George Washington’s Farewell to His Officers

The quintessential General

“An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass.”

The Quote and the Sentiment

British General Edward Braddock

The quote about asses (donkeys) and lions is frequently attributed to George Washington, but it is an ancient quote.  Sometimes it is attributed to Alexander the Great. Sometimes it is attributed to Aesop or just-plain-anonymous. It really does not matter who “coined” the phrase. George Washington definitely quoted it and adhered to its truths.

As a young Virginia militia officer assigned to the British Army, long before American independence was even a glimmer, George Washington learned first hand from his mentor General Edward Braddock, the importance of well-trained and disciplined army officers.

One of the earliest portraits of George Washington

When Washington became General of the Continental Army in 1775, a full fifteen years after his “first retirement,” he made it his practice to do just that: select bright men to become officers and train and discipline them well.

Some, like Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene were excellent field generals. Some, like Alexander Hamilton and Edmund Randolph, became valued personal aides for the never-ending reports and paperwork and correspondence. Both would be re-recruited years later to serve in President Washington’s cabinet. Since the nascent Congress had serious problems funding the army, some of those officers and aides were volunteers, serving gratis.

Turnover and Replacement

In the eight years of the American War of Independence (it actually lasted two years past the British surrender at Yorktown), George Washington had enlisted 32 men as his aides-de-camp at some time. They held the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Most of them served for fairly short terms, perhaps a year. Some were transferred for various reasons: employing their talents elsewhere, special assignments, and of course, health, serious injury and/or death.

Tench Tilghman served the longest: August, 1776 through November, 1783. He had planned to stay through the “active” campaign of 1776, but remained from the Battle of Trenton to the Surrender at Yorktown. Despite being seriously ill at the time, Tilghman was given the honor to race to Philadelphia with the news of Cornwallis’ surrender.

The End of the Continental Army

The formal peace process concluding the war between Great Britain and the United States was a long ordeal. It was held in Paris, went through endless meetings and changes and correspondence, and entrusted to a Congress in Philadelphia filled with a “B-list” of representatives. It took the better part of two years to conclude.

Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been sent abroad. George Washington remained with his army, maintaining the tenuous peace, and making sure the British Army vacated its “former” possessions. He had serious concerns about prematurely disbanding the Army.

Finally, in September, 1783, word came that the Treaty of Paris had been accepted, signed and was a proverbial “done deal.” By December, the remaining British soldiers had embarked for England and American soldiers were discharged. George Washington prepared to resign his commission, and return to his beloved Mount Vernon.

The Fraunces Tavern

An early image of the Fraunces Tavern in NYC

Samuel Fraunces, a licensed “freeman and innholder,” was a New York tavern keeper. The Fraunces Tavern still stands as a treasured historic site at 54 Pearl Street in New York City (a short walk from the World Trade Center).

Innkeeper Samuel Fraunces

Taverns were a popular and necessary part of any community. Not only did they accommodate travelers, but they were places for citizens to gather, exchange news, enjoy fellowship and occasional entertainment, and usually excellent food and beverage. The upstairs Long Room at the Fraunces could hold nearly a hundred people, and was periodically used for parties.

On December 4, 1783, the war now officially over, George Washington invited his officers to a private dinner in the Long Room of the Fraunces Tavern for a final farewell.

The Farewell Dinner

Col. Benjamin Tallmadge is usually credited with providing the best recollection of the uncommonly emotional leave-taking, recalled privately as an elderly man.  Decades later, his memoirs were compiled by his children. (Tallmadge, by the way, was Washington’s clever spymaster during the Revolution. Years later, after the War, he served in Congress.)

The dinner was set for noon on December 4, owing to better lighting and convenience. Besides, General Washington was planning to board a ship later that afternoon, en route to Annapolis where Congress was meeting.

George Washington was an exacting man, and did not suffer fools gladly. He frequently lamented the incapacity of his officers, his troops, the Congress, and even inclement weather. His persona was cool; he did not encourage familiarity. He consistently maintained a polite, but proper distance throughout his life. Nevertheless, his soldiers revered him. At least mostly.

Many paintings and engravings were done commemorating this event.

According to award-winning historian Thomas Fleming, for several months there had been great unrest among the American officers. They had not been paid; all the promises from Congress had been ignored, glossed over, or downright countermanded. George Washington had steadfastly taken their part, and used his inordinate prestige on their behalf, to seek the justice that was due them. Earlier that year, he had managed to avert a serious mutiny. His efforts were less than fruitful, and he felt powerless to alleviate the soldiers’ legitimate grievances.

Benjamin Tallmadge in his older years, whose memoirs form the basis of the story.

Nevertheless, at the appointed time, Washington’s officers, many of whom he knew only slightly, entered the Long Room of the Fraunces Tavern, and shortly thereafter were joined by the General. According to the memoirs of the elderly Benjamin Tallmadge:

“With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington said as he lifted his glass. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”

They came forward. They shook his hand. Some actually clasped his shoulder. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Including his.


Fleming, Thomas – Washington’s Secret War – Smithsonian Books, 2005

Flexner, James T. – George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1783) – Little Brown, 1994

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The Six FLOTUS Widows of 1947

In January, 1947,  five (and maybe a “half”) widowed First Ladies were still living. 

Frances Folsom Cleveland (1864-1947)

FLOTUS Frances Cleveland

Frances Cleveland was a First Lady of many distinctions.  She was First Lady two separate times, during the non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland – between 1885-89, and between 1893-97.

She was the youngest First Lady: only twenty-one.  Grover Cleveland, at forty-nine, was already a sitting President.

There was the distinction of being the only First Lady to be married in the White House and the first FLOTUS to have a baby born in the White House.

The widow Frances Cleveland.

Frances was the first FLOTUS celebrity. Her unauthorized photographs and endorsements were on dozens of products from corsets and hand creams, to cigars and arsenic tablets!  The POTUS tried to have legislation passed to prohibit such unauthorized usage, but it went nowhere, and made the advertisers laugh.

Widowed in 1908 after more than twenty years of marriage (and five children), Frances was the first widowed FLOTUS to remarry.  In 1947, she had been married to Princeton Professor Thomas J. Preston for nearly thirty-five years.

She died on October 29, 1947, at age 83 – and was buried buried beside President Cleveland.

Edith Carow Roosevelt (1860-1947)

Edith was the Republican  Mrs. Roosevelt – Theodore’s wife and First Lady between 1901-09.

FLOTUS Edith Roosevelt

For many years she was considered “the only First Lady who never made a mistake,” possibly because she was the polar opposite of her ebullient husband with his over-the-top personality. Sensible Edith shunned the spotlight, the photographers and the journalists as much as TR embraced and courted them.

Nevertheless, Edith Roosevelt was responsible for a fair amount of how the White House looks today. When huge renovations were undertaken to create the West Wing in the early days of the 20th century, major revisions were also made to the Mansion itself. Edith gave the East Room its distinctive and majestic look that is still maintained today: white and gold, and sparing in décor.

Elderly Mrs. TR.

Widowed at 58, she traveled to exotic locations on occasion, but mostly spent her remaining years quietly at Sagamore Hill, on Long Island, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

Happily free from debilitating illness, she lived to  87, dying on September 30, 1948. Both TR and Edith are buried at Sagamore Hill.

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961)

In a day when First Ladies were expected to be decorous and non-controversial, Edith Wilson was the exception.

The Second Mrs. Wilson

She was a 43-year-old widow when she married sitting President Woodrow Wilson, only fifteen months after his wife of thirty years had died.

A statuesque and imposing woman physically (around 5’9”) she redefined her role as First Lady. When Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919, Edith, in a sense, became an alter-ego, tenacious in protecting her invalid husband from anything stressful or upsetting that might further damage his already frail health.

The formidable Widow Wilson

Her detractors claimed “petticoat government,” declaring her the first woman president.  She never claimed anything but “stewardship,” but she was formidable.

After Wilson died in 1924, Edith dedicated herself to perpetuating his legacy. She never missed an opening session of the League of Nations, where she was always the honored guest.

She died at 89 in late 1961. Both she and Wilson are buried in Washionton’s National Cathedral – in different locations.

Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957)

As First Lady, Grace Coolidge was compared occasionally to Dolley Madison (only remembered through history books by then). But Grace was stylish with a warm, friendly disposition – the polar opposite of her Silent Cal husband.  A U. of VT graduate, she was a teacher for the deaf  when she met and married the POTUS-to-be in 1905.

The charming FLOTUS Coolidge

Blessed with a teasing sense of humor that balanced well against Coolidge’s wry and dry wit, she welcomed the “pop culture” celebrities who flocked to the White House in the 1920s, eager to have their photo taken with the POTUS.  Her “red” portrait, painted by Howard Christy Chandler, is arguably the most popular of the FLOTUS portraits.

Once retired from the White House, Grace wrote some magazine articles, but mostly avoided publicity. After Coolidge died in early 1933, she reactivated her interest in the Northampton School for the Deaf, where she had taught years earlier. She was a long-time supporter of the Red Cross and other charitable causes.

She was 78 when she died, and is buried in the Coolidge family plot in Plymouth Notch, VT.

Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Arguably the most influential First Lady of all times (so far), Eleanor Roosevelt overcame her shy and introverted nature to become a major political figure, social activist and diplomat in her own right.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

First Lady of the World Eleanor Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose polio restricted his physical activity, relied heavily on his capable and articulate wife to be his eyes and ears. During their twelve years in the White House, during a Great Depression and a World War, Eleanor traveled extensive and nearly continually, bringing hope and help to those who seemed to need it the most.

When FDR died suddenly in 1945, Eleanor was hard pressed to decide the direction of her new life. Those decisions were made easier when VP-turned-President Harry Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations, a cause that had long been dear to her heart.

Dubbed “First Lady of the World” by her many admirers, Eleanor remained active in dozens of social causes until her death in 1962.  She was 78, and is buried alongside FDR at Hyde Park, NY.

Mary Lord Dimmick Harrison (1858-1948)

The Second Mrs. Benjamin Harrison

The Widow Harrison

This is the “half-a-FLOTUS”.  Mary Dimmick spent four full years living in the White House when Benjamin Harrison was President. But she was not his wife. Then.  A young widow, she was the niece of Caroline Harrison, the sitting First Lady, and served occasionally as her social secretary.  

After Caroline Harrison died in 1892, the bereaved President was a lonely man; Mary Dimmick was 35, with no living close kin. The two married in 1896, and the following year had a daughter.  Benjamin Harrison died in 1901.

Mary never remarried, and lived to be nearly ninety.


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

Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995

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

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Understanding Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was the quintessential New Englander: quiet, determined, and living a well ordered life.

Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth

In 1960, more than 25 years after Coolidge’s death, a small volume of essays about him was collected by Edward Connery Lathem. Long out of print, it is a marvelous little treasure of personal sketches, written about Coolidge by those who knew him. Some knew him very well; others more superficially. All however, offer aspects of “Silent Cal” that are not only delightful to read, but offer wonderful insights into the man himself.

There are about three dozen of these character studies, easily read in ten or fifteen minutes. Most are well written; some are wonderfully written.  All of them, taken as an entity, present a more complete understanding of President John Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) than any of the standard biographies, including a classic tome by his contemporary, word-happy William Allen White.

Coolidge The New Englander

New Englanders are usually observed as somewhat flinty and sparse of words.  Coolidge fits nicely in that category. The flinty was there, but well hidden from public view; the sparsity of words, is legendary.

Calvin Coolidge as a young Amherst College student.

Born and raised in rural Vermont (actually most of Vermont is rural), he was the son of a farmer-shopkeeper and occasional state official. Calvin grew up doing farm chores and attending the local school. Both his mother and older sister died when he was in still a youth.  Calvin and his father, sharing that unspoken grief and loss, bonded and remained close for the rest of their lives.

His academic grades were above average, but not superior. It was enough, however, to warrant an education at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Once graduated, he read law (still an acceptable legal education), passed the Massachusetts Bar, and remained in the Bay State for the rest of his life. 

The All-American Coolidge family.

As an adult, the only ones who called him Calvin or “Cal” were family. At Amherst, a few of his fellows called him “Cooley,” but that didn’t last past graduation. Adult friends called him Coolidge, but most people called him Mister Coolidge.  That was New England. That was also early 20th Century. 

Coolidge The Politician

Coolidge handled meet-and-greets on his own terms.

Calvin Coolidge became a middling attorney, nothing out of the ordinary. His practice in Northampton, where he settled, was modest. Partly from general interest, and mostly from the need to augment his income, he became involved in local politics: a seat on the council; the Mayor of Northampton. Eventually, he won a seat in the State Legislature. 

“Glad-handing” and “pressing the flesh” were not traits inherent to Coolidge, but he certainly understood the political need of personal contact with his constituents.

Every few weeks, he would walk down to the local barbershop where the men would gather of an evening to smoke a cigar, have a beer and exchange news. Everyone knew Mayor Coolidge. He showed up, circled the room, shook hands with everyone, and mumbled “how-do.” Then he smoked one cigar and had one beer. If anyone wished to talk to him, he listened. When the cigar and beer were finished, he circled the room again, shook hands all around, and mumbled “g’night.” But his townsmen understood perfectly. He was accessible; he was one of them. 

There is an essay written by a fellow who only knew Coolidge casually. He had occasional business in Boston – about a two hour train trip from Northampton. Coolidge, the state legislator, needed to attend sessions in Boston a couple of times a week. Train travel in the early 20th century was a pleasant experience; a place where a man could leisurely read his newspaper without being bothered. 

The Coolidge home in Northampton, MA

Then as now, commuter trains have seats designed for two or three. The train was somewhat crowded that day, but the businessman found a seat next to Calvin Coolidge, Mayor and Legislator. Both mumbled a perfunctory “excuse me” or maybe even “good morning” and proceeded to read their individual newspapers. For the rest of that ride, they rode in silence.

Arriving at their station, they rose to depart. The businessman mumbled something like “Looks like rain,” or “Nice day,” to which Coolidge replied with, “Yup.” Then they went their separate ways.

According to the businessman, it was the kind of encounter a man might remark upon to his wife later on: “Ran into Mayor Coolidge on the train to Boston today. We had a nice chat.”

They understood each other.

Coolidge The Surprise

After Coolidge retired from the Presidency in 1929, he returned to Northampton to write his biography. He also received a ton of mail and was invited to sit on various boards or trusteeships. He needed a secretary, and engaged Herman Beaty. Beaty contributed to Meet Calvin Coolidge, remarking that he had never met the President before, and was amazed by all the misconceptions.  

He had always heard about “Silent Cal,” but found the former President to be chatty and positively gabby.

He had also heard that Coolidge was a laconic worker who preferred “banker’s hours.” In truth, whatever time Beaty arrived for work, Coolidge was always there first.

He had heard that Coolidge could squeeze a dollar hard enough to make the eagle scream.  The ex-POTUS had put aside a sizable retirement sum (no POTUS pensions, then), and very quietly distributed discreet help to some of his Northampton neighbors who were hit hard by the Depression. 

And when he donated his old clothing to charity, he made sure to remove all labels and identifying tags, and insisted on having them sent to out-of-town shops to protect the anonymity all the way around. 

Nice fellow, Mr. C. 


Lathem, Edward Connery – Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth – Stephen Greene Press, 1960

White, William Allen – A Puritan in Babylon – Macmillan – 1938

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The Abysmal Health of Woodrow Wilson

President Wilson

If his health history had been known in 1912, Woodrow Wilson might never have been nominated.

The White House Physician: Cary T. Grayson

Shortly after President Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office in 1913, there was a luncheon for him and his guests at the White House. During the festivities, one of his relatives slipped and cut her forehead. Navy Doctor Cary T. Grayson was on hand, and gently and capably tended to the woman. The new President was impressed, and invited Dr. Grayson to become his personal physician.

Dr. Cary T. Grayson, President Wilson’s personal physician.

Within days, Dr. Grayson scheduled Wilson for a complete physical examination. Naturally, his comprehensive health history was discussed, and to his astonishment, Dr. Grayson discovered that the fifty-six year old President’s health was far from robust.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the oldest son in a family of four. His father, Joseph R. Wilson was a prominent Presbyterian minister and professor. It became apparent soon enough that young Tommy (as he was called until college age) was obviously bright, but had difficulty learning to read and write. Childhood dyslexia was an unnamed condition at that time. What Wilson told Dr. Grayson about that “situation” is unknown, although he was known to claim that he had childhood asthma. He was therefore home schooled until he reached puberty, and the reading disability sorted itself out for the most part.

Wilson also had a high strung nature, susceptible to any number of physical ailments usually considered psychosomatic, caused by stress, frustration and various then-undiagnosed psychological situations. Nevertheless his adoring family was happy to support him and believe in his “destiny” for greatness.

A Young Man with Problems

Psychosomatic ailment is not an uncommon phenomena for people (children or adult) who are unhappy with parts of their lives. The body absorbs the stress and strain, and it results in real, and sometimes serious physical issues. Headaches and stomach problems are most common.

Those physical manifestation of Wilson’s young manhood did not prevent him from enjoying fine scholastic accomplishments and a promising professorial career, but he did not become financially independent until he was twenty-eight – shortly before he married Ellen Axson, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, both deceased.

The Wilson family

Woodrow Wilson and his adoring family.

He adored his bride, but from the beginning, he inherited a ready-made family. Ellen’s ten-year-old brother would live with them. Another college-aged brother would spend vacations with them. The three Wilson daughters were born within the first five years of their marriage. Then there was a revolving door of Axson, Woodrow and Wilson long-term house guests.

Despite being fast-tracked and well-regarded professionally, Wilson was under enormous financial strain, since professors do not earn large salaries. In addition to his regular duties, he took on additional symposiums and seminars. And he began turning out a book a year to supplement his income.

Wilson: The Undiagnosed Strokes

In 1896, Woodrow Wilson was forty and a professor at Princeton University when he had his first stroke, losing the use of his right hand for several months. Modern doctors suspect he had an embolus in the carotid artery, but it was downplayed by the doctors at the time. As a mind-over-matter remedy, he taught himself to write with his left hand, and became an ardent user of the typewriter.

Wilson’s brother-in-law Stockton Axson believed the stroke had also caused a noticeable change in Wilson’s personality: more driven and less inclined toward recreation.

Some years later, more stress and anxieties caused a second stroke, again un- or mis-diagnosed. This time he lost the use of his right hand for nearly two years. While Wilson frequently complained of various ailments, he denied the strokes as anything more than overwork or “writer’s cramp.”

Two years later, he had another serious stroke, which left him nearly blind in one eye, resulting in diminished vision in that eye. The doctors prescribed rest. For his chronic digestive problems, they suggested he use a stomach pump periodically.

These incidents were combined with seriously high blood pressure along with arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which was considered incurable.

Dr. Grayson’s Problems

President Wilson and Dr. Grayson became close personal friends.

It is easy to write Cary Grayson off as a barely-competent physician, especially when “judging” medical competency against modern technological advances of the past century. But Dr. Grayson was seriously concerned by Wilson’s abysmal history, and even more abysmal methods of non- or poor-at-best treatment.

He immediately discontinued his horrifying use of the stomach pump, and placed the President on a blander diet. Fresh air, rest and sufficient relaxation would also be included in his daily regimen. Wilson began to feel better. The high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis however, would remain problematic and, at that time, untreatable.

Later in 1913, Wilson suffered another small stroke, this time affecting his left hand and arm. To modern physicians, it is an ominous sign, suggesting bilateral involvement that substantially increased his chances for additional strokes, and the possibility that insufficient blood to the brain could cause serious personality and/or mental acuity changes. Dr. Grayson recognized the need to tread lightly since the condition was a vicious cycle: stress, thwarting, upsetting or otherwise agitating Wilson ran a high risk of causing a potential disaster.

As usual, Wilson denied the seriousness of those incidents.

By the time First Lady Ellen Wilson became mortally ill in early 1914, Dr. Grayson had developed an important and close personal friendship with the President. Both Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson “conspired” to withhold the seriousness of her condition from the President. They were both convinced it could unsettle him enough to impede his presidency, if not worse.

Five years later, in 1919, President Wilson suffered a massive stroke. Dr. Grayson refused to sign any document of disability that could compromise his fitness for office. He unequivocally believed it would kill the President, his closest friend.


Saunders, Frances Wright – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina Press – 1985

Weinstein, Edwin A. – Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography – Princeton University Press, 1981


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Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay

In 1832, Mary Todd was thirteen years old; Henry Clay was about to challenge Andrew Jackson for the Presidency.

Ellerslie and Ashland

Ellerslie: The Todd Family Plantation

Ellerslie Plantation, about three miles from Lexington, KY, was the ancestral home of the Todd family, named for their ancestral home in Scotland. Mary Lincoln’s grandfather Levi Todd (1756-1807) built the house in 1787; His son Robert Smith Todd (Mary’s father) was born there, and eventually owned it.

Said to be the first brick house in Kentucky, the house was originally a small two story building on 30 acres, later expanded to include 20 well furnished rooms. The house and its adjoining acreage was sold some years after Robert Smith Todd’s death, and the house no longer stands.

Henry Clay’s “Ashland” plantation

The plantation abutted another fine plantation, named Ashland, begun around 1807 by Henry Clay (1777-1852), a Virginian-turned-Kentuckian, who named the home and estate after his own Virginia birthplace. It stands there still, and is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Thus, the Todd family and Henry Clay were close neighbors – and good friends.

The Mary Todd-Henry Clay Story

The story goes that thirteen-year-old Mary (1818-1883) had just gotten a new pony, and was eager to show it off to Senator Clay, who by then was the most famous man in Kentucky, about to challenge Andrew Jackson in his re-election campaign for the Presidency.

One of the earliest Mary Todd Lincoln photos – when she was in her mid-20s.

Mary, dressed in her best riding outfit, rode her new pony out to Ashland, and knocked at the door. When the servant answered, Mary said that she wanted to see Mr. Clay. The servant advised “Miss Mary” that Mr. Clay had several important men dining with him, and could not be disturbed.

Not one to give up, Mary told the servant to tell the Senator that Miss Mary Todd needed to see him, and it was important. Senator Clay obviously heard the voices at the door, and went personally to investigate, along with his “important guests.” When he saw Mary, he smiled in recognition.

Mary wanted to show Mr. Clay her new “trained” pony. Her father had purchased it from a traveling circus, and he could do tricks, which she and the pony immediately demonstrated. Then she said, to wit, that her father believed “Henry Clay was the best judge of horseflesh in the county” – and Mary wanted him to examine the new pony and make sure her father had gotten a good deal.

Clay was happy to oblige, and made a great show of examining the animal, and pronounced him one of the finest ponies he ever saw. Then he invited Miss Mary to finish dinner with them.

Dessert and A Marriage Proposal 

Henry Clay, statesman and presidential candidate

Henry Clay had been a Todd guest on various occasions, and Mary had always shown an interest in politics. Her father was a great admirer of the Kentucky lawyer, whose resume included both Houses of Congress, a stint as a diplomat, and Secretary of State. His ambition for the Presidency was well known; Todd, an attorney and long-time state legislator, was an enthusiastic supporter. Mary, by virtue of association, believed Henry Clay was the most superlative man in the entire country. She chatted away at Clay’s dinner table, how her father sincerely desired Mr. Clay to be the next President. She further said that since her father himself did not want to be President (her first choice), she was very happy to support him too. Then she added that she was sorry Mr. Clay was already married, since she would also be happy to marry him and live in the White House.

An amused Henry Clay commiserated on the “thwarted” marriage possibility, but told Mary in all sincerity, that if he became President, Miss Mary Todd would surely be one of the first people he invited to the White House.

Mary Todd Lincoln is said to have had White House ambitions from childhood, with fair likelihood that Henry Clay was her inspiration. Nearly a decade later, when she met Abraham Lincoln, one of their commonalities was their regard for Henry Clay. Her personal connection with “Harry of the West” was undoubtedly a point in her favor.

The Source of the Story

Mary Lincoln’s niece Katherine Helm

The aforementioned story is told in a book called Mary: Wife of Lincoln, and is Mary’s first solo biography, published in 1928, some 45 years after her death. The author is Katherine Helm, Mary’s niece, who at that time, was an elderly woman herself.

Katherine Helm had only slight personal contact with her famous Aunt Mary, who she barely remembered. She was five years old; the Civil War was raging; her Confederate father (who she likely did not remember either) had been killed; her mother was Emilie Todd Helm, Mary’s 18-years-younger half-sister. Emilie had wanted to cross Union lines to claim her husband’s body, but stubbornly refused to take the oath of allegiance. President Lincoln was asked to intervene, and he replied “send her to me.” Thus Emilie and her little daughter Katherine went to the White House where they stayed for a couple of weeks. Neither Emilie nor her daughter ever saw Mary again, although their adult nephew/cousin Robert Lincoln remained in touch with several members of his Todd relations throughout his life.

Emilie Todd Helm

Emilie Todd Helm lived well into her nineties, said to be in good health and faculties. It was she who provided much of the family history and “lore.”

The book, now some 90 years old, does not claim to dot i’s, cross t’s and otherwise document, certify and validate facts. The story is obviously not first-hand to Emilie Todd Helm, who wasn’t even born at the time. It is possible, however, that other family members knew of it – and it is not unlikely that Mary herself may have told the story to Emilie. Family lore, whether absolute or massaged, is always important in understanding the people involved – especially if it is a good story!


Helm, Katherine – MARY: Wife of Lincoln – Harper and Brothers – 1928

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The Funeral of Dolley Madison: End of an Era

dolley in 1840

Dolley Madison in the 1840s

On July 19, 1849, the largest funeral procession ever held in Washington DC till that time, commemorated the life and death of its most popular resident.

The Venerable Mrs. Madison

Dolley Payne Madison was 81 when she died on July 12, 1849. Her last illness was mercifully brief, and generally painless. Most modern historians believe she had suffered a series of small strokes. Her life, however, had been made up of the stuff of legends.

What was never a legend, was her immense popularity and influence. She never voted, never held public office, refused to take credit for any political policy, insisting that she only believed in “politics by people.” Yet she was the President’s confidante and partner, not merely his consort.


The quintessential FLOTUS Dolley Madison

During the fifty-some years she spent as Mrs. Madison, Dolley was at the pinnacle of political society, and she reigned supreme. What she wore became instant fashion. What she served at her table became cherished recipes for hundreds of imitators. How she greeted her guests – personally, without waiting for them to be introduced to her, changed standard etiquette. Her penchant for snuff and rouge shocked public morals, then quickly became conventional. Visitors to Washington were far more eager to meet her than they were to meet her husband, the President. Even in her elder years, as The Widow Dolley, living frugally in a rented house, her New Year’s Day reception found the creme of political Washington Stopping in immediately after they had attended the White House reception.


President James Madison

James Madison had been her second husband, the first having died only three years after their marriage. Madison was seventeen years her senior, and lived till he was 85. She outlived him by fourteen years. Despite the difference in their ages, and the fact that she was taller and outweighed him, it had little bearing on the true happiness of their married life. He adored her from the start, and she grew to love her “Jemmy” deeply. Throughout the forty years of their marriage, they were seldom separated for more than a couple of weeks.

Eulogizing Dolley

Between word of mouth and newspaper headlines, all of Washington knew of Dolley Madison’s death by the following day. The telegraph, which had made its first appearance a few years earlier (with Dolley’s help!), certainly was utilized to  broadcast the news to the rest of the country.

The Daily Intelligencer (Washington) announced “with saddened heart” the passing of Dolley Madison, and “for ourselves…it would not be easy to speak in terms of exaggeration.”

The New Orleans Daily Picayune wrote only days later, “the softening and dignifying influence of woman in society was never more happily illustrated than in the late Mrs. Madison.”

The Philadelphia Bulletin noted that she had become “almost as well known… as any of our statesmen of the same period.”

In a letter to the editor of the Richmond Whig, it was proposed that the women of Virginia wear a black mourning band for a month as a token of their esteem.

From pulpits across the country, clergymen lauded Mrs. Madison in eloquent speeches and praise.

Dolley’s Funeral

Only a short time before her demise, Dolley formally joined the Episcopal Church. Born and raised a Quaker, she generally relinquished traditional Quaker observances when she married James Madison. During her many years in Washington, she had attended services in St. John’s Church, although she had not become a member. Perhaps realizing that her death was near, and knowing her funeral would be widely attended, she wished to make the relationship official in order to make it easier to plan the proper services.

Her funeral was likened to a state occasion. Both houses of Congress adjourned in order to attend the services and follow the procession. The pall bearers were a Who’s Who of important and prominent people in Washington, as well as being personally important in Dolley’s long life.

The Daily Intelligencer, Washington’s key publication, carried the notice of Dolley Madison’s funeral on July 17, 1849, held at 4 p.m. at St. John’s Church. President Zachary Taylor, a distant relative-by-marriage, attended with members of his family. Rev. Pyne delivered an eloquent and heartfelt eulogy to a packed congregation of Cabinet officers, congressmen, military officers, diplomats, and “citizens and strangers.”

One of the oldest photographs of Montpelier, the Madison home. It is completely restored today as a National Landmark.

By 5:30, the funeral services concluded, and the largest procession ever seen in Washington up to that time, followed the casket from the Church to the Congress Cemetery, where it lay until it was removed to Montpelier, to lay beside her late husband.

The End of An Era

The passing of Dolley Madison ended the line of direct links to our Founding Fathers. She was a kinswoman to Patrick Henry. While she may not have met Benjamin Franklin personally, she was a young woman living in Philadelphia during his last years, and likely had seen him in passing.

George Washington was president when Dolley was a young matron. Her sister had married one of Washington’s nephews. She had attended Martha Washington’s levees. The President personally encouraged her marriage to Madison, suggesting it would be felicitous.

RIP Dolley.

She knew John and Abigail Adams. Many years later, the Widow Madison would become close personal friends with his son, John Quincy, a man her own age.

Thomas Jefferson lived in her mother’s boarding house in Philadelphia; it is said that TJ and Dolley’s mother had known each other in childhood. Then, too, he was James Madison’s closest friend for a half century. James Monroe was also part of that Virginia triumvirate of frequent cherished visitors to the Madison home.

And in her last years, she became close friends with elderly Elizabeth Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton, her husband’s compatriot at the Constitutional Convention. Life had completed its circle.

Dolley knew all of them and they all knew her. And they all loved her.


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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Martha Dandridge, Mistress Custis

martha young-2

Said to be an etching of young Martha Dandridge.

Nearly ten years before she became Mrs. George Washington, Martha Dandridge became Mrs. Daniel Parke Custis.

The Turbulent and Eccentric Daniel Parke 

Daniel Parke insisted his heirs carry the name “Parke.”

Daniel Parke (1669-1710), the grandfather-in-law to Martha Custis, long dead by the time she married into the family, was a big, brawny and difficult man. He was born in Virginia in the mid-seventeenth century, educated in England, and returned to Virginia as a young man. He became very wealthy, owned vast tracts of land and property, and wielded considerable political power. He had a personality and character that could gently be described as debauched and truculent, and practically nobody liked him. To the point of physical fighting and legal battles.

He returned to England in time for the War of the Spanish Succession, was considered a fine soldier, fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough, and was enough of a favorite of Queen Anne to receive honors and position. She appointed him Governor of the Leeward Islands (Antigua). Parke was disappointed since he had hoped for the Governorship of Virginia. His truculence and arrogance appealed even less to the Islanders than it did to the Virginians, and he was assassinated.

He had married years earlier, and sired two children along with several illegitimate children in various locations. He left his legal heirs with a great inheritance, several pending and complicated legal matters, and a mandate to keep the “Parke” name in the family, if they wanted to maintain claim to the inheritance.

The More-Eccentric Custises

Daniel Parke’s daughter Frances married John Custis IV (1678-1749) at a young age. If Parke was a wealthy man with a vast estate, it was easily matched by Custis, who with nearly 18,000 acres across five counties, was considered one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia. They had two children (although Custis, like his father-in-law, was known to have had illegitimate children).

Within a short time, the marriage became sour, rancorous and positively hostile. The couple barely spoke to each other, and then only in an exchange of invective. They had even had drawn up a legal contract of “behavior” so they could manage the proprieties of social engagement.


An etching of Daniel Parke Custis

Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), their son, somehow managed to navigate the shark-infested waters of his parents’ marriage, and generally avoid their vicious temperaments. Even when Frances Custis died (when Daniel was still in his youth), his relationship with his snarly father did not improve. It is said that Jack, a black youth sired by Custis and one of his slaves, was favored far above his legitimate kin. Custis was known to threaten his son with disinheritance from time to time, if he failed to do as bidden. Huge wealth was at stake.

A portrait of Daniel Parke Custis

Daniel  understandably wished to marry, and had twice found likely candidates – both with substantial fortunes of their own. For reasons best known to his belligerent father, both prospects were denied. He eventually moved to a smaller plantation within the family acreage but far enough away from his father to maintain independence. By his mid-thirties, he had practically given up hope for marriage.

Then he met Miss Martha Dandridge.

Miss Dandridge

The small plantation called White House, owned and occupied by Daniel Parke Custis, was in proximity to the 500 acres in New Kent Country owned by John Dandridge, a man of middling gentry.


The White House (rebuilt long afterwards) was originally built and owned by Daniel Parke Custis.

Custis first saw Martha at their Church services, and thought her comely. She was only sixteen, and he was already an old man of thirty-six. Nevertheless, she impressed him enough to seek out her company. She was said to be small, pleasingly plump, with a sweet and modest disposition.

He proposed to Martha when she was seventeen, considered a marriageable age. John Dandridge, was pleased, since he knew of the Custis fortune. Martha was pleased, since she liked Daniel.

Of course irascible John Custis was displeased. The Dandridges were far below them in prestige as well as property, and Custis was wary of “fortune hunters.” Daniel did not seem to care, since by age thirty-seven, he believed he was mature enough to think for himself. Nevertheless, John Custis put the kibosh on the situation, giving the affianced couple his usual grief.

Dandridge vs. Custis

Martha Dandridge may have been a reasonable, docile and ladylike seventeen year old young woman, but she was not spineless. She knew her father-in-law-to-be had a reputation as obstreperous at best, but she also believed that if he met her and knew her better, he might come around.

She was feisty enough to insist upon calling on the old gentleman, and brought an attorney along just in case. She stated her position as a would-be bride for Custis’ adult son; advising the elder man politely, but in no uncertain terms, that she was not a fortune hunter, and that she sincerely cared for Daniel, with or without Custis property. The attorney was not needed.

Like many bullies, a strong woman will make them cave. John Custis was obviously taken by surprise by the young Miss D. and impressed by her colonial-era chutzpah.

Colonel George Washington, Martha’s second husband.

He wound up telling his son there was absolutely no one else he could consent to except Miss Dandridge. He became her ardent supporter.

Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge were married in 1750, only months after the death of John Custis IV. She was just eighteen, and he was twenty years her senior. Despite those differences, they had a happy and fruitful marriage since she bore him four children, two dying when they were under five years old.

But after only eight years of marriage, Daniel died, leaving Martha with two small children and a very large fortune.



Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking Pres – 1910

Desmond, Alice Curtis – Martha Washington, Our First Lady – Dodd, Mead – 1947



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