George Washington Custis: Man in the Middle

George and Martha Washington with their grandchildren.

George Washington Parke Custis was remarkable only in relationship to two giants, neither of whom he was actually related to.

GW Custis: Fatherless Baby

Only weeks after the fourth child and only son of John Parke Custis (1781-1857) was born, his father died of camp fever at Yorktown. He was twenty-eight.

Grandmama Martha Washington was fifty when Wash and Nellie Custis came to live with them.

Jack’s death devastated his mother, Martha Washington, as well the step-father who had raised him since he was four. In an effort to assuage Martha’s grief and help Jack’s widow, the Washingtons decided to raise the baby and his sister Nelly, less than two years older, at Mount Vernon. Their mother subsequently remarried with the Washingtons’ blessing, and would always be considered “family.”

George Washington Parke Custis knew no other father than his very august step-grandfather, George Washington, but he was a wealthy baby in his own right. He was the last boy-child in a line of Virginians descended from the wealthy and eccentric Daniel Parke, generations earlier. By keeping the Parke name, he inherited a substantial fortune, which, until his majority, would be capably managed by GW, an astute businessman.

George Washington was in this fifties as “Washy” was growing up. While Grandmama Martha was the hands-on supervisor, the General, even in retirement, was more hands-off, tending to his beloved plantation long neglected by his service in the American Revolution.

Washington had been step-pater familias to Jacky, now he would be step-grand pater familias to Wash: provider, business guardian, educator and role model: exactly what was expected in the 18th century.

The provider, business guardian and role model parts came naturally to the Father of his Country, who in the 1780s and 90s was a towering giant to his countrymen.

Alas, the educator part was an uphill climb, and never successful.

GWC: Student and Grandson

The Great General was well into his fifties when “Wash” came to live with them.

Jack Custis had been a headache to his step-father when it came to education.

George Washington’s own father died when he was eleven, and any chances for higher education were aborted. Whatever he learned was essentially on his own. His close proximity to the intellectual cream of the Colonies/Country made him realize the importance of education, and he consistently encouraged it within his family.

But to Washington’s family members, including his stepson and step-grandson, those effort, opportunities and experiences would be futile. The entire Custis line seemed genetically averse to book learning – and that included George Washington Parke Custis.

The President’s Step-Grandson

Once George Washington became President in 1789, the generally-remote physical proximity between Wash and his step-grandfather became even more sporadic. The new President was occupied with matters of state, with minimal time for family matters.

Young George Washington Parke Custis

Wash was only eight in 1789, but he and Nelly had already been home tutored at Mt. Vernon, and were now ready for proper schooling. Accordingly they were enrolled in the best facilities in New York and Philadelphia.

Wash, personable enough, was lackluster in academics and attitude. He was Jack all over again.

During the next eight years, he was sent to various  schools and academies, to include the prestigious College of New Jersey in Princeton. Despite encouraging and/or admonishing letters from the General, Wash seemed far more interested in sports and dancing and socializing. He was expelled. Like Jack.

GW Custis: Young Man

George Washington died in 1799, a few years before Wash’s majority.  He was left a substantial inheritance from his step-grandfather, but his main inheritance was from his Custis estate, which included a large plot of land on a high hill overlooking the new Capital City that bore his step-grandfather’s illustrious name. In time, he built a large mansion that he named Arlington House. He filled it with Washington memorabilia.

Photography had emerged in the 1840s when GW was  well into middle-age.

GW Custis fought in the War of 1812, and despite a genuine interest in animal husbandry, became a middling plantation owner. He wrote and published several mediocre plays and essays, and was a popular orator on patriotic themes at public events.  But he lived primarily on his income.

In 1804, he married Mary Fitzhugh, and they had several children, but only one daughter lived to maturity.

Mary Anna Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington.

During the last two decades of his life, GW wrote essays of  personal memories of George Washington.  Although they were not published until after his death, they became successful, and reprinted several times.

GW Custis: Father-in-Law

Mary Anna was courted by a recent West Point graduate with a fine pedigree.

Mary Anna, the only surviving child of GW Custis, grew up to be an attractive young woman courted by a young soldier with an equally impeccable First Family of Virginia pedigree: the son of Lighthorse Harry Lee and his second wife, Anne Carter.

Despite the Virginia blue-blood, GW was less than thrilled, and initially opposed the match. A young West Point Second Lieutenant did not seem good enough for the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Nevertheless, the two married, but since her new husband was usually assigned at a

GW’s son-in-law as he is best remembered.

distance, they made their home at Arlington, with her father.

They had seven children, despite the infrequency of her husband’s ability to join the family circle.

GW Custis died in 1857.  He was past seventy-five, and the Arlington Plantation had declined considerably. His son-in-law, by that time a Colonel, was granted leave from the Army in order to take care of family business.

George Washington Parke Custis only superficially knew the step-grandfather whose name he bore, and whose reputation he basked in. He also superficially knew Robert E. Lee, the son-in-law whose later career and reputation would do equally great honor to him and his descendants.


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Grant and Buckner: Three Conversations

The quintessential General Grant

U.S. Grant and S.B. Buckner were cadets at West Point.

Cadets Grant and Buckner

Ulysses S. Grant, class of 1843, and Simon Bolivar Buckner, class of 1844, were both midwesterners of middle-class standing both financially and academically.

West Point classes were small prior to the Civil War, perhaps 40 or 50 cadets. Most students had at least a passing acquaintance with their upper and lower academy mates.

Grant, an Ohioan, was a year ahead of Buckner, unremarkable except for his “U.S.” initials and his superb horsemanship. He graduated mid-class.

Simon Bolivar Buckner, a Kentuckian was likewise unremarkable, except for his “namesake” monicker and his good looks. He also graduated in the middle of his class.

Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner

The acquaintanceship between them was pleasant, but casual.

Lts. Grant and Buckner renewed their cordial old-school-ties during the War with Mexico. Then they went their separate ways. Grant remained in the Army; Buckner, always drawn to the military and then seduced away by civilian opportunities, joined-and-resigned the army several times, with no detriment to his career or advancement. It was commonplace.

Grant and Buckner: The First Crucial Conversation

When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the Army sent troops to the territory to maintain a presence – and order.

Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant

Grant, a recent husband and father, was assigned to quartermaster duties fifteen hundred miles away from his dearly beloveds. Bored with his duties and desperately homesick for his family, he fared badly and began to drink. Faced with the threat of dismissal, Grant resigned, and slowly made his way back home.

He was broke when he reached New York City, and by chance ran into Simon Buckner. Legend has it that Grant asked his old friend for a loan, and Buckner, in more comfortable finances, advanced the funds.

The sentiment and background is true, but the details are not. According to Buckner many years later, Grant was down on his luck, but had wired his father asking for traveling money, and was waiting for the funds. The hotel manager was pressing however, and refusing him further credit. Buckner said that he knew the manager, and would vouch for his old friend. He convinced the manager that Captain Grant was an honorable man and good for his debts. Grant gained an extra day or two of room and board.

No money exchanged hands, but Buckner was a friend when a friend was needed, and Grant never forgot.

Grant and Buckner: The Second Crucial Conversation

General Grant with four stars.

A decade later, a more noteworthy meeting took place between the two old friends at Ft. Donelson, TN. The Civil War was raging, and both ex-West Pointers were now Generals – on opposing sides.

Buckner was one of three generals defending the large fortress on the Cumberland River. John Floyd, a “political” general, was senior, and decided to slip away. Having been a member of President James Buchanan’s cabinet, he knew that if captured, he could be hung for treason, a reasonable assumption.

As second-in-command, General Gideon Pillow also opted to slip away believing himself too great a prize for the Union. He had taught Grant and Buckner at West Point, and was a senior officer in the War With Mexico.

That left Simon Buckner.

He sent Grant a formal message, requesting the terms and procedures for surrender. USG replied with a curt note: Nothing but Unconditional Surrender was acceptable, thus earning another one of his nicknames.

Despite the blunt exchange, the actual meeting between the old friends was extremely cordial, according to Buckner – once their business had been accomplished. They reminisced for a half hour, and Grant dryly remarked he would likely have let Pillow go, since he believed he was more valuable to the Union by retaining Confederate command. Neither Grant nor Buckner had high regard for Pillow. Grant added that had he known Buckner was in charge, he would have waited for reinforcements.

Then Grant quietly suggested that since Buckner would be taken prisoner, Grant’s purse was at his disposal. Buckner declined, saying he did not need any money, but they both remembered earlier times.

Grant and Buckner: The Third Crucial Conversation

Mark Twain, a great admirer of General Grant.

More than twenty years passed. Grant’s career was well known. Buckner indeed had been a POW in New England before he was exchanged and reassigned. After the War, he returned to private endeavors, took the oath of allegiance, and even served on-and-off in the United States Army.

Grant’s Memoirs provided handsomely for his family.

In 1884-5, ex-President Grant was dying of cancer as well as writing his Personal Memoirs in an effort to provide financially for his family following a disastrous business fiasco.

With the entire country maintaining a death watch during the hot summer of 1885, General Grant was moved from his NYC townhouse to a cooler climate in the Catskill Mountains. Only a few days before he expired, he was visited by Simon Buckner, one of the very few men the dying General agreed to see.

One of the last photographs taken of General Ulysses Grant

Grant could barely whisper a greeting, and communicated by written note, but the gesture of their 40-year friendship was appreciated.

According to Buckner, “I wanted him to know the Confederate soldiers appreciated his conduct at every surrender during the war and after the war in reconstruction days.” He continued, noting that when he returned to New York, newspapers were clamoring for interviews but he declined.  Their meeting was personal and private.

A day or two later, he received word that General Grant desired that their conversation be publicized, and Buckner granted an interview accordingly.

Grant died only days later. Simon Bolivar Buckner, classmate, Confederate and good friend was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.


Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory:  Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press

Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press

Grant, Ulysses S. – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – World Publishing (reprinted) 1952

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Louisa Adams, Neglected First Lady

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams

No one had a better resume for becoming a First Lady than Louisa Catherine Adams.

Louisa: Englishwoman of High Standing

Louisa Catherine Johnson was born in England and well educated in a convent school in Paris. Her American father had relocated to England several years prior to the American Revolution.

Louisa was pretty, with a gift for languages, music and poetry. She played the harp and the harpsichord. She was well trained in the fashionable skills of charm and conversation. In essence, for exactly what she became: the wife and consort of a man of prominence.

JQ in Europe

Young John Quincy Adams

At twenty, she met John Quincy Adams, recently appointed Minister to the Netherlands at the start of his illustrious diplomatic career.

During their two year (mostly by correspondence) courtship, Louisa had ample opportunity to sense the cold and critical personality of her intended, and one might be hard pressed (reading their letters) to wonder why she continued the relationship. Nevertheless, the couple married.

Louisa: Learning to Cope

From the beginning, Louisa Adams was relegated to the background of her husband’s life as ornament and mother; nothing like the close and loving domestic partnership between the groom’s parents, the venerable John and Abigail.

As her upbringing dictated, Louisa graced society, smiling and bowing and making suitably pleasant conversation. Her diplomat husband was happy to escort her to the party, and then disappear with his counterparts, to play cards, have a brandy, and conduct private discussions.

The coolness of their relationship in no way precluded her fifteen pregnancies, losing most babies through miscarriage. Only three survived to adulthood. And then, two of them gave their parents grief.

John Adams grew to love his pretty daughter-in-law.

When the young Adamses returned to America with their infant son, George Washington Adams, she finally met her new in-laws. Abigail was distressed that her son married a delicate and pampered Englishwoman; she had preferred a hardier soul, preferably a New Englander. The women’s relationship would be strained. John Adams, however, grew to love his pretty new daughter-in-law, and she, in turn, adored the old gentleman.

In 1809, JQ was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary (i.e. Ambassador) to St. Petersburg, Russia. Without consulting his wife, he arranged for George and John II, their two older sons to remain in Boston; he and Louisa and two-year-old, Charles Francis, would go to Russia. Louisa was devastated at leaving her boys (11 and 9), and begged to remain behind until they could reunite as a family. JQ refused. The senior Adamses, perhaps remembering their own family separations, were not overly sympathetic.


The cosmopolitan Mrs. Louisa Adams

Louisa would not see her older boys for five years. By that time, they were half-grown men.

Louisa: Mrs. Secretary of State

JQ Adams was a man of great ambition and expectations. His appointment in 1817 as Secretary of State to James Monroe was considered the perfect position. He was arguably the most experienced and cosmopolitan man in the country. His foreign counterparts liked him. Fortunately for both the President and his key Secretary, they got on well. Adams served a full eight years.

John Quincy Adams in the prime of life.

The family gladly moved to Washington, DC. She was accustomed to a metropolitan environment; JQA also preferred the capital city to provincial Quincy, MA.

Louisa was now past forty. Her numerous pregnancies, and five devastating winters in St. Petersburg, were beginning to take their toll on her health, which thereafter would be chronically iffy.

Mrs. John Quincy Adams

First Lady Elizabeth Monroe preferred a remote social role. It would be up to Mrs. JQA to take up the reins, whether she liked it or not, to become the leader of Washington society. And whether she liked it or not depended a great deal on how she was feeling.

JQ was aware that he was socially inept, with a cold and forbidding persona. He required someone to run interference, and was happy to trot out his charming and politically savvy wife to attend (and host) the various salons, take note of who was there, when they arrived and what was said – all considered superb bellweathers of how the winds were blowing.

FLOTUS Louisa Adams

When JQA became President in 1825, the expected culmination of a sophisticated life of achievement became a daily grind of misery and disappointment. His long-sought election was a four-way contest decided in the House of Representatives. Some believed it was finagled. JQA was more unpopular than ever. His Presidency was thwarted at every turn, despite the considered and progressive programs he espoused.

George Washington Adams, John Adams II,  and Charles Francis Adams

Rather than presiding over a White House glittering with cosmopolitan social events, JQ presided over a tedious table, relieved in part by the brandy flask or wine decanter. Louisa Adams, chronically ailing and menopausal, no longer glittered in society. For all intents and purposes, the couple were estranged in the White House. When apart, their letters were formal and stilted. He called her “Madam;” she addressed him as “Sir.”

First Lady Louisa Adams kept to her room a good deal of the time, reading, writing poetry, and even penned a little play called The Adventures of A Nobody. Their last days at the White House were grief-filled by the misadventures of their sons. George had become an alcoholic and committed suicide shortly before the end of his father’s term.  John II had also taken to drink. Even young Charles Francis seemed headed for dissipation. Then, of course, there was JQ’s bitter resentment at having been defeated for reelection by his nemesis Andrew Jackson in 1828.

It was not until after the Presidency that their mutual sorrows began to draw them closer. Some say the last decades of their fifty year marriage were their happiest.


Allgor, Catherine – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government – Univ. of Virginia Press, 2002

Nagel, Paul C. – Descent From Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family – Oxfvord University Press – 1983

Shepherd, Jack – Cannibals of the Heart – 1980, McGraw Hill


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

George and Martha Washington: Dinner for Two

mount vernon

Mount Vernon. The mecca for Washington admirers.

When George Washington married Martha Custis, he was a well-known personage in Virginia.

Col. And Mrs. Washington

washington family

For fifteen years, the Washingtons enjoyed life as wealthy Virginia planters.

For fifteen years, George Washington, former Colonel of the Virginia militia, lived in gentrified society, which included a seat in the House of Burgesses. George and Martha Washington hosted graciously at Mount Vernon as well as making regular trips to the Colonial Capital in Williamsburg. They also raised two children from Martha’s first marriage.

Both were the eldest of several siblings, and extended family visits to Mount Vernon were frequent. The Washingtons were also neighborly, and grand parties at their plantation might last a week.

When the political ties with Great Britain, the Mother Country, were straining to a point of rupture, George Washington was appointed to the Virginia delegation at a Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia.

The General and Mrs. Washington

Little did ex-Col. Washington think, as he left for Philadelphia in 1775, that he would not see his beloved Mt. Vernon for nearly eight years.

As tensions became outright hostilities, and angry shots were fired in New England, George Washington was appointed General by Congress, and sent to Boston to take charge of a motley array of undisciplined militiamen, and make an army of them. It was a huge challenge.

In the 18th century, wars were seasonal: spring, summer and fall. Bad weather and worse roads (if there were roads) made battle unfeasible and downright dangerous. Thus the armies went into winter quarters, to train, to re-equip, to repair and to plan.

An interior room of the Washington HQ at Valley Forge

Each winter, when Washington’s army “wintered,” Martha Washington joined her husband wherever they were. Many officers’ wives did the same – especially if there were no small children to tend to. (By the mid 1770’s, Martha’s daughter had died, and her son Jack was grown and married.)

Generals, even in midst of war, maintained a social presence as well as a military one. In Washington’s case, that social presence was vital to the cause of independence. Wealthy Americans throughout the colonies often needed to be wooed and encouraged to support American independence both orally and financially. Armies needed arms, food, blankets, shoes – and forage for their horses.

Who better than General Washington, one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, to explain and exhort the patricians to the cause?

Mrs. Washington was instrumental in this purpose. By socializing with the Grand Dames, she could gently solicit distaff support.

The Morristown, NJ Winter HQ (photo from the

In winter quarters, Washington’s key aides were housed dormitory-style in a room or two in whatever house Washington had chosen as his headquarters. If the General was not otherwise occupied, he dined with his key officers, with meals prepared under Martha’s total supervision.

Come spring, when the snows had cleared, and the “war” was about to resume, Martha returned to Mount Vernon to supervise the spring cleaning and the resupplying of their larder.

The Mount Vernon Hotel

The American Revolution did not end formally until 1783, and General Washington remained with his Army throughout. But once hostilities ceased and the loose ends were tidied, he returned his commission to Congress and happily became a private citizen at his beloved Mount Vernon.

mt vernon dining room

The Washington dining room at Mt. Vernon.

18th Century transportation was primitive: foot, animal, or animal-and-vehicle. Twenty miles a day was a nice pace. Taverns and inns and hotels were spread at a distance and frequently unsuitable for family travel.  It was commonplace for strangers to knock at a private house requesting (and receiving) a nights’ lodging and even a meal.

The road to Mount Vernon became a well traveled route. Nieces and nephews were frequent long-term or even permanent houseguests. Old friends, old soldiers and total strangers found their way to their door. Room was found, horses were stabled and fed, servants were quartered and fed, and an announcement that “dinner was at three” was a tacit invitation. The table was usually set for a dozen if not more.

The President

Even before George Washington was inaugurated, he sent his secretary, Tobias Lear, to New York City to find a suitable residence befitting the President of the United States and his family; large enough to accommodate all the important people he expected to entertain.

The house on Cherry Street that was home to the First President.

A house on Cherry Street was selected; its ballroom could hold a hundred. Samuel Fraunces, was engaged to manage the demands of food service, including its preparation, but Mrs. Washington naturally maintained her authority over household matters.

With few exceptions, George Washington’s presidential dinners were stag affairs, both in New York and in Philadelphia. Women were invited to “Lady Washington’s” weekly levees, and occasionally to some larger receptions. But politics and the running of a government was a man’s job. Martha may have helped plan the dinners, but usually had her own dinner with visiting family members and the young grandchildren they were raising.

By the time Washington’s two terms in office ended, he and his wife were both in their middle sixties, and thoroughly tired of the non-stop merry-go-round and frequent separations.

Dinner for Two

george and martha

George and Martha Washington

There is nothing particularly interesting or noteworthy about a couple, married nearly forty years, having a quiet dinner together at home. Even a couple so notable and admired as the Washingtons. Unless, of course, it is remarked upon and documented.

We do not know whether they had a large formal meal, with soup and meats and compotes and cakes. We do not know if the large Mount Vernon dining room table was set with fresh flowers and their finest china and silver.

But it was noteworthy. In a letter George Washington wrote to Tobias Lear, he commented that  “Unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been [done] within the last twenty years by us, that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”


Bourne, Miriam Anne, First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, W.W. Norton & Co., 1982

Chadwick, Bruce – The General and Mrs. Washington – Sourcebooks, 2005

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington: A Life – Galahad Books, 2006


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Warren Harding: Bloviator of Nostrums and the Founding Fathers

A few men have the gift of speechifying pontifically and saying little. Like Warren Harding, 29th President.

Warren Harding at the podium. Bloviating.

Warren G. Harding: Newspaper Man

Harding was always a hands-on newspaperman.

Warren Harding was one of the most affable men in town. He was easy going, a bona fide glad-hander, and a fellow who fit easily into any social setting. Tall and good looking, he supposedly gained political supporters because “he looked like a President.” While some were not enthusiastic about him, there are very few records of anyone actually disliking him.

harding w-moustache

Harding was said to be the best looking young man in town.

When WGH came to Marion, Ohio, he was still looking for a career path. Following a mediocre college education, he had spent some time working for a printer, and liked it well enough. He became part-owner of a Marion weekly newspaper, finding potential advertisers and subscribers. He became very good at it, eventually bought out his partners and made it a viable daily newspaper.

Around the turn of the century, his wife Florence created a place for herself as circulation manager of the newspaper: Taking charge of the delivery newsboys and seeing that the subscribers and advertisers were paid up. She was very good at that.

Warren G. Harding: Popular Guest Speaker

Warren G. Harding was a good looking fellow even as he aged.

Harding’s natural hail-fellow-well-met inclination accounted for a good part of the newspaper’s success. He happily joined every civic and fraternal club in town – the Kiwanis, the Masons, the Lions, and of course the Republicans. He attended their meetings, and their members became advertisers in The Marion Star.

A local newspaper publisher is always a welcome guest speaker, and Harding was happy to accept the invitations that began coming his way. He was very good at that, too. Even better, he truly enjoyed having an audience.

By his own admission, he was “a booster.” He like to talk about all the good things America had to offer. It was easy to do. It was the time of Theodore Roosevelt, Republicans, flag-waving, apple pie and 4th of July parades. Very little of what Harding said was important or deep in concept. Then again, most of his audiences were businessmen. “Feel good” talk suited them just fine.

It was how he said things, how he “bloviated” (as he called it), and the addiction he had for alliteration and juxtaposition that caught the public eye – or ear.

Warren G. Harding: Politician

Warren Harding

Warren G. Harding. He really did look like a President.

It did not take very long for the man who looked like a president to come to the attention of some Ohioans seeking a man who could be president. A good looking fellow with a thriving newspaper, who enjoyed pontificating and sounding important was fine criteria for public office, and Harding was easily elected to the Ohio State Legislature, and even for a term as Lt. Governor.

The statewide office not only gave him entrance to Ohio’s political community, but it a whole new set of invitations to “bloviate.”

With his wife capably seeing that the Marion Star’s bills were paid (and its creditors paid up), Harding was free to accept many of those invitations. He enjoyed traveling, and even better, enjoyed his extended popularity.

In 1913, the country had ratified a Constitutional amendment to elect U.S. Senators by popular ballot. (Before that, state legislators elected the Senators.) 1914 was Ohio’s first opportunity to elect a Senator, and the good-looking Warren Harding won easily. He had bloviated his way around Ohio, and had many friends eager to offer support.

Warren G. Harding & the Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers – at least some of them.

One cannot copyright a title. Nor can one copyright two perfectly ordinary words used in sequence.   Some intrepid historians claim that the use of the words “founding fathers” had been used decades earlier, but that is a specious argument – since it applied to people other than George, Tom, Ben, Jemmy and the rest of the gang.

But in 1915, it appears that Warren Harding, bloviator first class and alliteration addict, delivered a speech and used the term in exactly the meaning we have come to understand today. He obviously liked the phrase, and not long thereafter, used it again.

And again and again. And by the time he was a viable candidate for President in 1920, the phrase “Founding Fathers” had only one meaning (although many people use the phrase in more localized manner, i.e. The founding fathers of the town, or the business, etc.) “Founding Fathers” became the definitive collective for the 18th Century framers of the mechanics of our country.

Warren G. Harding & The Critics

Harding was a pleasant fellow, but basically an empty suit, according to the intelligentsia. H.L. Mencken, a fellow newspaperman (Baltimore Sun) and pontificator with a better vocabulary and wickedly satiric sense of humor, found WGH to be a perfect bullseye for his barbs, which came fast and furiously, “founding fathers” notwithstanding.

In 1920, WGH bloviated the following… “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

H.L. Mencken, The Sage of Baltimore

In response, Mencken critiqued, “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

Bloviator and empty suit perhaps, but “Founding Fathers” does have the right ring to it, and we must give credit where due.


Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times – McGraw Hill, 1968

Sinclair, Andrew – The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding – The Macmillan Co., 1965





Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Betsey Humphreys: Mary Lincoln’s Wicked Stepmother

One of the earliest photographs of Mary Lincoln.

When Mary Lincoln was seven, she and her five siblings lost their mother.

The Todd Marriage…and Remarriage

Robert Smith Todd (1791-1849) was 21 when he married Eliza Parker. Every indication was that it was a marriage of inclination. They liked each other and wanted to marry. Every further indication is that the marriage was a happy one.

Robert Smith Todd, Mary Lincoln’s father

Robert Todd, a third generation Lexington, KY gentleman, was a lawyer, planter, businessman and state legislator, like many men of his generation. Also like many men of his generation, including his neighbor Henry Clay, he enjoyed his whiskey, cigars and cards.

Eliza Parker (1794-1825) was a local girl, raised to be decorous, well mannered and trained to manage a slave-holding household. She bore seven children in twelve years.  Elizabeth, Frances, Levi, Mary, Ann and George. Another died at birth. George’s birth left her with a puerperal fever. She died a few days later.

Whether Robert Todd was devastated, or overwhelmed at the prospect of being father of a motherless family of six, within a few weeks he departed for his office in Frankfort, the state capital. The children were left under the general supervision of Grandmother Parker who lived next door. Twelve-year-old Elizabeth also assumed “mothering” her younger siblings.

Within a few weeks of being in Frankfort, Todd began courting Betsey Humphreys, a blue-blooded Kentucky belle, who at 26, was bordering on spinsterhood. It was an odd courtship, more like a business transaction than a romance. Perhaps Todd was more concerned with finding a new mother for his brood.

Betsey Humphreys Todd, Mary Lincoln’s stepmother.

Betsey herself may have been overwhelmed at that prospect. Ever mindful of conventional mourning customs regarding remarriages (at least 18-months), she departed Frankfort for an extended visit to her family, and the courtship became primarily one of formal correspondence. Nevertheless, they married.

The Second Mrs. Todd

The new Mrs. Todd found a sullen atmosphere in Lexington. Grandmother Parker, who had stepped in to raise her late daughter’s children, was unhappy, and likely angered at her son-in-law’s rush to remarry. In those early days, the pater familias was inviolable. Robert Todd must be above reproach or criticism. Any hostility was borne by the woman; the interloper. Whether intentionally or subtly, Grandmother Parker may have poisoned the children’s attitude, which would never improve.

Betsey Humphreys did little to help her own cause. Whether she was a wicked stepmother or not is always open to conjecture, however, according to those who knew her, she was a detached woman, sparing in her affections – even to the eight children she bore herself.

She was strict in her discipline, with little patience for childish misbehavior, finding it much easier to criticize than to praise. She was also inclined to sequester herself in her room, nursing her many pregnancies and related ailments.

The Todd’s town house in Lexington, KY. The family moved there when Mary was in her teens.

Betsey’s background had been carefully cultivated by her mother, Mary Brown Humphreys, who was one of the true grand dames of Kentucky and who came to exert great influence on all the Todd girls. Grandmother Humphreys was a firm believer that it took a full six generations to make a lady. Indoctrinated to that theory from birth, Betsey believed it her bound duty to create “ladies” out of her four little step-daughters, whether they liked it or not.

This influence of lady-ness was not lost on them. An aristocratic Todd-ness was pervasive.

Betsey and Elizabeth

Elizabeth Todd, at twelve, was perhaps the most embittered about her father’s remarriage, having assumed a fair amount of mothering of her younger siblings during her father’s long absence.

Elizabeth Todd Edward. Mary’s eldest sister loathed her stepmother.

Whether she resented her new stepmother’s obviously cold authority, or her father’s frequent business trips, surrogate mothering, or the pervasive influence of Grandmother Parker, Elizabeth developed an implacable dislike of Betsey Humphrey Todd and it would never change.

At sixteen, she married Ninian Edwards, Jr., a student at Transylvania University, and the son of Illinois’ first governor. She happily moved to Springfield, its new capital, and planned to create a societal atmosphere in the still-rustic town.

With Elizabeth gone, the other Todd “first family” merged with their growing half-siblings. Since new “halfs” occurred ever two years, the house became more and more crowded. Mary, only eleven when her eldest sister moved away, would later comment about her “desolate childhood.” Since she was the only one of her sisters who showed any academic inclination, she was sent to the best finishing school in Lexington, a mile from their house in town. Mary she chose to board at school where she was happy, returning home only on weekends.

Betsey and Mary: Later

Katherine Helm was Mary’s niece. Long after Mary’s death, new light was shed on her aunt’s upbringing.

Elizabeth Todd Edwards made it her personal goal to rescue her full sisters from their unhappy environment. At some time, Frances, Mary and Ann all came to live with the Edwardses in Springfield, where they were introduced to up-and-coming men of distinction. To Elizabeth’s satisfaction, they all married and became the core of the capital’s genteel society. It would be said that the Todd family practically owned Springfield – at least socially.

When Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln, she developed a softer view of her stepmother. While they would never become close, as an adult, and as a mother herself, Mary came to understand the stresses that Betsy had inherited, exacerbated by such a large and growing brood. Mary was also not unaware of her own mercurial temperament. She was not an easy child to raise.

Years later, when Mary-in-the-White-House was separated from her large extended family not only by distance, but by Civil War, she found an added bond with Betsey Todd, even though they hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade. Mary lost a son; her stepmother lost three sons.


Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – Harper Collins, 2009

Helm, Katherine, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, Harper & Brothers, 1928

Posted in Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Burying General Grant

General Grants funeral procession in New York City was seven miles long.

When General Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885, it was not a surprise. He had been ill for more than a year, and everyone knew it.

Double Barrels of Woe

For a few years in the early 1880s, General Grant was a wealthy man.

In 1880, after an embarrassing semi-attempt at a third presidential term for President, an iconic Hero-General Ulysses S. Grant became a titular partner in a New York investment firm. Readily admitting his lack of knowledge about finances, he was assured that Ferdinand Ward, his whiz-kid partner, could handle that end. General Grant would be the famous “face” of the company. For a few years, all went well. Grant and his family became wealthy.

Then the bottom fell out of the tub. Ward was a scoundrel who had concocted a “borrow-from-Peter-to-Pay-Paul” scheme. The business collapsed in scandal, leaving General Grant holding the proverbial bag.

Innocent of any misdeeds other than poor judgement in choosing business partners, Grant vowed to make good on all the company’s debts – well into six figures! (Likely several million dollars, today.) He and his family were totally impoverished. He turned all his assets over to his creditors, including his Civil War memorabilia.

Within months of that plummet from fortune, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the throat…

Victorian Medical Practice

…only nobody dared call anything “terminal” in the 1880s, and even long after. Doctors usually had a fair idea of the eventual nature of many fatal diseases, but cures and treatments were decades or more in the future.

Finishing the final edits of Grant’s Memoirs. He died days later.

Rather than facing questions they could not answer, doctors found it much easier to offer patients and their loved ones hope and prayer, as opposed to grim tidings.

General Grant had been offered a huge royalty advance for writing his war memorials, something he had declined to do for years. Now, fearing that his family would be left in poverty and his good name tarnished, he agreed to the project. He pursued his “book” with the same tenacity he had projected during his military campaigns.

Doctors visited Grant daily, sometimes two or three doctors and sometimes two or three times a day. Despite his continually worsening pain, he refused all sedation or pain killers. He believed it would compromise his ability to think clearly. All he permitted was having his throat painted with cocaine to numb the local area.

Barely able to swallow solid foods, the General lost huge amounts of weight. His voice became little more than a painful whisper. Maybe the doctors believed in miracles, but Grant was a practical man. He knew better, and had no illusions.

Grant’s Burial Choices

The newspapers and magazines followed Grant’s illness closely.

As his health continued to deteriorate, Grant began thinking of his burial wishes. As a two-term President, and perhaps more importantly, the victorious Civil War General, he knew his funeral arrangements would be a major event for the country.

He wrote a memo-to-himself, since he instinctively knew that facing the inevitable would upset his beloved wife and family. In the memo, he determined three choices for his burial site.

Grant’s family was with him during his last days.

One choice was Galena, IL. After Appomattox, Galena claimed Grant for its own. He was not born there, nor anywhere else in Illinois, and only lived there less than a year, working at a hated clerking job in his father’s tannery. But Galena is where his illustrious career was reborn, and Illinois was where he received his first “star.”

Another possible choice for burial was New York City, whose citizens had been so good to him when he needed it most.

But his first choice was West Point, where he was trained to the work he was to admirably fulfill. The Academy would gladly welcome his final resting place – but there was one insurmountable problem. They would not allow Julia Grant to rest beside him.


Julia Dent (1826-1901) was Grant’s one-and-only. He met her when he was 21, recently graduated from West Point. She was barely 18, and the sister of his Academy roommate. It was love at first sight for both of them, but marriage was four years away, punctuated by the Mexican War.

General and Mrs. Grant.

Julia had been through thick and thin with him, and the first half of their nearly 40 years together was decidedly thin. She never complained, loved him devotedly, and made a happy home for them and their four children wherever they were.

During the Civil War, Julia would write of being a nomad, a Penelope following her Ulysses whenever and wherever he asked. She knew him better than anyone, and in some ways, perhaps better than he knew himself.

Wherever he would rest forever, Julia must lie beside him.

The Final Decision

The Grant family was especially close.

It was not until shortly before he died in August, 1885, that General Grant showed that memo to his eldest son, Colonel Fred Grant. The General had been right: it was a difficult and upsetting subject, but it had to be faced. Fred assumed the responsibility.

West Point could/would not accept Julia and that was a deal breaker. Galena – or other Illinois sites – was perhaps too remote, and besides, Illinois “belonged” to Lincoln. New York it would be. They had sincerely loved him. And they could afford him.

The temporary crypt for General Grant.

Within weeks of Grant’s seven mile long funeral procession in New York City, attended by thousands of Civil War veterans, north and south, including Union and Confederate pall bearers, a private subscription was begun.

Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive in New York City.

More than $600,000 was privately donated to construct a magnificent 150-foot high Tomb on New York’s Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River. It was formally dedicated in 1897.

Together forever.

Four years later, according to Grant’s specific instructions, Julia Grant was brought to lay beside him, as she had done for nearly forty years.


Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory:  Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press

Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments