Chester Alan Arthur: The Dandy President

Nothing but the very best would satisfy Chester Alan Arthur.

An Insignificant Upbringing

Nothing in his background remotely suggested that Chester Alan Arthur (1829-86) would ever be president. Of course that could be said about many of our chief executives. But nothing in his background would ever suggest he would be a man of high style and fastidious taste either.

He grew up in rural Vermont, one of a large family headed by a minister-farmer. They moved to upstate New York when Chet was a boy. They were poor, hardworking and religious. Chet became wealthy, generally lazy and casual in his observances.

Having received a basic local education, he graduated from Union College in Schenectady, read law, and went to seek his fortune in New York City.

Chet in the Big Apple

NYC drew CAA like a fly to honey. He was made for big city living and all its excitement and high life pleasures.

Chet Arthur was over six feet tall – and considered handsome!

Ellen Herndon Arthur

Having passed the bar, he joined a prestigious law firm and proceeded to impress his higher-ups with his impeccable appearance, manners, diligence and obvious administrative talents. Considered handsome, he wooed and won a pedigreed Virginia belle, Ellen Herndon. Advancement in opportunities, contacts and compensation followed as well.

When the Civil War began, Union governors were tasked to provide and equip volunteer soldiers. Thirty-two year old Arthur, in the right place at the right time, was offered a plum position that solved two problems: first, due to his happy acquaintance with New York Governor Edwin Morgan, he was appointed Quartermaster General for the State of New York where his administrative skills were valuable and appreciated.

NY recruits, prior to being mustered into proper army divisions, needed clothing, boots, mess kits, blankets, tents and numerous supplies. Wagons, horses and mules needed to be procured and foraged. With tens of thousands of volunteers, provisioning them was a daunting challenge. Arthur did not disappoint.

The second problem it solved kept him from the fighting front, thus avoiding physical conflict with his new and cherished Southern in laws.

The Epicure

The decade following the Civil War, nicknamed the Gilded Age, changed the political playing field dramatically. Countless lawyers and politicians had been officers, and learned to appreciate military chain of command. They began applying those precepts to politics.

NY Republican Roscoe Conkling

One of the key players in political bossism was Roscoe Conkling, a Utica attorney-turned Republican Congressman-turned US Senator, and especially turned good pal of General U.S. Grant, now President.

Conkling met Chester A. Arthur and the two became close friends as well as political allies. Even more fortuitously, Arthur had no particular interest in seeking elective office himself. He was strictly behind-the-scenes, devoted to the mechanisms of politics: selecting candidates, financing party coffers, filling offices and making life easier for Conkling. Any corruption in these areas did not seem to taint his management.

As Conkling’s indispensable political administrator, Chet Arthur was a regular at all the dinners at Delmonico’s, after-hours partying at high end private clubs, and late night sessions where champagne and bourbon flowed. He was glad to participate.

It was a lifestyle easy to like, and once CAA was appointed Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative position the federal government could offer, he was able to indulge all his happily acquired tastes, including a fastidiously tailored wardrobe. It is said he purchased trousers by the dozens, along with suitable coats and cravats, hats, canes, boots, gold watches and even a fur-collared overcoat.

The POTUS as Dandy

Nobody would have ever predicted that Chet Arthur would be President!

The election of Chester Alan Arthur as Vice President and his subsequent elevation to the Presidency is a nifty story of its own, But once duly sworn in, he began to place his own stamp on the White House.

The mansion, left a general shambles following Lincoln, had been given a lick and a promise by the unpopular Andrew Johnson. Flush with Gilded Age money and a generous Congress, the Grants redecorated in the conventionally opulent Victorian style, which some suggested looked more like a Saratoga Springs hotel lobby. The modest Hayeses did very little redecorating. The six-months of Garfield’s Administration (three months of which he spent dying), saw no decor changes.

Now, President Arthur, a widower for more than a year, decided the White House was far beneath his considered snuff for what the President’s House should be. Taking personal charge, a task agreeable to his many talents, he sent for Louis Comfort Tiffany, the artistic son of the well-known New York jeweler, en route to making a considerable name for himself, and tasked him with an elegant renovation of the public spaces. CAA even absorbed a fair amount of the costs personally.

As part of the project, more than a dozen wagons of outdated “junk” from past administrations was carted off and disposed of it sans detailed record keeping or even objections.

In addition to the house cleaning and new decor, President Arthur put his gourmand stamp on the presidential table, which was lavish. While he had invited his sister Mary McElroy to stand-in for the deceased First Lady, it was the President himself who assumed the role of host – and arrangement maker.

The magnificent Tiffany screen.

The best of wines, liquors and champagne always flowed, and temperance lobbyists were politely but firmly advised to mind their own business. Oysters, pheasant and sumptuous cuisine was standard fare – paid out of pocket.

Perhaps the most elegant addition to the White House decor was the magnificent stained glass screen that Louis Comfort Tiffany designed and created for the entrance hall. Sadly, once electric lighting was installed during the Benjamin Harrison administration, the subtle lighting effect of the screen was negated, and it was removed (and possibly destroyed) in 1902.


Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017



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Tad Lincoln and The Doll Jack

All kids need toys. 

Tad: A Child With Problems

Tad Lincoln, at around 3 or 4.

Tad was the Lincolns’ fourth and last child born after a grueling two-day labor. He was born with a cleft palate, a not-uncommon malformation in the mouth routinely corrected in infancy today, leaving nothing more incapacitating than perhaps a slight lisp. But in the 1850s, when Tad was born, there was little that could be done. His speech was seriously affected, and only those close to him could understand what he was saying.

He also seemed to have what today might be called some childhood dyslexia: difficulty in recognizing his letters, thus impeding his reading abilities. Then too, he was completely disinterested in making any effort in that direction.

The Lincoln parents, aware of Tad’s problems, were more permissive than they had been with his brothers, opting to keep him a baby/little boy as long as they could. In retrospect, they were not doing Tad any favors by leniency; when he truly needed to catch up, it was nearly impossible.

There were some casual observers of Tad-the-child who believed he might be a little mentally slow, but all indications (with the benefit of modern medical science) are that he definitely had a cleft palate, probably dyslexia, and possibly a little attention deficit. And maybe a little spoiled.

Tad Lincoln in the White House

Tad Lincoln in his Civil War “uniform”.

Seven-year-old Thomas (Tad) Lincoln became a White House resident in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War.

He and his ten-year-old brother Willie, along with their new local pals Bud and Holly Taft, were still too young to understand the horror of the situation, although they would learn quickly enough. But at first, the boys were thrilled by the excitement of it all.

Soldiers wearing a wide variety of uniforms were pouring into Washington from every state that remained in the Union. Marching bands played snappy tunes making it nearly impossible to keep little boys from marching along. With little room and/or time for solid preparation for the great influx of troops, even the hallways of the White House were used to bivouac the soldiers.

Tad loved wearing his uniform!

The kids were having a ball!

The Doll Jack

We have no documentation of what The Doll Jack looked like, save that he was a Zouave soldier doll, with the traditional red pantaloons, given to him by the Sanitary Commission. But his ability to entertain and amuse were as limitless as little boys’ imaginations. The Doll Jack wore his uniform proudly, marched through the mud and got dirty, banged on the drum, hoisted the flag, bunked, drilled and ate grub – the same as all the real soldiers in the real Army. He was shot and recovered, killed and revived, buried and disinterred, with countless limbs amputated and regenerated.

Naturally with all this soldiering – including punishment by shooting, hanging, or maybe both, Jack required a proper funeral. More than once according to Julia Taft, their playmates’ older sister and occasional babysitter, the children usually chose to bury (and disinter) The Doll Jack in the White House gardens, to the extreme consternation of Mr. John Watt, the Head Gardener. (It was Julia Taft who penned these reminiscences in a little volume nearly seventy years later.) Mr. Watt and Tad already had some issues, such as when Tad helped himself to all the strawberries Mr. W. had planned for a White House dinner.

It was actually a grouchy Mr. Watt who casually suggested that perhaps Jack required a presidential pardon. That was all that was needed for the children to run with the ball, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Lincoln the Humane

Tad and Willie Lincoln had easy access to their father’s office and ample occasion to see ordinary citizens patiently waiting to see the President and plead their desperate cases.

Tad and Dad

After Willie’s death, the President became Tad’s best buddy!

Tearful mothers and wives wept in their handkerchiefs, and distraught fathers twisted their handkerchiefs, hoping that the President might commute a sentence or even pardon a young soldier for whatever infraction might have caused his arrest. Abraham Lincoln was a kind man, who by his own admission, sought every extenuating circumstance he could to issue a pardon for a fellow who fell asleep at his post, or something similar.

The children were not oblivious. They saw dozens of grateful citizens tearfully blessing the President as they left his office.

Jack Gets in Trouble

If being shot several times (and recovering) and dying several times (and being buried and miraculously rejuvenated) wasn’t sufficient activity for imaginative little boys with a toy soldier, Jack had finally committed a serious infraction: one that warranted a court martial. While the misdeed has never been documented, the court martial likely concluded that The Doll Jack was to be hung. Or shot. Or maybe both.

Mr. Watt was right. The only thing that could save him was a Presidential pardon.

Perhaps drawing from his observations of real people begging for mercy for real people, a mournful Tad approached his father with his dilemma. The Doll Jack had been a bad soldier. He committed some kind of terrible crime. But he was so repentant, and wanted so much to be a good soldier, that surely he was deserving of another chance.

The indulgent (and possibly amused) Father Abraham duly heard Tad plead Jack’s case, and concluded that his malfeasance did not require hanging or shooting. Or maybe both.

With pen and paper, he carefully wrote: “The Doll Jack is pardoned by order of the President.” Underneath, he signed, “A. Lincoln.”


Baynes, Julia Taft – Tad Lincoln’s Father – Little, Brown & Co. 1931

Keckley, Elizabeth – Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, 1988 (reprint from 1868), Oxford University Press

Painter, Ruth Painter – Lincoln’s Sons, 1955, Little, Brown


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Nan Britton, Part II: Harding’s Tell-All Mistress

The handsome Warren G. Harding

The bad news was that President Warren Harding died in 1923. Without a will.

Nan Britton, Nymphette

Nan Britton had a crush on Harding forever!

Nanna Popham Britton (1896-1991) had been obsessed with Warren G. Harding since she was a child. She fixated on him like today’s teeny-boppers fixate on movie or rock stars. But in the early 1900s, it was considered a little peculiar, since he was a) thirty years her senior, and b) merely a local Marion, Ohio figure at the time.

When WGH began his political rise, pubescent Nan cut his photos out of the newspapers and pasted them on her walls. And walked past The Marion Star, the newspaper he owned. And walked past the Harding house in case he was reading the newspaper on the porch.

When he become a U.S. Senator living mostly in Washington, Nan needed to content herself by following his career. Then she graduated high school and moved to New York.

She contacted the Senator asking for help in finding a secretarial position, and he responded with a letter of reference. And an offer to buy the now-nineteen-year-old woman a cup of coffee the next time he was in NYC. The opportunity came soon enough, and the cup of coffee became a series of trysts, and some bona fide matinees. And Elizabeth Ann.

The President and The Mother

According to Nan, Senator Harding was always generous in providing for their new baby, and even gave her a little pocket money for herself. But he never saw their daughter, nor expressed any real interest in doing so. There were always excuses.

Nan Britton visited President Harding in the White House.

As Presidential candidate and later President, WGH believed (as did most of the country) that a man’s private business was nobody else’s business. But he also believed that IF the country became aware of some of that private business, it would be bad for all concerned. He kept the affair quiet and insisted that she destroy the many letters he had written her.

Despite the many claims on the President’s time and attention, Harding and Nan managed to find a few stolen minutes together, including a well-repeated tale of a “quickie” in a White House closet. Supposedly it was vacated only a few moments before the suspicious First Lady Florence Harding came sniffing about.

Then Harding died suddenly in August, 1923.

Harding died suddenly.

He had made no will.

Nan and her/their baby were unprovided for.

Nan Seeks Harding Help

It was perhaps natural enough for Nan Britton, unwed mother, to seek assistance from the Harding family/estate, so she could care for her/their child, now about four.

Nan Britton and her daughter Elizabeth Ann. She struggled to raise her.

Within the private Harding circle, it was no secret that Warren Harding was a long-time and varied philanderer. Not too many people disbelieved the affair. But it was also believed (with some reason), that he was sterile and could not father a child. Florence Harding was livid, having known Nan as an adolescent floozie-in-situ. She categorically refused any financial support, insisting that the father of Nan’s child was some young fellow, and she only wanted Harding money. Like the rest of them.

WGH’s taste in women was always inclined toward the “floozie” type, and more than one had been privately paid off to retrieve his usually ardent letters and/or to remain silent about any association. Florence knew that. She also died a few months after Harding.

Nearly a century passed before it became DNA-evident that Nan was telling the truth.

Also, shortly after Harding’s death, a flood of complicated and nasty scandals began to emerge, lumped together as “Teapot Dome.” While Harding himself was never accused of anything other than bad judgment in character assessment, several high level Presidential friends and associates were involved.

If Nan thought she would get any financial assistance from family, friends-of-Harding, Republicans or Congress itself, it was not going to happen. They had enough damage control problems of their own. She was shunted aside, and any accusations were immediately dismissed or vociferously denied.

The main problem was lack of proof. She had destroyed his letters, as he instructed.

So in 1927, desperate for money, she wrote a book. Titling it The President’s Daughter, she had it privately published, dedicating it to unwed mothers everywhere.

The Book…

The President’s Daughter was an immediate hit!

…was an immediate hit! It sold more than 90,000 copies in the first year. It is also believed to be the very first of the “tell-all” confessionals-for-profit.

It is not particularly well written, but it is eminently believable. Nan tells how she lost her virginity to Harding, a near-arrest by a suspicious hotel detective, a series of hotel trysts, her pregnancy not long afterwards, her lonely confinement, and assorted messengers who came bearing child-support envelopes. And her futile efforts to have Harding “see” their baby. And her futile efforts to claim any support for their child.

If the public went mad for the book, the politicians – and the collateral Harding family were hopping mad. No stone went unturned in trying to suppress The President’s Daughter, to buy up all existing copies, and otherwise sanitize the accusations by accusing the “victim.” For decades, the “rumors” of Harding’s affair-cum-child were hotly debated pro and con.

Nan herself remained steadfast and devoted to Harding’s memory. She moved far from Ohio, raised her daughter as quietly as possible, using an assumed name from time to time. It is said that his photograph was always placed prominently in her house, and that Elizabeth Ann (who used the name “Ann”) was taught always to be proud of her paternity.

Nan lived to be ninety-five years old, never veering from her assertions and her devotion. Elizabeth Ann also lived a long life, finally dying in 2005, leaving three grandchildren.

In 2015, one of her grandchildren (along with a great-grandnephew of Harding) finally consented to DNA testing, which proved conclusively that Nan Britton, obsessive nymphette, possessive mistress, and relentless defender all things Harding, was telling the truth.

She was the mother of The President’s Daughter.


Britton, Nan – The President’s Daughter, Elizabeth Ann Guild, 1927

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

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Nan Britton: Harding’s “Lolita”

Warren Harding

Warren G. Harding

This is Part One of a very nifty story!

The Marion Publisher

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was a rural Ohio fellow, who, following a mediocre education, gravitated to Marion, Ohio where he purchased an interest in The Marion Star, a small weekly newspaper, married a divorcee five years his senior, and became one of the most affable men in town. He was also good looking and grew even handsomer as he aged.

The Hardings

The Hardings in Marion, Ohio. It was a less-than-blissful marriage.

His marriage was flawed on many fronts, with more than enough failings to go around. Those failings were further exacerbated by his wife’s serious health issues, curtailing their marital intimacy, and leading the virile and attractive Harding into serious philandering. Nevertheless, the marriage continued; Florence Harding had already been divorced and had worked hard to redeem her reputation. A second divorce would ruin her forever.

But the Marion Star thrived, and despite their mutual incompatibilities, neither ever actively pursued divorce.

Nan Britton, Neighbor

Young Nan Britton.

Nanna Popham Britton (1896-1991) was the daughter of one Harding’s neighbors. At an early age, Nan developed a crush on the handsome publisher, some thirty years her senior, and a natural father figure.

Warren looks llike a President

Warren Harding reading the paper on his porch.

The pre-pubescent crush became an obsession as time went on and Nan approached high school age. She made a point of walking past the Marion Star office on the way home from school. She kept an eye peeled for his automobile. She passed his house regularly, hoping to see him reading the paper on his front porch and be invited to “come on up.” When Warren Harding ran for elective office, she clipped his photographs from the newspapers and pasted them on the walls of her room. At one point, at the specific behest of her father, Harding gently counseled the lovestruck-teenager that one day she would find a nice fellow her own age and fall in love.

When Harding was elected US Senator in 1914, he spent most of his time in Washington, but Nan still clung to whatever adolescent dreams she had, like an adoring fan.

Nan Britton Grows Up

nan the siren

Nan Britton had become a sultry femme fatale when her affair with Harding began.

Once graduated from high school, Nan moved to New York. She wrote to now-Senator Harding, hoping he would remember her, and help her find a secretarial position. Harding replied, assuring her that he remembered, and was pleased to enclose a letter of reference. He added that the next time he was in New York, he might buy her a cup of coffee or lunch.

He made a trip to New York soon thereafter, and the “cup of coffee” started a passionate six-year affair.

According to Nan, she kept him physically at bay for quite some time, despite his lustful pleading. She teased and he begged. And finally she acquiesced. His trips to New York became more frequent and matinee-driven.

Sometime in 1919, Nan told Senator Harding he was going to be a father. This was a surprise to the fifty-something man, since (at least according to his family) he believed that a childhood case of mumps had made him sterile. Nevertheless (according to Nan), he seemed genuinely pleased at the impending situation, and was generous in providing for her comfort and care. And, knowing that Harding was a) extremely unhappy in his marriage and b) that Florence Harding was a seriously sick woman whose death was always considered likely, she firmly believed that once Mrs. Harding died, she would become the Next Mrs. Harding. Senator Harding gave her no reason to believe otherwise.

Nan Britton, Mother

Nan Britton was secreted away in a private residence in Asbury Park, New Jersey during her pregnancy, claiming (to the snoopy landlady) that her “husband had been killed in the War.” Elizabeth Ann Britton (Harding) was born on October 22, 1919. Again, Nan claims that the Senator was always financially generous with child care costs… However…

During the remaining four years of his life, Senator-and-President Harding made no effort to see his daughter, nor did he ever publicly acknowledge the paternity.

Nan was now the beggar, imploring him to see the baby, and even suggesting casual wheel-a-baby-carriage/pass-by situations where they might meet “by accident.” Harding was now the tease, assuring her of his interest and care, peeling off wads of bills, and ducking all opportunities to see his baby daughter in person.

Nan could not manage a job, care for her child, avoid the stigma of the unwed mother, and continue her relationship with Harding, so she semi-gave Elizabeth Ann to her married sister to raise. Nan would be the doting “Aunt.”  At least for a while.

Meanwhile Harding…

The election of 1920 was a peculiar one. Both Presidential candidates, James Cox (D-OH) and Warren Harding (R-OH) were Ohio newspaper publishers and very dark horses for the office.

It is said that when Senator Harding was finally summoned to the “smoke-filled room” to discuss his possible nomination, he was asked to take a few minutes in private to decide if there were any personal reasons that might impede his candidacy. The politicians were well aware of his amorous reputation.

young carrie

Fascist-leaning Carrie Phillips was a Marion neighbor and Harding’s long-time paramour.

Whether he thought about his new baby-out-of-wedlock can only be conjectured. Whether he thought about the long-term affair he had enjoyed with another Marion neighbor who made no secret of her infatuation with Kaiser Wilhelm is another possibility – and another story! Then, of course, there were conceivably many other peccadilloes that could arise.

But he said no. There was nothing in his background to preclude his being a viable and electable candidate.

Nan Britton and Elizabeth Ann, the Senator’s daughter, was not even on the radar.

In those days, a man’s personal business remained his personal business.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza  –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Britton, Nan – The President’s Daughter, Elizabeth Ann Guild, 1927

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

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Dolley Madison at 250

At 250 years old, Dolley Madison has consistently “worn well.”

Happy Birthday to Dolley!

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

Dolley Madison, by Gilbert Stuart.

From the time Dolley Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768-1849) was in her mid-twenties, she was arguably the most famous woman in the United States. Two centuries later, according to the copious amount of written evidence, everybody had nice words for Dolley Madison!

Her good looks and ready smile attracted everyone in Philadelphia, where she lived as a teenaged girl-to-recently-widowed woman. Helping her mother run a boarding house in the new country’s temporary capital gave her proximity and won her the admiration of congressmen and other notables, including President and Mrs. George Washington.

So well known was the Widow Todd, that Congressman James Madison, seventeen years her senior, specifically wanted to meet her. He was immediately enchanted by her delightful personality, and within six months, they were married. As Mrs. Madison, wife of a very important figure in the new nation, she soon dominated the political-social scene as a quintessential hostess.

Wearing Well in the 19th Century.

Being blessed with good looks and a winsome smile are always helpful. Effortless and gracious entertaining and hosting abilities certainly help earn a popular reputation. But Dolley Madison also had some deeper, more substantive qualities that endeared her.

Dolley Madison was not a flirt.

James Madison and Dolley had a particularly happy marriage.

Despite her better-than-somewhat good looks, and marriage to a man several years her senior, half a head shorter, and with a reticent personality, the Madison marriage was a particularly happy one. Nevertheless, she enjoyed the friendship of many men. And their wives. And their mothers or sisters or daughters. Nobody was uneasy in Mrs. Madison’s company.

Dolley Madison did not pry.

She admitted on more than one occasion, and in her own hand, that her “happiest” blessing was a lack of curiosity about other people’s business. If you did not volunteer the information, she would not intrude on your privacy.

Dolley Madison was discreet.

Another image of Dolley – not as good as the Stuart!

She did not spread rumors, gossip or denigrate others, nor did she permit others to do so in her presence. In more than twenty years at the top of the socio-political pecking order, everyone knew that an invitation to one of Mrs. Madison’s soirees (whether in her own home, or in the White House) demanded good manners. This included people with a wide range of political opinions, regional biases, monetary advantages – or disadvantages – and experiences. No invitations were ever issued. Everyone was welcome. Everyone came. And everyone was indeed on their best behavior. No one wished to offend their charming hostess.

Dolley Madison never betrayed a confidence.

As the wife of the Secretary of State and later as the wife of the President, Mrs. Madison was privy to all sorts of knowledge: political, personal, and occasionally private. She knew everyone’s worst nightmares, secret ambitions and hidden doubts. She seldom solicited information, but if or when it was shared in confidence, it remained in confidence.

Politics by People

If Mrs. Madison were alive today, she would continue to insist that she believed in “politics by people.” Those are her words.

The White House of the early nineteenth century.

She genuinely liked people. Her great gift was her effortlessness in bringing them together from all walks of life: highbrows and lowbrows and those in between. For sixteen years in Washington, her Wednesday evening soirees, sometimes called “squeezes” or “crushes,” attracted upwards of 300 guests – every Wednesday. Judges met with clergymen, shopkeepers with generals, and farmers with Senators or editors. And rustics in calico and hobnail boots were welcome to mingle with ladies and gentlemen in velvets and silk.

Blessed with the politician’s gift of remembering names and faces, where they were from, and those little tidbits about their children’s ages or their elderly mother’s health, she greeted every guest personally. She stood at the door and made sure that every stranger to town was introduced to someone with a common interest. She was always sensitive to shyer dispositions, and could not bear wallflowers. Everyone must be made welcome.

She intuitively understood the difference between “private” and “public” personal information. For instance, if someone confided an illness in his family, it was public. It was information that could (and frequently was) shared with her husband. Thus appropriate acknowledgements could be sent and more than likely, be graciously remembered.

Wearing Well in the 21st Century

Even in her elder years, Mrs. Madison was considered a good looking lady!

Some modern historians love nothing better than to totally debunk, discredit and dismiss people who lived long ago. Some notables who were prominent during their lifetimes have disappeared into the dustbins. Some rightly so; some unjustly so. Some historians focus on personal biases or single flaws, forgetting that we all have biases, and are all flawed.

With the huge changes during the past half-century or more in what is expected of a First Lady, many people tend to dismiss Mrs. M. as “a good hostess,” and that is all; not particularly remarkable. Big deal. Throwing a party.

James Madison, astute and insightful, understood both the nature and the substance of his wife’s gifts, and how much they enhanced his political life as well as his personal happiness. He could rely on her discretion to refrain from offering political opinions, save those of her brilliant husband. He could also rely on his wife to keep him apprised of everyone’s pertinent welfare, the births and deaths, the sickness and health and those non-confidential details that transcend politics and bind people together. Dolley was immensely popular and her popularity was his joy.  Some even suggested it was the key to his re-election to a second term. Many consider them to be the first Washington Power Couple.

Even twenty years after her heyday in the eighteen-teens, when an elderly Widow Dolley returned to Washington, which had grown exponentially, she was still the most popular First Lady of all times.

The same qualities that held her in high esteem more than two hundred years ago, still do her huge credit today! Happy Birthday!


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011






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Franklin Pierce: Moments of Grace

Franklin Pierce came to the Presidency following great personal tragedy.

Franklin Pierce: The Tragedy

Only weeks before Franklin Pierce (D-NH) was inaugurated in 1853, he took his wife and their eleven-year-old son to visit family in Massachusetts. En route, their train derailed, and little Bennie was killed. The parents were plunged into devastating grief over their last remaining son. Two other little boys had died years earlier.

jane and bennie

Jane Pierce and her son Bennie.

Naturally the tragic event was carried in all the newspapers, including those in Springfield, Illinois. No doubt it was seen by a lawyer and ex-Congressman. Having recently lost a three-year-old son of their own, Abraham and Mary Lincoln surely were sympathetic.

Franklin Pierce: New President and Friend

Franklin Pierce (1802-1869) was a very dark horse. His name was not even mentioned at the Democratic convention in June, 1852 until the 48th Ballot. “Franklin Who?” was the general consensus – but by then, everyone was hot and exhausted.

Pierce had been a well-liked Congressman and Senator, but that had been more than a decade earlier. By 1852 he was all but forgotten by most of the political world – at least those outside of New Hampshire.

One of the friends he had made some years earlier, was Mississippian Jefferson Davis, and they had stayed in regular touch. When Pierce won the election, he asked his old friend to join his cabinet. Davis declined.

After the tragedy of his son’s death, and the total incapacity of his devastated wife, Pierce reached out to Davis again, this time begging him to accept the position of Secretary of War. He said he needed “a friend” close by. Someone he could talk to in confidence.

Davis accepted and became Secretary of War, and the good friend Pierce needed.

Franklin Pierce: Politics Thereafter

Pierce’s presidency was less than a whopping success, and far from happy. He was disappointed at being overlooked for his party’s nomination in 1856, but relieved to  leave what had become an oppressive and depressive situation.

He had hoped that Jefferson Davis would be considered for the Democratic nomination, believing him eminently qualified. But they both knew that in the volatile 1850s, no one from the Deep South could be nominated – or elected.

franklin pierce

Franklin Pierce, 14th President.

Instead, the aging James Buchanan of Pennsylvania was nominated. Shortlisted for the presidency for a dozen years, Buchanan been Pierce’s Ambassador to Great Britain. Being out of the country and thus out of the fray no doubt made the 65-year-old Buchanan more viable. He was elected.

The Pierces, now free of responsibilities, went to Europe for a few years. They had hoped a change of scenery might benefit his permanently despondent wife. It did not. When they returned to New Hampshire, they boarded.

Pierce maintained his interest in partisan politics, happy to share his increasing opposition to the Republicans – especially Lincoln – with anyone who would listen.

Few listened. He was perceived as a cranky old man, and a very heavy drinker.

FP: The First Moment of Grace

It was no secret that Pierce was adamantly opposed to Abraham Lincoln’s politics and policies.

Willie Lincoln was eleven, the same age Bennie Pierce when he died.

Nevertheless, in early 1862, nearly a decade after Pierce’s tragic inaugural, an incident occurred that bound the two men together. Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln contracted typhoid fever and died. President and Mrs. Lincoln were thrust into deep mourning.

Of course it was reported in all the newspapers, even in Concord, New Hampshire, where the Pierces were again consumed by sad memories. Pierce’s disdain for Lincoln was strictly political and he knew first hand the pressures the President was under.

The sixteenth President.  Franklin Pierce was not a fan.

Some weeks later, Abraham Lincoln received a personal letter from his predecessor.

My dear Sir,

The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow that befell me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion…

Even in this hour… your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy… until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.

I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation….

With Mrs. Pierce’s and my own best wishes – and truest sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln and yourself

I am very truly, yr. friend,
Franklin Pierce

The likelihood that Lincoln wrote a graceful response to Pierce’s heartfelt condolence letter is strong; but it has never surfaced.

FP: A Second Moment of Grace

Franklin Pierce’s post-presidential years were lonely and unkind, especially to a man who had always enjoyed camaraderie. The permanent melancholy of Jane Pierce did not help. She died in 1863.

Jefferson Davis was one of Pierce’s closest friends.

The Civil War estranged him from many of his old Southern friends, including Davis, now Confederate President. Their correspondence was curtailed. While their affection remained strong, the proximity and ability to communicate was severed.

In April, 1865, the Union euphoria at the end of the Civil War was abruptly changed by the assassination of Lincoln. The mood of the country was ominous and ugly. Jefferson Davis was first on the list of those expected to hang. He was caught, arrested and taken to Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia, ostensibly to await trial. He remained imprisoned for two years.

Former President Pierce no longer had any political clout. Nobody was listening to him, especially since rumor had it, he was generally depressed and perpetually drunk. Nevertheless, Pierce made the long trip down the Chesapeake to visit his old friend and offer his sympathies and whatever remnants of prestige the ex-president had.

The substance of their conversation has never been documented, but it is inconceivable that the gesture of sincere personal friendship was not deeply felt. By both of them.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – America’s First Families – Touchstone Books, 2000

Nichols, Roy Franklin – Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills – University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959 (revised)

Shenkman Richard, Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost, Harper, 1999

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Johnson, Grant and the Big Parade

Andrew Johnson, 17th President

Mid-March through Mid-May, 1865 were fraught with events

March 1865

With General Ulysses Grant squeezing the Rebel Army even tighter in Petersburg, VA, and General William Sherman marching his vast army up the eastern coast, everyone knew that the end of a terrible Civil War was close at hand. Yes, there would be more fighting and more casualties, but the end was coming.

Lincoln meets with his Generals.

And to that end, President Abraham Lincoln, newly inaugurated to his second term, paid a visit to General Grant and Admiral David Porter. General Sherman made a flying trip to join the discussions.

Lincoln obviously meant every word in his “malice toward none” Second Inaugural speech. He wanted it to be policy: “let ‘em up easy.” A generous approach would woo the vanquished far easier than brutal blame and punishment demanded by many in Congress.

April 9-15, 1865

After a desperate cut, run and chase across central Virginia, Union forces, vastly outnumbering the dwindling Confederates, finally cornered them. Realizing the futility of further hostilities, and with his army near starvation, General Lee surrendered. The terms were generous. Everyone said so.

The news sizzled over the telegraph wires. Within minutes bells rang, cannons boomed in celebration, bands played, choirs sang, churches were filled to capacity for thanksgiving services. Red-white-and-blue bunting was hung. It was over. Finally.

The colorful bunting hung for only a week. The emotional euphoria plummeted abruptly. President Lincoln was assassinated.

Black crepe replaced the bright bunting. The bells tolled a muffled sound. Bands played mournful dirges.

Cracks began to appear in the “malice toward none.”

President Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson

Nobody – including Andrew Johnson himself – ever expected him to become President. He was a Southerner, born in North Carolina and a long-time resident of Tennessee. He was a Democrat, albeit a staunch Unionist: the only Southern senator who did not resign his seat in 1861.

Like Lincoln, his childhood was poverty stricken and devoid of opportunity. And, like Lincoln, he was self-educated and ambitious for advancement.

But unlike Lincoln, his was a pugnacious temperament; far more inclined to stand his ground and slug it out, rather than search for more viable alternatives.

Nevertheless, he had performed yeoman services in Tennessee during the Civil War, and his personal courage never faltered. When Republican Lincoln ran for re-election on the “Union” ticket, he specifically chose Democrat Johnson as his running mate.

On March 4, 1865, Johnson disgraced himself at his inauguration. He had been ill (perhaps typhoid), and unable to eat for a few days. The whiskey his doctor prescribed went to his head. Fortunately, the Vice Presidential inauguration was private, held in the Senate Chambers, sparing him from widespread humiliation. During the next few weeks, Johnson kept a low profile.

When the Presidency dropped suddenly on his shoulders, he was a gentleman. He presided with dignity throughout the Lincoln funeral proceedings and generously allowed Mrs. Lincoln, incapacitated by grief, to remain in the White House as long as needed. He was on his best behavior.

It was his political honeymoon.

May 23-24, 1865

The two-day parade of the Union Army, May 23-24, 1865.

Washington, DC, along with the rest of the country, exhausted by four years of war, the flurry of exhilaration and the devastating grief of the assassination, needed to pull out of its emotional turmoil.

After the surrender, the Union Army printing presses cranked out hundreds of thousands of discharge certificates and related paperwork. Clerks worked around the clock in War Department offices.

Finally, when all the “t’s” were crossed and “i’s” dotted, Union soldiers, soon to be called the Grand Army of the Republic, gathered to march unit by unit, brigade by brigade, division by division in a Grand Review of the Armies down Pennsylvania Avenue. Infantry, cavalry, artillery, scouts, medical wagons. And military bands playing the tunes the country had been singing for the past four years.

The weather was perfect. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets.

The Reviewing Stand in front of the White House

Stands were constructed for honored guests. President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet took center stage in his first major public appearance (other than mourning). But the real star of the show was General Grant, the Hero of Appomattox, an unimposing figure, but the one that everyone wanted to see.

When the signal was given to begin, George Meade, General of the Army of the Potomac led nearly 100,000 of his spit-and-polished soldiers in a six-mile parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, marching twelve abreast, with all the associated bells and whistles.  It took six hours for the parade to pass.

General Ulysses S. Grant.

General George A. Custer

But if General Grant was the star, the scene stealer was brash “boy-general” George Armstrong Custer, of General Sheridan’s 7th Cavalry. He broke away from his assigned place, and galloped way ahead of his troops, waving his hat in the air! The crowd roared its enthusiasm.

The following day was not quite so spit-and-polished, yet soldierly and in fine drill. It was General William T. Sherman’s western Armies of Tennessee and Georgia – mostly unknown to Washington except by reputation. Flowers and bunting and ribbons were scattered among the soldiers, acknowledging their valor and contributions.

General William T. Sherman

Eighty-five thousand soldiers rode behind Sherman, as he rode past the reviewing stand, peeled off, and took his place beside President Johnson and General Grant, and the other notables. More bands. More songs. It took another six hours. And the combined total of marchers was only 20% of the Union Army at the end of the War.

Within a week, the armies were disbanded, and the soldiers went home.  During the decades to come there would be many more parades. But never like this.

The Grand Review may have been Andrew Johnson’s happiest day as President. It was a glad day, a victorious day, a day of pride and celebration.

And hovering over it all was the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.


Henig, Gerald S. and Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts: The Legacies of America’s Bloodies Conflict, Stackpole Books, 2001


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