Mrs. Madison: The Most Popular First Lady Ever

Other First Ladies have been better looking, more intellectual or talented. But no one has ever been more popular.

Everybody Knew Dolley


No First Lady has been more universally popular than Dolley Madison.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849) was arguably the best known woman in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. This was no small accomplishment, since communication had only two routes: the spoken word and the written word. Two centuries later, we can only rely on the written evidence – and there was plenty of it! And everybody had nice words for Dolley Madison.

From her early days in Philadelphia, then capital of the new nation, Dolley Payne Todd, recent widow, gained prominence helping her mother run a boarding house catering to several congressmen, one senator and Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State.

Her attractive looks and winsome smile assured her recognition in town; her natural hosting charm at the boarding table won the admiration of the country’s movers and shakers. The marriage of one of her sisters to one of President George Washington’s nephews gained her “family access” to Lady Washington’s levees, where she delighted the cream of Philly.

So well known was the young Widow Todd, that Congressman James Madison wanted to meet her. He was immediately enchanted, and within six months, the two were married. Now as Mrs. Madison, wife of a very important figure in the new nation, she began to make her own mark as a quintessential hostess and political helpmeet.

The Personal Qualities of Dolley

Good looks, a winsome smile and gracious entertaining certainly help earn a reputation for popularity, but there were other deeper, substantive qualities that endeared her to both men and women.

Dolley Madison did not pry.

Dolley admitted on more than one occasion that her “happiest” blessing was a lack of curiosity about other people’s business.  She intuitively knew the difference between “neighborly” (…and how is your dear mother?) and “nosy” (is your homely daughter still unmarried?) This is no mean virtue.

Dolley Madison did not gossip, badmouth or spread rumors.

Guests to Dolley Madison’s “Wednesday evenings” always dressed in their finest, and were on their best behavior.

She practiced the old saying: if you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing.  Nor she did not allow others to demean others in her presence. Both in Philadelphia and later in Washington, when she was at the pinnacle of society, everyone knew that an invitation to Mrs. Madison’s soirees meant that they would be on their best behavior. No one ever wished to offend their lovely hostess.

Dolley Madison never betrayed a trust.

People from all walks of life mixed and mingled at Mrs Madison’s soirees.

Both as the wife of the Secretary of State and later as First Lady, Dolley Madison was privy to knowledge of all kinds: political, personal and private. She seldom, if ever, solicited the information, but if it was shared with her in confidence, it remained with her, in confidence. And that “trust” included marital trust. Dolley did not flirt. The men adored her, but so did their wives, daughters and mothers.

Dolley Madison, Political Helpmeet

Dolley Madison was a product of her own times, and as such, took the customary womanly back seat to her brilliant husband. She dismissed all inference of political influence, saying that hers was only “politics by people.”

earliest known wh image

One of the earliest images of the White House. Washington DC was still a tiny village when the Madison’s lived there.

Her great gift was her ease in bringing people together from all walks of life, high brows and low, and those in between. Her Wednesday evening “squeezes” (so called by the sheer numbers of people who came) permitted Senators to mix with shopkeepers, generals and judges to mingle with farmers and tradesmen, and editors and clergymen to share conversation with hob-nailed rustics passing through town.  All were welcome. All went. And all were appreciative of the “Presidentess'” hospitality.

Rather than having guests introduced to her, Dolley broke tradition by standing near the door and greeting them personally. Since she was sensitive to the shy or “wallflower” type, it was her policy and practice to make sure that all strangers to town were introduced to someone with a common interest. Since she had the politician’s gift for remembering names, faces, places and pertinent details, this was not as daunting as it may sound since  country was a lot smaller!

James Madison, Proud Husband

James Madison (1751-1836), seventeen years senior and half-a-head shorter than his wife, had loved his Dolley from the start. Indications are that she many have had less enthusiasm when they married.  But she always claimed that “their hearts understood each other,” and a deep love and bond grew over the years.


President Madison was always enormously proud of his wife’s popularity.

The “Great Little Madison” (so-called because of his size and his importance in drafting the Constitution) understood both the nature and the substance of his wife’s talents, and how much they added to his personal happiness as well as to his political life.

He was enormously proud of Dolley’s popularity, and knew he could trust her discretion. For himself, he preferred the “small table” – perhaps a dozen guests, which he felt was more conducive to serious discussion. Dolley, or course, was happiest in a crowd. So they compromised and did both.

Dolley always sat at the head of the table; Madison’s secretary at the foot. This way, President Madison could sit mid-table next to guests of his own choosing, was spared serving obligations, and could concentrate on his conversation.  He relied on his tactful and uber-social wife to keep him apprised of everyone’s welfare, their comings and goings, the births and deaths, sickness and health – those personal (and non-confidential) details that everyone in town always entrusted to Mrs. M.

James Madison reveled in his Dolley and her talents, and beamed at her popularity. His own public image was always moderate at best, but Dolley… she was a star of the first magnitude!


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

Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

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

Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill


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The Stewardship of the Second Mrs. Wilson

“Steward” was the word that Edith Bolling Wilson used to describe herself during the last 18-months of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, when he suffered a crippling stroke.

Edith Bolling Wilson: A Conspiracy Theory?

President and Mrs Wilson

The Wilsons, around the time of their marriage in late 1915.

Modern historians, freed by the distance of a century, are poles apart on the subject of the second Mrs. Wilson. Some hail her as “the first woman president.” Others disparage her saying that she took it upon herself to “run the country.”

The middle ground point of view is more inclined to focus on a concerted effort to prevent the extent of the President’s condition from becoming public knowledge.

Edith’s role in the so-called “cover up” was more than political. It was personal. She was still a bride. Woodrow Wilson’s first wife of thirty years had died early in his administration. Eight months later, he met the widowed Edith Galt (1872-1961), and they were married in December, 1915. Less than four years later, Wilson collapsed with a severe stroke.

Edith’s priorities never wavered and were summed up simply: she was married to a sick man who happened to be President of the United States. Her loyalty was to her husband, not to his position as head of state.

With the assistance of Cary Grayson, Wilson’s personal doctor, and Joseph Tumulty, his private secretary, Edith controlled the priorities: Protect Woodrow Wilson from any stress that might exacerbate his condition, or worse, cause another episode.

Woodrow Wilson Has A Stroke

“Recovering” Woodrow Wilson and Dr. Grayson in 1920. (photo via Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, Staunton, VA)

In September, 1919, when Edith heard the thunk in the bathroom, Dr. Grayson was urgently summoned to the President’s room.  He recognized the signs immediately. Specialists were called and they all agreed: Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had had a severe stroke – but he would live. They also agreed that Wilson’s mental impairment was recoverable, but it would require several weeks of bed rest.

The public was told that the President was ill and needed rest, but the details were sketchy at best. Vice President Thomas Marshall was not summoned, nor given any authority or responsibilities.

Dr. Grayson’s thinking, generally corroborated by the attending specialists, was that Woodrow Wilson needed to maintain his “aura” of being The President; if that was removed (i.e. divested to the Vice President) he would lose his will to live. That thought became primary in Edith’s mind: her husband must be protected from stress, and he must remain President.


WWI takes its toll. The Wilsons at the inauguration in March, 1917.

Between Mrs. Wilson, Tumulty and Grayson, who churned out regularly-sweetened reports of the President’s condition, they carefully orchestrated Wilson’s infrequent appearances, once he was permitted to resume some of his duties. The formidable Mrs. Wilson was in constant attendance, often taking notes – at the President’s request, she claimed.

Edith Wilson: Steward or Dragon Lady?

In the memoirs she wrote twenty years later, Edith Wilson insisted that she made no presidential decisions and assumed no government functions. Her only decisive role, she said, was to determine what was to be brought to the President’s attention, and when: a very important decision.


Even as an “older” widow, Edith Wilson remained a formidable presence.

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson was an intimidating woman, both physically and in personality. She stood 5’9″ in her stockings, and was the largest First Lady to that time. She was considered “Junoesque” in physique, nose-to-nose to most of the political men she encountered.

It was Mrs. Wilson who summoned them on occasion; it was Mrs. Wilson who received them; it was Mrs. Wilson  who was on hand to change the subject, if she thought it might be upsetting for her husband and it was Mrs. Wilson who let them know when time was up when they visited the President.

Like a fire-breathing dragon protecting his cave, Edith became an obstacle to members of congress, the cabinet, the press and to some extent, the country as a whole. No one got past her, and as time went on, few of her contemporaries liked her.

Truth or Half-Truth?

Frail ex-President Woodrow Wilson. After his stroke, he never walked again without two canes and/or an aide.

The basic truth is that Wilson did recover to a fair extent, although he had some permanent paralysis and would never walk again without two canes.

His mental acumen, while somewhat reduced, was by no means incompetent. He could read and understand; his memory, while somewhat impaired, was still primarily sound. He was still, for the most part, running the show – whatever show that was.

What was impaired, was his emotional health, his personality, his disposition, and to a fair extent, his judgment. This is a common phenomenon with stroke victims. He cried easily. His fixation on the League of Nations, the key point to the Treaty that concluded World War I, amounted to intransigence. Always flinty with his peers, he became flintier and paranoid, accusing anyone who disagreed with him to be “treacherous.”  The one time Edith suggested that he might compromise, he looked at her piteously saying, “Don’t you turn on me, too.”  She was devastated and never did it again.

Today the Vice President would be summoned at once, and would assume presidential responsibilities. In 1919, however, there was no real constitutional mechanism for a Vice President to assume responsibilities for an incapacitated President. Vice President Marshall cringed at the thought. The status quo needed to be maintained.

Was Edith “running the country” as many people claimed? Had she “become the President?” These are hostile remarks, never said with admiration, let alone any appreciation. Those who knew her at that time grew to dislike her intensely, as do many modern historians. The perception was that she prevented  access to the President. She was the gate-keeper. The dragon protecting the cave.

She alienated most of those associated with the Wilson era, and when several of them wrote their own books, she believed she was treated badly or unfairly.  She wrote her memoirs to present her “side” of the story, which, as might be expected, was skewed to her own advantage.

The only thing to her benefit, was the fact that she lived to be nearly ninety, and outlived all the “Wilsonians,” thus having the final say in the matter.


  • Levin, Phyllis Lee – Edith and Woodrow – 2001, Lisa Drew Book
  • Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – 2010, University Press of Kansas
  • Schachtman, Tom – Edith and Woodrow – 1981, GP Putnam’s Sons
  • Weinstein, Edward A. – Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography – 1981, Princeton University Press
  • Wilson, Edith Bolling – My Memoir – 1939, Bobbs Merrill
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Lincoln and the Jews: A Book Review

The Book.

Lincoln and the Jews, by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, is an important book on many levels. First, it is a beautiful book, and very very classy. The illustrations, while not rivaling Michelangelo, are copies of historical ephemera: letters, photographs, newspaper articles and related items. Many are priceless because they are written in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand. The others are important because they are personal connections to Abraham Lincoln.

While much of the illustrated ephemera comes from the Library of Congress or similar Lincoln archives, the bulk of it is from the world-renowned private collection of Benjamin Shapell, lovingly assembled, preserved, protected, and now available to all.

It is not leather-bound and gold-tooled, but it is a book that looks wonderful on the coffee table or the shelf. Or read in entirety. The publishers should be proud.

The Great Man

Then of course, as the title suggests, the book concerns Abraham Lincoln, and is an essential to any and all interested parties, scholars, and collectors of Lincolniana. During the last century and a half, practically everything of even remote interest and connection to Lincoln has been assiduously ferreted out, documented, protected, described and fit to belong to the ages. That new, undiscovered, or hidden-away-for-a-century material has surfaced (or resurfaced) makes Lincoln and the Jews a great and rare treasure. It opens up a hitherto unknown, or under-known aspect of the sixteenth president.

The Jews

Then there is the Jewish connection. Even rarer.

There are no surprises here regarding Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes or treatment toward the handful of Jewish people whose paths he crossed during his adult life. (It is surmised that in his “annals of the poor” upbringing, he had no early Jewish acquaintances.)

By Lincoln’s election in 1860, there were perhaps 150,000 Jewish people in the United States, scattered throughout the country, mostly in pockets of urban areas. It is undeniable that anti-Semitic attitudes permeated, as they always did and do, creating some of the clannish and insular connotations that fed the anti-Semitism. After all, 1860 still acknowledged the pervasive “Know-Nothing” nativism of the previous decade, and some of the “best people,” the people of importance, of prominence, of wealth and power unabashedly held those negative attitudes.

But not Lincoln. Even if this book had no documentation of his ecumenical attitudes toward his Jewish acquaintances, everything we know about him suggests open, fair, respectful and kindly behavior toward all with whom he came in contact, regardless of race, religion, nationality or circumstance. Frederick Douglass, who met Lincoln on a few occasions, remarked that he never felt any distinction because of his color. It is likely that Lincoln’s Jewish connections felt similarly. In other words, Lincoln was a mensch. A human being. No surprise here.

The two important and well-known connections between Lincoln and the Jews, were not  about individual people, but had farther-reaching connotations. He supported appointing Jewish chaplains in the Union army. Where there had been none, by the end of the Civil War, there were fifty. Then there was rescinding Grant’s infamous General Order #11, the expulsion of Jewish sutlers from his army, a sad blot on the Grant escutcheon. Lincoln did not wish to have a whole class or nationality condemned “because of a few sinners.”

What is a semi-surprise, is the number of Jews who rippled around the sixteenth president’s life. There is a wonderful graphic illustration in the front of the book, suggesting just such a ripple effect of the Jews in Lincoln’s circle. A few were long-time acquaintances. By Lincoln’s own words, at least one was a “valued friend.” Abraham Jonas shared a first name, and knew Lincoln since his early days in Springfield. He rode the court circuit with him; he likely broke bread with him during those weeks away from home. He was one of the first who promoted and supported him for President. Lincoln knew the Jonas family, and a half-century later, one of their sons recalled having the martyred President pat his head or tousle his hair. Such was the importance of the remembered link.

And such was the importance of any link, that well into the twentieth century, Jews who were young children with no personal memory of Lincoln, treasured those mementos of their family’s connection – no matter how slight or remote.

The Religious Link

Lincoln was never formally associated with any particular denomination, nor did he join any specific church, although his wife Mary, a lifelong Presbyterian, attended regular services. He occasionally went with her.

This lack of church-going formality does not make a person a non-believer. Lincoln had a deep reverence for God, and was surprisingly knowledgeable in the Scriptures. Mostly Old Testament. In a detailed study of all Lincoln’s scriptural quotes, Old vs. New Testament, the Old predominates.

Judaism has always been perceived as a “questioning” rather than blindly dogmatic faith. In the Jewish religion, questioning is not only permitted, it is usually encouraged. It makes for more conceptual, and hopefully wiser, thinking. Lincoln was undeniably self-educated, and a deeply conceptual thinker. It would not be unreasonable to ponder how much that concept of “questioning” appealed to him, or if he recognized that aspect in the few Jewish people of his closer acquaintance.

The Importance of Lincoln and the Jews

Historians and lay folk can debate the importance of this book forever; some may consider it insignificant or arcane, in that it deals with a minuscule percentage of the population, and not especially mistreated. Black slaves numbered in the millions, and their needs were far greater than the American Jews of 1860.

But even after more than 150 years of space-time, and in an age where esteem has become an endangered species, Lincoln and the Jews is important because of the enormity of respect given to all involved.

Throughout Jewish history, it has always been the wise man who is revered by the community, and in American history, there are few men who consistently displayed such depth of wisdom as Abraham Lincoln. The great respect for this wisdom is pervasive throughout Lincoln and the Jews, and does credit to its author and collector.

Lincoln and the Jews

Sarna, Jonathan D. and Shapell, Benjamin

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2015


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McKinley and Bryan: The First Battle of the Bills,1896

William McKinley, long time Congressman and former Ohio Governor, was the odds-on favorite Republican candidate for president in 1896.

McKinley: Bill the First

[Wm. McKinley]

William McKinley, a kindly and conservative Republican candidate.

William McKinley (1843-1901) was a sweetheart of a fellow. An Ohioan of a poor, hardworking family, he enlisted in the Civil War as an eighteen-year-old private, and remained for the full four years, eventually becoming a major.  According to the tenets of his deep Methodist faith, he didn’t smoke, drink, swear, play cards, dance, gamble or chase women. Nevertheless, he was immensely popular with his comrades, and would have hundreds of friends during his lifetime.

His commanding officer, and long-time mentor, was Brig. General Rutherford B. Hayes, who took a liking to this clean-living young man, and encouraged him to study law. Once the war ended, McKinley followed his mentor’s advice, moved to Canton, Ohio, opened a law practice, joined every organization in town, and married the daughter of the local banker.

He was elected to Congress in 1876, when he was thirty-three, and served for seven terms, becoming a leading expert in tariffs and all things money-ish. He mellowed somewhat, and managed to pick up a few vices of camaraderie, in particular cigar smoking, a nip of whiskey or brandy on occasion, and playing benign card games – for points, not money. He also was extremely popular among his peers. It is said that they usually apologized first before arguing with his remarks on the Congressional floor.

Bryan: Bill the Second

William Jennings Bryan, young and dynamic and a Democrat.

Devout Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was almost young enough to be McKinley’s son. A middle class midwesterner, Bryan came of age in the post-Civil War era, when the “grange” movement began to peak. Farmers were in despair about high prices, usually due to tariffs, a very complicated and excruciatingly boring subject.

Bryan became a lawyer, located himself in Nebraska, and identified himself firmly with the nascent “populist” movement, which was associated with the “Free Silver” movement. They espoused free coinage of silver to make more money available, particularly to the farmers who needed it. This was seen as inflationary and a severe threat to the American economy, mostly by the Eastern money-men who knew about such things. To further clinch his rural-religious and we-the-people credentials, he was an ardent prohibitionist, never drinking anything stronger than root-beer.

The Power of Oratory

During the 19th Century, one key to political success was oratory. Early Presidents, i.e. Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, had mediocre powers of speech-making. Even Lincoln was said to be only middling as a public speaker.

But in those days before radio and television enabled a candidate to come into the living room of John Q. Public, political speech making was as popular a civic event as a sporting match. People came in droves to hear a good stump and thump.

McKinley was fair in that department, but William Jennings Bryan was the master of his voice. A good sized, barrel-chested and handsome man, he could be easily heard, even in a large venue. He had the flair of the dramatic.  He understood the power of the raised brow, the pregnant pause, the modulation between thunder and a near-whisper.

And it was this power that catapulted him to prominence in 1896.

The Democratic Candidate

Color lithography had become affordable and popular. Both candidates made good use of their images.

Bryan had served for two terms as an unremarkable Congressman. He ran for the Senate in 1894, and lost. He published a Nebraska newspaper and supported the Democratic, Free Silver, Prohibition and Populist causes.

In 1896, he was asked to make a speech at the Democratic Convention endorsing the free coinage of silver. He made history, instead. His “Cross of Gold” speech was one of the most mesmerizing pieces of oratory ever delivered at that time, and he swept the entire convention into a frenzy of support. He may (or may not) have given a thought to being its candidate, but the man, the speech and the moment had come together.

He would be the youngest presidential candidate of a major party. Ever. He was thirty-six.

The Battle of 1896

Many historians claim that the election of 1896 was the first “modern” presidential election. Indeed it had many elements that are still important today. The difference between “the Bills” was not merely a difference in political philosophies or agendas (which it was, of course), but it was also a difference between energy and money.

The color celluloid campaign button first made its appearance in 1896, and has proliferated ever since.

Bryan, young and aggressive, had a youthful vitality and energy that predated a young Theodore Roosevelt. He gave new meaning to the word “campaigning.” Prior to this time, it was unseemly for a candidate to actively seek office. “Standing” for election, rather than “running” for it, was the accepted way. Bryan ran. He traveled the entire country, happy to give his Cross of Gold (or other) speech to anyone who would listen. And everybody was listening to this “Silver-Tongued Orator of the Platte” as they called him.

Bryan’s “Democratic platform,” as it were, was considered radical for the time, yet today, many of the progressive reforms he espoused have long been a part of everyday society: woman suffrage, minimum wage, an income tax, labor arbitration and only two terms for a President.  McKinley’s “platform” was more subdued and devoted to the long recognized continuation of sensibly-tried-and-true.

McKinley and his running mate, Garret Hobart. Every club and organization produced its own campaign buttons.

But while Bryan criss-crossed the country at a frenetic pace, McKinley, partially in deference to his semi-invalid wife, chose to remain in Canton, Ohio, and let visitors come to him. They did. In droves. Meanwhile, his long-time closest friend, Marcus A. Hanna, one of the wealthiest industrialists in Ohio, was delighted to spend a good part of his vast fortune “advertising” McKinley. There had been campaign “souvenirs” before; handbills, scarves, parade banners and songs. But now there were color photographs, colored posters plastered on barn walls, trinkets, cigar silks, and the very latest gimmick: celluloid buttons with the candidate’s photo on it! Things that we recognize today as “premiums” were disseminated with abandon. They were immensely popular, and became a instant component of modern political campaigning.

Money talked. It talked louder and clearer than William Jennings Bryan the orator. McKinley won easily.

But the Battle of the Bills had only just begun.


Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964

Prescott, Lawrence J. – The Great Campaign of 1896 – Loyal Publishing Col., 1896


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Ulysses S. Grant: The Locket Story

  When Ulysses S. Grant met Julia Dent, it was love at first sight.

Grant Meets Dent

Young Lt. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), recently graduated from West Point, was a frequent guest at the Dent home for several weeks before he met their eldest daughter.

Grant had been the academy roommate of Fred Dent. When they graduated, young Dent encouraged Grant, about to be deployed to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis (a popular first assignment for young officers) to call on his family. He assured his pal that he would be welcome.

Once situated at Jefferson Barracks, Lt. Grant duly rode out to White Haven, the Dents’ modest plantation, where Col. and Mrs. Dent embraced him warmly, and told him “not to be a stranger.” Lt. Grant began coming for Sunday dinners. The Dents were a tight-knit and outgoing family, something totally new for Grant, whose own family had a peculiar dynamic: half boisterous, half silent.

Wedding photo of Grant

Perhaps the earliest photograph taken of Ulysses S. Grant, taken after he had graduated from West Point.

Some weeks later, Julia Dent graduated from her St. Louis boarding school and returned home. She finally met her brother’s friend.

Julia was not a particularly pretty young woman. Nor classically educated. Nor witty or talented. But the attraction between her and Grant was apparent from the start. They could talk to each other with complete openness and understanding. Some would call it a simpatico. Some would say soul-mate. Grant began coming to White Haven several times a week.

The Secret Engagement

A few months later, Grant was re-deployed, and found himself uncharacteristically depressed. When he began to think about the reasons for his despondency, he realized that he did not want to leave Julia. He had fallen in love.

He proposed to her, but Julia was hesitant. It was not that she didn’t love Grant. She did. But she knew that her parents, who were fond of the young man as their son’s buddy, would not approve of him as a son-in-law. First off, they were both too young. Julia had just turned eighteen; Grant was only twenty-one. And secondly, Second Lieutenants in the Army were paid meagerly.  The Dents wanted their daughter to enjoy the luxuries of life.

Ulysses Grant could not counter those valid arguments. They were too young; his earning power was small. But they decided to become engaged, and at her insistence, it was a secret engagement. Grant agreed, and offered to give her his West Point ring. Julia again hesitated to accept the ring at that time, so Grant gave her his photograph.

Julia offered the common-for-the-time lady’s love token: a lock of her hair.

Grant encased it in a locket and wore it on a silver chain around his neck.

The Grant Marriage

Grant wore that locket for four years, during which time he saw Julia only once, and for a brief time, but after his service in the War with Mexico, he returned to St. Louis to collect his bride. This time, the young man who rode up the path to White Haven was a tanned, tough twenty-six year old Captain. Old enough to marry. Julia was twenty-two. Old enough to marry.

Grant and Wife

Very few photographs were taken of Julia Grant. Her “wandering” eye problem made her sensitive to the camera.

If they had any trepidations about their love “lasting” through the long separation, it was dispelled very quickly. Whatever feeling they had; whatever bond was between them, their emotions remained strong and true, including the strength of character and unswerving loyalty essential to both of them.

The Dents could find no objections to the marriage, and Ulysses and Julia married in 1848.

They had good times and bad, some wonderfully good, and some horribly bad. But they rode the years through together and inseparably. They had four children, and seldom if ever, had a serious quarrel. He was, according to the Victorian expression, “her all.” And she was his Rock of Gibraltar.

The Ups and Downs of the Grant Marriage

The bad times of the Grant marriage occurred in the early years, when the loneliness of military separation resulted in Grant’s battle of the bottle. After resigning from the army in disgrace, he spent the better part of ten years floundering – with no real vocation or motivation. Or money. Julia Grant (1822-1901) never wavered or complained.

Julia rt. profile

Mrs. Grant usually posed for the camera in profile. This is the photograph usually used from her terms as First Lady.

Grant as President

General Grant, and later President Grant, was photographed many times.

The good times that followed were phenomenal: The premier Union General during the Civil War, the Hero of Appomattox, and finally, a two-term President of the United States. That was followed by a stupendous trip around the world, feted and fed by monarchs who fell all over themselves hosting the most famous man in the world. Julia Grant was delighted by the attention.

Then came the opportunity to partner in an investment company. Grant had no knowledge or experience in investments, but those matters were to be handled by his partner, Ferdinand Ward. It started out brilliantly. Grant became a rich man.

Then came more bad times. Really bad times. Ward was a scoundrel, and the investment brokerage imploded, with General Grant holding the proverbial bag of debts that he insisted would be repaid. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was also diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the throat.

The Death of General Grant

Grant’s wife and children were all with him during his final days. It was a very close family unit.

In a great effort to repay the brokerage debts, provide for his family, and maintain his good name, the dying man wrote his Civil War memoirs, which would be the family salvation.

For the last weeks of his life, during the summer of 1885, he was taken to Mt. McGregor, not far from Saratoga Springs in New York, where it was believed the cooler mountain air might bring him some comfort from his excruciating pain. His family rallied around him, and Julia was never out of earshot.

Only a week after Grant completed the final galley corrections, he died.   Undertakers were called in to prepare his body for the immense funeral and procession that would take place.  It is said that when they undressed him, he was still wearing the silver chain and locket containing Julia’s hair. He had never taken it off.


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, Julia – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, G.P. Putnam’s, 1975

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Mary Lincoln’s Rivals

photo posted on

Harriet Lane, bachelor President Buchanan’s niece, was a popular hostess in the late 1850s. She had been presented to Queen Victoria – a gold star on anyone’s social resume.

Thirty year old Harriet Lane enjoyed a hugely popular tenure as de facto First Lady in the late 1850s. Her social leadership was as successful as her Uncle James Buchanan’s political administration was a flop. When First Lady-to-be Mary Lincoln arrived in Washington, she had a hard act to follow.

Mary Lincoln Makes Enemies

Many people believed that Kentucky bred-Illinois wed Mary was a Southern sympathizer. Perhaps an actual spy. She wasn’t.

mary for suite

Mary Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861, fully convinced that she was equal to the task of being the social leader of the country.

Washington society women were dismissive of her “taste” and “culture,” believing that she was as humbly born as Lincoln. She wasn’t that either.  A contingent of somewhat smarmy Congressional wives called on her prior to the inauguration to offer their “assistance” in helping her over the societal shoals, as it were. Smarmy yes, but they meant no harm. Mary Lincoln, offended at the inference that she wasn’t up to snuff, let them know it. The “advisory committee” left in a huff, and seldom if ever attended her receptions. They were content to host their own lavish salons and snipe at the First Lady.

Mary Lincoln Makes A Major Enemy

Kate Chase was the uber-snotty, cultured and sophisticated twentyish daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. She was everything Mary was not: young, tall, slender, pretty, cosmopolitan, rich and very smart.

When she met Mrs. Lincoln, shortly after the inauguration, the First Lady greeted her pleasantly and invited Kate to call again. Kate then insinuated that Mary would be welcome to call on her. Kate knew better – and so did Mary. It was the supreme gaffe. First Ladies only receive; they do not pay calls. Kate Chase immediately took first place at the top of Mrs. Lincoln’s antipathy list.

Young, tall, slim and pretty Kate Chase was willing to barter her marital happiness for an infusion of money to support her father’s political ambitions.

Salmon P. Chase, a former Governor of Ohio, had had a decade of political leadership as an ardent abolitionist. Thrice widowed to pretty women who died young, he lavished his affections and considerable wealth on Kate, who was thrilled to take an important role as his escort and hostess. Her salons were attended by the crème of society. Chase desperately wanted to be President, and even as a cabinet secretary, plotted to head the Republican ticket in 1864. Kate was determined to further that goal with every social skill she possessed. That alone was enough to antagonize Mrs. Lincoln.

In early 1862, the Lincoln’s 12-year-old son died, and Mary went into deep mourning. In addition to her intense grief, the proprieties of mourning were strict, and Mrs. Lincoln’s role as society leader was on hold for over a year. Miss Chase was delighted to pick up that slack, and the Chase mansion became the mecca of social Washington – particularly among those who were not thrilled with Lincoln.

Kate married in 1863.  The groom was William Sprague, a nasty drinker, philanderer and “political general” via being the Governor of Rhode Island. But Sprague had an immense fortune, and the Chase funds were running low. Kate willingly bartered her marital happiness (and she would be very unhappy) for the Sprague infusion of money for her father’s presidential ambitions.

Mary positively loathed Kate (the aversion was mutual), and refused to attend the wedding. Lincoln went alone, pleading the First Lady’s ubiquitous “unwellness.” Mary had her faults, but hypocrisy was not one of them. She couldn’t stand the bride, and couldn’t force the smile.

Then, of course, there was the time the Lincolns were hosting a large diplomatic dinner and Mary deliberately scratched Chase-and-daughter from the guest list. It created such a protocol furor that Lincoln personally had to override the insult and scratch their names back in.

Mary’s True Rival Waiting in the Wings

The beauteous Kate was Mary Lincoln’s chief rival for nearly four years, but in 1864 there appeared another, even more formidable. This rival, however, was nothing like Kate Chase. She was fortyish, plain as a post, rather dumpy and unfashionable, not overly smart or politically savvy, and positively clueless that she was a social contender.

Julia Grant_2

Julia Grant, the plain and dowdy wife of Ulysses S. Grant, would be given a complete makeover by the social-minded Congressional wives.

Julia Grant, mother of four like Mary, was the homey and homely wife of Ulysses S. Grant, now General of the Army, and next to Lincoln, the most important man in the Union. He was as unpolitically inclined as his wife, but they were both willing to learn.

The same society matrons who had incurred Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath in 1861 were quick to flock to Mrs. General Grant in 1864, and offer her that same assistance in navigating the socio-political waters of Washington. Julia, a genuinely nice lady, appreciated the offer and attention – and probably realized she could use the help.   She became very popular, mainly because so few (other than Mary Lincoln) saw her as a threat to anything. The Grants became the honored guests at everyone’s soirees – and they went as often as Grant was available.

The only time Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant actually spent time in each others’ company, Mrs. L. was on her absolutely worst behavior, accusing Mrs. G. of “waiting in the wings” and wanting to be in her place. Poor Julia didn’t know what hit her. All she did know, is that she did not wish to be in Mrs. Lincoln’s company again, a situation tragically fulfilled by Lincoln’s assassination only days later.

Mary Lincoln would have no more rivals. Her place as widow of our martyred president was singular and unenviable. No one wanted to be in her place ever again.


  • Clinton, Catherine – Lincoln: A Life, 2009, HarperCollins
  • DONALD, David Herbert – Lincoln, Simon and Schuster, 1995
  • Grant, Julia – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) Southern Illinois University Press, 1988
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Ike and Mamie’s First House

Mamie Doud was only nineteen when she married Second Lt. Dwight D. Eisenhower, recently graduated from West Point.

The Eisenhower Bride and Groom

Lt. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower about the time of their marriage in 1916.

While Mama and Papa Doud adored Ike, and would consider him their “son” for the rest of their long lives, they were not thrilled at the marriage. Mamie, they believed, was much too young. She was also somewhat pampered and spoiled, and the Douds were concerned that she would not adapt well to the restrictions of army life. Mamie came from well-to-do stock, with all the luxuries that upper middle class money could buy. Second Lieutenants  do not earn fortunes.

They needn’t have worried. While Mamie was noticeably deficient in the housewife-arts, and would never master sewing, knitting or cooking, she did have some hitherto unknown gifts that would enable her to be a superb military spouse.

The Talents of Mamie

Like Ike, Mamie had a wall-to-wall smile that invited friendships from the start.  They were delighted to mingle with the other junior officers at card parties and pot-luck suppers and whatever activities were popular.  They were just as happy to take their turn as hosts, and for the next twenty-five years of their marriage, wherever they were deployed, their quarters became “Club Eisenhower.” Senior officers also took notice of the capable young lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower and his cute little slip-of-a-thing wife.

Another hidden talent was her ability to pack and move at practically no notice. Ditto unpack and move in within the day. Mamie Eisenhower claimed that they moved twenty times in twenty years, so she had mega-experience. She kept the crates and boxes in storage, each neatly marked for its contents. Then, when it came time to “unpack,” and the large furniture was in place, Mamie immediately hung the pictures and placed ashtrays and knick-knacks in their usual places, so when Ike came home that evening, it really was home. Clothing, kitchen goods and all the closet-and-cupboard items could wait till later.

The Great General

The quintessential General Eisenhower. No matter how many stars were on his shoulder, he always had that common touch.

All that changed with World War II, and Ike was promoted over more than a hundred officers with seniority. The “General” who planned and implemented the monumental D-Day Invasion of Europe was now the Great General with five stars on his shoulders, and his choice of future plans.

Shortly after the War, Ike wrote Crusade in Europe, about his wartime efforts, and it was a huge best-seller.  Money was no object now. They could afford a house.

In 1948, Ike “retired” from active duty, and accepted a position as President of Columbia University, in New York City. It came with a house.

But Ike and Mamie wanted their own digs. They were both past fifty and had never owned a house.

Ike & Mamie Rediscover Gettysburg

The Gettysburg farm was the first and only house that Ike and Mamie every owned.

Early in their marriage, the young Eisenhowers had been deployed in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and had loved the area, with its beautiful rolling hills, quiet seclusion and deep historic significance. They found an old farm, with dilapidated buildings, cows, chickens and 189 acres, for only $40,000 (about $400,000 today.) They bought it, even though they knew it would require a lot of work. They did not know that it would be years before they could move in and enjoy it.

In 1951, Ike was “recruited” again as the Supreme Commander of NATO, the mutual European defense organization formed after the War. It came with a house, too. The Eisenhowers’ Gettysburg farm would have to wait.

Then, despite saying “no” several times, General Eisenhower was “recruited” again – this time as Republican Candidate for President in 1952. He won easily. The new job also came with a house, and a nice one at that.

Ike and Mamie Rebuild The Farm

Ike and Mamie spent as much of their presidency as possible at their Gettysburg farm.

The responsibilities of the Presidency and the First Ladyhood did not prevent the Eisenhowers from tackling the job of making their own “farm” habitable, and suitable for the President of the United States.

Buildings had to be torn down and new ones erected, to Mrs. Ike’s specification. She had become accustomed to being the General’s Wife, and could be picky. They knew that some of their houseguests would be world leaders and heads of state. Fixing up the Gettysburg farm cost Ike more than $2,000,000 (in today’s money), and it would take the better part of his first term in office.

It would not be until late 1955 that the Eisenhowers could actually use their new home – at least part time. But once it was habitable, Ike and Mamie enjoyed their farm as few other First Families did. It was a “c’mon down” place.

The POTUS and FLOTUS hosted the entire White House staff at their Gettysburg farm.

The Comfy Eisenhowers

Ike and Mamie had their own style, and it was apple pie American! Their furnishings were not elaborate. Many of their “treasures” were trinkets from old friends.  Or souvenirs and gifts from the powerful and famous leaders of the world.  After all, General Eisenhower (the title he preferred, like Washington and Grant) was probably the most famous man in the world.

The sun porch. They could play cards or read magazines or Ike could paint. Or watch TV and have supper on tray-tables.

Their special retreat was the sunroom, where they could play cards or watch television, something they both loved to do. It is said that after all the high falutin’ banquets and dinners of the grand stage, they were delighted to have soup and sandwiches on tray-tables in their sunroom, and watch the Ed Sullivan Show.

Ike willed the Gettysburg farm to the country, with the proviso that he could live there for the remainder of his life; it was amended to include the same provision for Mamie. It was her first house, and her last house. She lived there until her death in 1978.


Eisenhower, David & Eisenhower, Julie Nixon – Going Home to Glory – Simon and Schuster, 2010

Eisenhower, Susan – Mrs. Ike –  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996

Lester, David and Lester, Irene – Ike and Mamie – G.P. Putnam, 1981

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