For much of the nineteenth century, presidential wives were either unavailable to the public or unwilling to assume a prominent role. Widowed presidents and those whose wives preferred to keep a low public profile often turned to young substitutes—daughters, daughters-in-law, and nieces—to handle the social side of the office and the management of the household. The substitutes' youth (all were under thirty years old) evidently excused them from criticism for what might have been judged serious lapses in a mature matron, and the young women drew enormous admiring attention to themselves and to the presidential family.
The death of Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson, on 22 December 1828 left a saddened president-elect who eventually called in two young women relatives to handle social duties for him. Thomas Jefferson, also a widower, had relied on a daughter to help with entertaining, but Andrew Jackson, who had no female children of his own, turned to Emily Donelson, wife of a nephew who served as the president's secretary. After Emily's death in December 1836, another niece, Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson, Jr., the president's adopted son, helped manage the social calendar.
Martin Van Buren had been a widower for eighteen years when he took up the presidency, and he enlisted the help of his daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton Van Buren after her marriage to Abraham Van Buren in 1838. On a wedding trip to Europe, the son and daughter-in-law of the American chief executive had been treated as royalty, and when they returned to the United States and took up residence in the executive mansion, Angelica Van Buren occasionally incorporated into the president's entertaining some of the royal customs she had observed abroad. Arranging herself and a few women friends in a tableau, she invited guests to walk by and view the courtlike formation.
In March 1841, Anna Symmes Harrison delayed joining her husband, William Henry Harrison, in Washington for his inauguration, on the grounds of ill health and grief. One of the Harrisons' sons had died the previous June, and, at sixty-five years of age, Anna Harrison did not look forward to a journey from Ohio to the capital, especially a winter journey. A widowed daughter-in-law, Jane Harrison, helped manage the White House during the brief Harrison presidency.
Letitia Christian Tyler moved to Washington, D.C., from nearby Virginia when John Tyler ascended to the presidency in April 1841, but she played no public role. A stroke suffered in 1839 had partially paralyzed her, and she died in the White House on 10 September 1842 (the first president's wife to die during her husband's term). Priscilla Cooper Tyler, from a family of Shakespearean actors, became a popular hostess for the president after she married the eldest Tyler son.
On 26 June 1844, John Tyler married Julia Gardiner, a twenty-four-year-old New Yorker whose father had been a friend of the president's. In the remaining eight months of John Tyler's administration, Julia Tyler drew considerable attention to the president's household. A shrewd promoter of herself and of the president, she hired her own press agent—a first for a president's spouse. To emphasize the ceremonial aspects of the chief executive's role, Julia Tyler arranged for the playing of "Hail to the Chief" when the president made public, ceremonial appearances, and she adopted royal trappings for herself. Driving around the capital in a carriage drawn by white horses, she projected a royal image, marked by her preference for receiving guests while seated on a raised platform and wearing a long trained dress and plumed headdress. Although she did no lobbying—in the twentieth-century sense of that term—she used social gatherings to relay her political views, such as her support of the annexation of Texas.
Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor was educated in one of New York City's best schools for young women, but she lived most of her adult life in military and frontier settings and showed little interest in running the White House. She had not wanted her husband, Zachary Taylor, to venture into politics at the relatively advanced age of sixty-three, and she made little secret of her disdain for a public role for herself when her husband won the presidency in 1848. Leaving the hostessing to her youngest daughter, Betty Taylor Bliss, she confined her activities to those involving family and close friends in the private part of the president's residence. Margaret Taylor's reclusiveness prompted many rumors, including the allegations that she smoked a pipe and spoke unintelligibly, all denied by her relatives.
Abigail Powers Fillmore became First Lady in July 1850, but she took little part in the thirty-two-month-long presidency of her husband, Millard Fillmore. Described by acquaintances as a "notable reader" and "remarkably well informed" on the issues of the day, she appeared at few receptions and left most of the hostessing to her teenage daughter, Mary. The library that Abigail Fillmore established on the second floor of the White House served as her strongest legacy—she had been disappointed to find so few books in the executive mansion when she first arrived there.
Jane Appleton Pierce had never shown much interest in politics, and from the time of her marriage to Franklin Pierce in 1834 she expressed clear dislike for the city of Washington. She blamed the capital's full social life for tempting her husband to drink to excess, and she concluded that his political success had exacted its own price—the deaths of two of the Pierces' young sons. She was distressed to hear of her husband's nomination for president in 1852, and she prayed for his defeat. In January 1853, President-elect Pierce, his wife, and their only surviving son, Benjamin, were traveling in Massachusetts when Benjamin was killed in a railroad accident. Grieving Jane Pierce refused to attend her husband's inauguration in March, and she did not take up residence in the executive mansion for several weeks. After she did move in, she relied on female relatives to assist her with hostessing while she kept a low public profile throughout her husband's term.
James Buchanan, a bachelor, turned to a young niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as White House hostess. Twenty-six years old at the time of her uncle's inauguration in March 1857, she achieved great popularity in the next four years, and although her impact was entirely social and ceremonial, she has sometimes been called the first "modern First Lady" because of the favorable attention she called to the role. Her youth and beauty attracted many admirers, and she gave more brilliant parties than had been seen in the capital since the 1820s. Babies were named for her, a song was dedicated to her, and many women imitated her hairstyle and wardrobe. Americans who had little hope of gaining the president's ear went to Harriet Lane instead. She received requests from Native Americans for help, and she drew attention to the arts by inviting painters and writers to the White House.
Eliza McCardle Johnson was ill with tuberculosis when her husband, Andrew Johnson, became president upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, and she showed little pleasure in the limelight. A married daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, managed the president's household and won praise for her down-to-earth style. One of Patterson's first public statements after arriving in the capital may have disarmed some potential critics. "We are plain folks from Tennessee, called here by a national calamity," she had said. "I hope not too much will be expected of us." In line with her views on economy and practicality, she arranged for milk cows to graze on the White House lawn, and she covered the mansion's worn carpets with plain muslin. Her mother reportedly made only two public appearances during her entire tenure as First Lady: the first at a dinner party from which she left coughing a few minutes after being seated, and the second at a children's party for her grandchildren and their friends, at which she announced that she was "an invalid" and left soon after her arrival.
Much about Eliza Johnson remains unclear. Although her formal education was superior to Andrew Johnson's at the time of their marriage on 17 May 1827 (when he was eighteen and she was sixteen), the commonly expressed view that she taught him to read and write is an exaggeration. A prospective biographer of Eliza Johnson concluded after years of research that Andrew Johnson valued his wife's judgment as much as that of any of his advisers, leaving unclear how much he relied on anyone. By some accounts, Eliza Johnson showed a keen interest in politics, and in the White House she clipped newspaper articles for her husband, shrewdly separating the good news from the bad. She followed the 1868 impeachment proceedings against President Johnson carefully, announcing at the conclusion that she had been confident of acquittal from the beginning.
Shy and intellectual in her interests, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield had shown little pleasure in the capital social life before her husband, James A. Garfield, won the presidency in 1880, and as First Lady, her main concern for the White House was scholarly. She had been surprised by the lack of information on the building and its furnishings and had gone to the Library of Congress to begin research shortly before she became ill with malaria in May 1881 and went to Elberon, New Jersey, to convalesce. Still there when her husband was shot on 2 July, she returned to Washington and remained with him until his death on 19 September. As Americans read frequent updates on the president's condition, they developed enormous respect for Lucretia Garfield's devotion and considerable affection for the five Garfield children, ranging in age from nine to eighteen. After the president's death, Americans sent in nearly $360,000 in contributions for the support of the family.
Mary Arthur McElroy, wife of an Albany, New York, minister and mother of four children, played the role of White House hostess for her widowed brother Chester Arthur from 1881 to 1885. But her own family responsibilities kept her in Albany most of the time, and she did not reside in the capital or spend much time there.
Rose Cleveland took leave from a teaching career in 1885 to assist her bachelor brother, Grover Cleveland, at the White House. She did not thrive on the social role, much preferring to concentrate on her literary interests, and she admitted that she found receiving lines so boring that she conjugated difficult Greek verbs to keep alert. When she published George Eliot's Poetry, and Other Studies in 1885, newspapers congratulated her on "her first book" but generally preferred to report on her hostessing. After Grover Cleveland's marriage in June 1886, Rose Cleveland resumed her own career.
In March 1897, Ida Saxton McKinley began her tenure as First Lady, but poor health impeded her public appearances. Her enfeebled public image was in direct contrast to the vivacious spirit she had shown in her youth. While growing up in Canton, Ohio, she had developed a reputation for independence, even taking a job in her father's bank when such employment was uncommon for women. But after her marriage to William McKinley in 1871, the births of their two daughters, and the daughters' deaths within a few years, she developed a series of maladies, including circulatory problems, which, along with epilepsy, rendered her virtually an invalid for the remainder of her life.
William McKinley was inordinately attentive to his wife's needs and whims, developing a reputation of near saintliness. He stationed himself at her side during important dinners (which she rarely missed) so that he could assist her in the event that she suffered a seizure, and he interrupted important meetings to check on her well-being. In 1898, when the First Lady's brother was murdered by a Canton, Ohio, dressmaker whom he had abandoned after a long liaison, the crime and subsequent trial made national headlines, although neither the president nor the First Lady appeared to give the matter much attention. They attended the funeral in Canton, then immediately resumed their official duties.