's Presidency)

As was the case with Presidents Jackson and Harrison, the sudden death of his wife left Chester Arthur without a female counterpart to lead the nation. His sister Molly filled in when she could, and high-ranking wives of government officials filled in when she could not.

Rose Cleveland, 1885-1886 (Grover Cleveland's Presidency)

Grover Cleveland was a bachelor for the first year of his administration, and his “very plain” sister Rose took up the mantle. It was probably this (and the fact that Rose felt women should be allowed to vote, hold jobs, and have opinions) that led to Rose’s initial cold reception in the capital city. Her warmth, humor, and cleverness eventually won them over and she was much beloved by the time her brother married Frances Folsom in 1886 and Rose abdicated.

Margaret Woodrow Wilson, 1914-1915 (Woodrow Wilson's Presidency)

Following the death of her mother, Ellen, in 1914, Margaret Wilson acted as First Lady until her father, President Woodrow Wilson, met Edith Bolling Galt. Following their 1915 marriage, Margaret left to pursue ‘spinsterhood’ and a singing career, returning gladly to help her stepmother with hosting whenever needed. She took on a larger role in Edith’s reign after Woodrow Wilson suffered his debilitating stroke in 1919, helping Edith take care of both Woodrow and the country.

Sources:

Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. (Oxford University Press, 1995).

First Lady Biography: Jane Pierce.” National First Ladies’ Library, firstladies.org.

Hendricks, Nancy. America’s First Ladies: A Historical Encyclopedia and Primary Document Collection of the Remarkable Women of the White House. (ABC-CLIO, 2015).

Jacob, Kathryn Allamong. Capital Elites: High Society in Washington, D.C. After the Civil War. (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Jane Means Appleton Pierce.” The White House, whitehouse.gov.

Margaret Woodrow Wilson.” National First Ladies’ Library, firstladies.org.

Peacock, Virginia Tatnall. Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century. (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1901).

Truman, Margaret. The President’s House: 1800 to the Present The Secrets and History of the World’s Most Famous Home. (Ballantine Books, 2005).