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Early White House Hostesses

( Originally Published 1908 )

NINETEEN wives of the Presidents have performed the duties of "First Lady" of the land, of White House mistress and of hostess of the nation. Three of these, Mrs. Tyler, Mrs. Zachary Taylor and Mrs. Andrew Johnson, were invalids and hence unable to act, to the full extent, their parts in official life, their places in that respect being taken by relatives of the Presidents named. Mrs. McKinley, too, was poor in health and hence obliged to leave many official duties to be performed by relatives.

The first of the "First Ladies" to come to the White House in Washington, from Philadelphia, the old Capital, was the wife of President John Adams, popularly known as Abigail Adams. It is said of her that she was one of the strongest, ablest, wholesomest of women, and though she was in the mansion less than six months her impression abides there to this day.

Numerous descriptions and stories of the Presidents' consorts, besides those contained in this and the following chapters, are given in several other chapters, notably in "First Ladies" and Presidents' Widows, in "Entertaining," in "Brides," in "Bridegroom Presidents," and in the chapters on "Receptions and Drawing Rooms."

The Reign of Dolly Madison

James Madison married a fair young widow, Mrs. Todd, who became known in history as the "Charming Dolly Madison." And it has been asserted that of all the women who ever lived in the White House, Dolly Madison, perhaps, left most indelibly the stamp of her character upon it. "During her reign, people went there not only because it was the President's house, but because it was socially the most delightful place in the world. She was merry, intellectual and generous."

Even in the days when Thomas Jefferson was President. Dolly Madison spent a great deal of time at the White House, acting for President Madison and his family as the unofficial hostess of the mansion. For some fifty years, altogether, Mrs. Madison was one of the most popular women in Washington, and all historians speak of her as the "most charming" or "most commanding" figure in official life at the nation's capital.

Even after her retirement from the White House, all distinguished men who visited Washington would go first to the White House and later directly to the house where Mrs. Madison had taken up her abode after leaving the Executive Mansion. She was regarded to the end, indeed, in much the same light that the ex-Empress Eugenie was regarded in her later years.

One visitor to the White House in President Jefferson's term tells how Dolly Madison conducted her through the mansion with all the ease of a real mistress of the place, taking her "from room to room, not excepting the chamber of Mr. Jefferson and his Secretary," in which apartment, "in her usual sprightly and droll manner, she opened the President's wardrobe and showed his odd but useful contrivance for hanging up jackets and breeches on a machine like a turnstile."

In the succeeding years when Mrs. Madison became in fact the official hostess of the nation, she made herself, by her delightful manner of receiving the people, probably the most beloved woman in the country. One of the guests at the White House at the time of the second inauguration, in 1813, of James Madison, was a Mrs. Seaton. Describing what took place in the mansion that day, Mrs. Seaton writes :

"Mrs. Madison called on me last week, and very politely invited me to attend the drawing-room of Wednesday. Yesterday the most crowded and interesting sight we ever witnessed was presented to our view in the Inauguration of Mr. Madison. Escorted by the Alexandria, Georgetown and city companies, the President proceeded to the Capitol. Judge Marshall, and the associate judges, preceded him and placed themselves in front of the Speaker's chair, from whence the Chief Magistrate delivered his inaugural address ; but his voice was so low and the audience so very great, that scarcely a word could be distinguished. On concluding, the oath of office was administered by the Chief justice, and the little man was accompanied on his return to the palace by the multitude ; for every creature that could afford twenty-five cents for hack-hire was present. The major part of the respectable citizens offered their congratulations, ate his ice-creams and bonbons, made their bow and retired, leaving him fatigued beyond measure with the incessant bending to which his politeness urged him, and in which he never allowed himself to be eclipsed, returning bow for bow, even to those of the foreigners."

Mrs. Seaton also sets forth her impressions gained at the last New Year's reception in the President's house previous to its destruction by the British :

"Yesterday, being New Year's Day, everybody attended to pay Mrs. Madison the compliments of the season. Between one and two o'clock, we drove to the President's, where it was with much difficulty we made good our entrance, though all of our acquaintances endeavored with the utmost civility to compress themselves as small as they could for our accommodation. The marine band, stationed in the ante-room, continued playing in spite of the crowd pressing on their very heels.

"Her majesty's (Mrs. Madison's) appearance was truly regalódressed in a robe of pink satin, trimmed elaborately with ermine, a white velvet and satin turban, with nodding ostrich plumes and a crescent in front, gold chain and clasps around the waist and wrists. 'Tis here the woman who adorns the dress, and not the dress that beautifies the woman. I cannot conceive a female better calculated to dignify the station which she occupies in society than Mrs. Madison amiable in private life and affable in public, she is admired and esteemed by the rich and beloved by the poor. Her frank cordiality to all guests is in contrast to the manner of the President, who is very formal, reserved and precise, yet not wanting in a certain dignity. Being so low of stature, he was in imminent danger of being confounded with the plebeian crowd; and was pushed and jostled about like a common citizen, but not so with her lady-ship ! The towering feathers distinctly pointed out her station wherever she moved."

During the time of her residence at the White House Mrs. Madison many times proved herself a true heroine, but never more heroic than at the time, in 1814, when the British attacked the White House and burned it. One historian of the present day explains that, as the British forces approached, all Washington was thrown into a panic, and the inmates of the White House were at their wit's end for means of preserving the Government papers, documents and other priceless treasures, "but Madison's wife, the plucky little woman who is known to every-one as Dolly Madison, kept her head. At the last moment, as her husband with several members of the Cabinet, was hurrying from the White House, Mrs. Madison seized a carving knife and cut the portrait of Washington from its frame. After the war it was placed upon the walls of the East Room. It had, however, been somewhat damaged ; and long afterwards, in 1866, it was restored and retouched by H. N. Barlow."

After the burning of the White House, President and Mrs. Madison lived for a time in the mansion then known as the Octogon House, not far from the White House grounds, and there for a time "Sweet Dolly" held her court. It was here, too, we are told, that Madison signed the proclamation of the Treaty of Ghent, when the nation's joy at the ending of the War of 18r2 was so great that even the boys paraded the streets with paper bands in their caps bearing the word "Peace."

The room over the drawing room was occupied by the gracious Dolly. The Octogon House, now owned by the American Institute of Architects, is still one of the landmarks of Washington, a newspaper correspondent writing that "the place is well cared for by a custodian, who seems aptly fitted for it, as he is a direct descendant from an officer of General Washington's staff. "

Mrs. Monroe an Accomplished Woman

Mrs. James Monroe, wife of the fifth President, was a daughter of a captain of the British army, Captain Kortright, who subsequently became a citizen of New York and a patriot. As the daughter of a man holding a high position in social and military circles, the young girl who was later to become "First Lady" of the land qualified quite unconsciously for that position. When she married Mr. Monroe she went abroad with her husband, who had been appointed Minister to France. She was trained in the etiquette of court and high official life, and when she came to the White House she was spoken of as "an elegant, accomplished woman" with a "charming mind and dignity of manners which peculiarly fit her for her elevated station."

It is written of Mrs. Monroe that "even in extreme age, she bore traces of the beauty that distinguished her in early life." Throughout his career Monroe was romantically attached to his wife; and, at her death, "interment was delayed until the bowed and grieving statesman could complete the construction of a vault designed for his remains as well as those of his wife."

"We have spent long and happy years together," ex-President Monroe said to his friend and companion, judge Watson, "and I await the summons to follow her."

Mrs. John Quincy Adams a "Brilliant Ornament"

The wife of President John Quincy Adams was a Maryland lady, bred to be familiar with social customs in the highest ranks, having married Mr. Adams, in London, England, while her father was United States Consul at that place. It has been said of her that she was a "brilliant ornament to her husband's household." She lost her health soon after -her entrance to the White House.

Of Mrs. Adams' life at the White House, and of her charm as a hostess, we quote from an article written by the editor of the New York Statesman, Mr. Carter :

"At nine o'clock General Jackson (the President-elect in succession to John Quincy Adams) entered the room, and with great dignity and gracefulness of manner conducted Mrs. Adams through the apartments. He was in plain citizen's dress, and appeared remarkably well, saluting and receiving the congratulations of his friends with his usual urbanity and affability.

"Mrs. Adams was elegantly, but not gorgeously dressed. Her headdress and plumes were tastefully arranged. In her manners she unites dignity with an unusual share of ease and elegance; and I never saw her appear to greater advantage than when promenading the rooms, winding her way through the multitudes by the side of the gallant general. At the approach of such a couple the crowd involuntarily gave way as far as practicable and saluted them as they passed.

"Mr. 'Adams, who is known to be proverbially plain, unassuming and unostentatious in his manners, received his guests with his usual cordiality and unaffected politeness.

"At about ten o'clock, the doors of the spacious apartment were flung open, and a table presented itself to view loaded with refreshments of every description, served up in elegant style, of which the company were invited to partake without ceremony. Conviviality and pleasure reigned throughout the evening, and I never saw so many persons together where there was apparently so much unmingled happiness."

The First and Second Mrs. Tyler

The first Mrs. Tyler, according to a description in The Christian Herald, was an invalid, but her feebleness did not stand in the way of great usefulness, and she was much beloved as the friend of the poor.

She was unable to stand the strain of fashionable social duties, so her son's wife, Mrs. Robert Tyler, was official "First Lady," her daughter, Mrs. Semple, relieving young Mrs. Tyler when possible. Mrs. Robert Tyler wrote to her sisters in the North of her mother-in-law's room : "It is a most quiet and comfortable retreat with an air of repose and sanctity about it; for here, mother, with a smile of welcome on her sweet, calm face, is always found seated in her large arm chair, with a small stand by her side, which holds her Bible and prayer-book, with her knitting usually in her hands, always ready to sympathize with me in any little homesickness which may disturb me, and ask me questions about all you dear ones, because she knows I want to talk about you."

The first Mrs. Tyler died in the White House, and the President in time married a Miss Gardiner, of New York, who thus became the second Mrs. Tyler. A full description of this charming hostess of the Executive Mansion will be found in the chapter telling of Presidents as bridegrooms, and further mention of her is contained in the chapter treating of Presidential farewells to the White House.

Mrs. James K. Polk Both Religious and Charitable

The wife of President Polk had been brought up on strict religious principles, and when she came to the White House she put those principles into practice as the "First Lady" of the land. She had received her education in a Moravian Seminary (though some biographers speak of her as a Presbyterian), hence was opposed even to such rare White House pastimes as card, playing, dancing and billiards. "Her levees were characterized by a grave respectability. Refreshments were dispensed with, and she always received seated." Mrs. Polk was the third widow of a President to receive a pension.

By paragraphers of her time, Mrs. Polk and her methods of receiving guests at the White House are set forth with more or less detail. One writer of that day compliments the mistress of the White House thus :

"Mrs. Polk dresses in a style rich but chaste, and becoming her character, her position and her person. Captain Polk is so spare that if his clothes were made to fit, he would be but the merest tangible fraction of a President. He has them, therefore, especially his coat, generally two or three sizes large, which imparts something of a loose and easy dignity to his Excellency."

And another writer, John S. Jenkins, pays this tribute to the President's wife

"Mrs. Polk was well fitted to adorn any station. To the charms of a fine person, she united intellectual accomplishments of a high order. Sweetness of disposition, gracefulness and ease of manner and beauty of mind were highly blended in her character. A kind mistress, a faithful friend and a devoted wife, these are her titles to esteem. Affable, but dignified; intelligent, but unaffected; frank and sincere; yet never losing sight of the respect due to her position, she won the regard of all who approached her. Her unfailing courtesy and her winning deportment were remarked by every one who saw her presiding at the White House."

The same writer, Mr. Jenkins, also relates this interesting tale

"Shortly before his departure from the Capital, Mr. Henry Clay attended a dinner party, with many other distinguished gentlemen of both political parties at the President's house. The party is said to have been a very pleasant affair, good feeling abounded, and wit and lively repartee gave zest to the occasion, while Mrs. Polk, the winning and accomplished hostess, added the finishing grace of her excellent housewifery in the superior management of the feast. Mr. Clay, was, of course, honored with a seat near the President's lady, where it became him to put in requisition those insinuating talents which he possessed in so eminent a degree, and which are irresistible even to his enemies. Mrs. Polk, with her usual and affable manner, was extremely courteous to her distinguished guest, whose good opinion, as of all who share the hospitalities of the White House, she did not fail to win. "'Madam,' said Mr. Clay, in that bland manner peculiar to himself, `I must say that in my travels,wherever I have been, in all companies and among all parties, I have heard but one opinion of you. All agree in commending, in the highest terms, your excellent administration of the domestic affairs of the White House. But,' he continued, directing her attention to her husband, `as for that young gentleman there, I cannot say as much. There is,' said he, `some little difference of opinion in regard to the policy of his course.

"'Indeed,' said Mrs. Polk, `I am glad to hear that my administration is popular. And in return for your compliment, I will say that if the country should elect a Whig next fall, I know of no one whose elevation would please me more than that of Henry Clay.

"'Thank you, thank you, Madam'.

"'And I will assure you of one thing. If you do have occasion to occupy the White House on the fourth of March next, it shall be surrendered to you in perfect order from garret to cellar."

"I am certain that"

"But the laugh that followed this pleasant repartee, which lost nothing from the manner nor the occasion of it, did not permit the guests of the lower end of the table to hear the rest of Mr. Clay's reply. Whether he was certain that he should be the tenant of the President's mansion, or whether he only said he was certain that whoever did occupy it would find it in good condition, remains a mystery."



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