Between 1849 and 1857, the three First Ladies of the United States were, in their individual ways, indisposed in the true meaning of the word: they did not have the disposition to perform the highly visible social duties that were inherent and necessary to fulfilling that role. They were also “indisposed” for three different reasons.
They were well into their middle years when duty called, deeply entrenched in the modest personal lives they had known and enjoyed for decades. They were more than happy to relinquish the hosting and dancing duties to daughters or nieces or other female relatives. They were even happier to avoid the criticism of a social set whose main avocation was to criticize.
Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor
Margaret Smith Tayor (1788-1852) was born in Maryland to a family of gentry. At twenty-one she married Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), a professional soldier without the benefit of a West Point education. His promotions came through the ranks. In 1810, when they were married, a soldier’s life was a hard one, deployed to isolated outposts, mainly to protect against Indian attacks. Peggy traveled from pillar to army-post, living in barracks, in lean-tos, in tents, forts and whatever dwellings were available. She managed to raise four children to maturity, and by the late 1840s, when she was nearly sixty, looked forward to a retirement on their Baton Rouge plantation, surrounded by family and close friends.
The harsh military life had taken its toll on her, and between age and the lack of comforts, her health had ebbed. Whatever youthful beauty she might have had, had coarsened. While the dignities and manners of a gracious upbringing may have lingered in essence, she likely felt that she was ill-equipped to be the social leader of the nation’s capital, and had no interest in trying.
She chose to remain secluded at the White House, presiding only at the family table. Her married daughter, Betty Blair, was tapped to fulfill the hosting duties. Naturally rumors abounded that Mrs. Taylor smoked a pipe, or was otherwise “unfit” for the role.
About the only thing that Peggy Taylor is known for, was her claim that the “Presidency would shorten both their lives.” She and Zachary Taylor died before their natural term would have ended. She was a prophet.
Abigail Powers Fillmore
Abigail Powers Fillmore (1798-1852) was also disinclined to be First Lady – but for a different reason.
Born in upstate New York, her father died when she was young, and the family had meager means. Having had a fair education (at least for a woman), perhaps to the fifth or sixth grade, she became the village schoolmarm when she was sixteen, and was the first First Lady to work outside the home. She remained in the workforce for several years, and developed a great and sincere love of books and learning in general.
She was still in her teens when she met Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), a local fellow with ambition. She tutored him for a better future. They courted for several years before they were financially able to marry.
Once married with children, Abigail devoted herself to her family, their home in Aurora, New York and the moderate reputation of her lawyer-congressman husband. She channeled her own intellectual abilities into helping found a library society in their town. The letters between the Fillmores are filled with list of books she wanted him to purchase in New York or Philadelphia when he was en route to Washington.
When Fillmore was elected Vice President in 1848, Abigail finally came to Washington. She found “society” boring. She believed the Washington doyennes were superficial, focused on appearance above substance, and above all, loved gossip. So she continued to channel her efforts intellectually, and created the first White House library. When she became First Lady, there wasn’t a book in the place – not even a Bible.
Not long before her coming to Washington, Abigail had broken her ankle. It was set badly and was painful for her to stand in a receiving line for any length of time. It was also an available excuse for her to bow out. This is not to say that Abigail Fillmore locked herself away a la Margaret Taylor. She participated when she was needed, but kept the social scene to a minimum. The Fillmore’s daughter Mary Abigail, was twenty by then, and was happy to fill in for her disinclined, and genuinely bored, mother.
Jane Means Appleton Pierce
Jane Pierce (1806-1863) was a depressive, period. She was also zealously religious. Born in New Hampshire, she did not marry until she was nearly twenty-nine, and considered an old maid. Her disposition was the total opposite of her husband, the genial Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), who had just been elected to Congress.
Jane hated Washington with a passion. She thought the climate was cruel to her frail health, and she disliked the political scene and thought it ungodly. She lost two sons as babies, and devoted herself to raising her remaining boy. She even managed to convince her husband (who loved politics) to give up the national scene, and devote himself strictly to his law practice and local New Hampshire affairs.
When Pierce became the Democratic nominee, and elected President in 1852, it is said that Jane fainted when she heard the news. If the dissatisfaction with the course of events wasn’t enough, eleven-year-old Bennie Pierce was killed in a freak railway accident only a few weeks before the inauguration. Jane was prostrate with grief, and remained secluded in the White House for months. Her aunt-by-marriage was enlisted to handle whatever mild social duties could not be avoided.
When Jane finally made a public appearance, it was sad that her “woebegone expression” made it difficult for anyone to enjoy the gathering.
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