John Tyler Woos MRS. Gardiner

President John Tyler.

Mr. and Mrs. Tyler 1:

On his twenty-third birthday, John Tyler (1790-1861) married Miss Letitia Christian, the daughter of a wealthy pedigreed Virginia family. The courtship was traditional, the marriage bore fruit: eight little Tyler’s made an appearance, seven living to maturity.

Letitia Christian Tyler, the first Mrs. T.

Like many Southern gentlemen of that time, Tyler pursued a triple career: planter, lawyer and statesman. In the odd vagaries of early 19th century politics, Tyler, a strong follower of the Thomas Jefferson-states rights Democrats, became the vice-presidential running mate for Whig William Henry Harrison in 1840.

But even before Tyler’s election as Vice-President, Letitia had a severe stroke. She was not even fifty.

When the continuing vagaries of politics made John Tyler President a month later, following the unexpected death of Harrison, Letitia Tyler came to the White House with their seven children, but was confined to her bed or chair.  Her health continued to decline. Her daughters, and her daughter-in-law assumed the traditional First Lady role.

Miss Julia Gardiner

One of the earliest images of Julia Gardiner.

Julia Gardiner (1820-1889) was 21 or 22 when her family came to Washington DC for the social season. They were a wealthy New York family with four marriageable children.  The Gardiners, and in particular, Mrs. Juliana Lachlan Gardiner, expected her children to marry well.

Miss Julia, pretty, charming, properly educated and extremely proficient in the social graces, was an immediate hit. She attracted several potential suitors, but they were at least twice her age. She charmed, but declined.

Naturally enough, since Washington was still a small town and practically “seasonal” in population, the prominent Gardiner family was invited to the White House on occasion. President Tyler past fifty, still presented a fine figure of a man: tall, slim, considered an excellent horseman, and possessed of a courtly manner.

Julia Gardiner, about the time she was being wooed by the President.

The Gardiners returned to New York following their “season,” but before they returned to DC a few months later, Letitia Tyler had died. This “season,” the widowed President began casting his interested eye on the lovely Julia – a full thirty years his junior.

Julia was flattered. Pretty, somewhat spoiled and very wealthy, she had received many proposals from old men. It was becoming tiresome. But John Tyler, politically and personally, was a persistent man, and the presidency itself was certainly a bonus. She was wavering.

The Princeton Tragedy

In early 1844, the gunboat Princeton was the star of the US Navy, and a revolutionary new cannon nicknamed “Peacemaker” had been installed. The President had invited some 200 guests on a party cruise down the Potomac to demonstrate the new gun. Julia Gardiner and her father, David Gardiner, were included.

It was a disaster that provided the impetus for John Tyler and Julia Gardiner to become closer.

After several successful firings, while most of the guests were below deck for refreshments, the gun was fired again – but this time it misfired. Six were killed, including Julia’s father.

The President was deeply solicitous of the Gardiner family, providing bouquets and letters of condolence and discreet invitations to “suitable” small luncheons or teas. Julia, always a daddy’s girl, had just lost her daddy; Tyler the father-figure became more and more appealing. Julia said yes, pending the customary mourning traditions – and absolute permission from her mother.

Juliana Lachlan Gardiner

Juliana Lachlan Gardiner (1799-1864) was nearly nine years younger than the President. As the only surviving child of a very wealthy New York brewer, she had inherited a substantial fortune, which in time increased exponentially in value. At sixteen, she married David Gardiner, fifteen years her senior, who owned valuable property in the Hamptons on Long Island. Their combined wealth was staggering.

With little to do other than count his money, David Gardiner served for a few years as NY State Senator – and retained the title thereafter. Juliana was the formidable household manager: firm and controlling. Their four children (two boys, two girls, in that order) had the finest of everything: clothing, jewels and carriages, traditionally excellent educations, posh vacations and top-drawer acquaintances. Nothing but the best was good enough for Juliana Gardiner.

Mrs. Gardiner: Good Enough?

President Tyler, now encouraged by his intended, duly wrote to Mrs. Gardiner “to obtain your consent to our marriage, which in all dutiful obedience she refers to your decision,” adding that “[his] position in Society will I trust serve as a guarantee for the appearance which I give.”

A more mature Julia Gardiner Tyler.

Of course Juliana knew his position in Society. Being President had considerable value. She also knew that Tyler came from a prominent Virginia family. But his comfortable material wealth paled in comparison to the extremely wealthy and pretentious Gardiners. Juliana had no objection to their 30-year age-gap, nor the fact that the widower already had seven children and a few grandchildren. Or even the fact that she herself was several years younger than her daughter’s suitor.

It was money, plain and simple. She had to insist that anyone who married her daughter provide “all the necessary comforts and elegancies of life” – something all her children had enjoyed throughout their lives, and which (to her) was deemed essential.

For a woman who had recently been bereaved, Juliana immediately got to the nub: Did Tyler have enough money?

“Sherwood Forest,” The Tyler plantation in Virginia. Nice place!

The President was not nearly in the category of the uber-wealthy Gardiners, but he was a mean of means and property. He also sincerely loved Miss Julia, and vowed to her formidable and materialistic mother, that her daughter would want for nothing.  Mrs. G. acquiesced, and even poured some Gardiner-money in to the White House, which had not been up to her aristocratic snuff.

Turns out that John and Mrs. Tyler 2 had a happy marriage for the next twenty-one years – until his death.  And they had another seven children!  And Juliana Gardiner was always a welcome part of their lives.


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

Seager, Robert III – And Tyler Too, McGraw Hill, 1963


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Abigail Adams, Mater Familias.

abigail and john

James Abigail and John Adams

Abigail Adams raised four children of her own. She eventually raised nearly a dozen more as part of her extended family.

Abigail’s Immediate Family Circle

The four children born to John and Abigail Smith Adams were not a stellar bunch. Only their eldest son, John Quincy, rose to meet the high expectations his parents set for him. The other three led far more sorrowful lives.


Abigail (Nabby) Adams Smith. Her marriage was not a happy one.

Abigail (Nabby) Adams married a young man with her parents’ consent and approval. William Smith (no relation to Abigail’s family), one of George Washington’s aides during the Revolutionary War, had been engaged as John Adams’ secretary in London. When a romance between Col. Smith and their daughter blossomed, the Adamses were pleased. Within a short time, however, that pleasure turned to disgust. While Smith never mistreated Nabby, and she always was dutiful in her wifely affections, Smith was a speculator and poor provider. He was also an opportunist, who whined continually about never receiving the “favor” he believed the son-in-law of the Vice President and later President, should have. Their marriage was so impoverished, that Abigail eventually brought their two eldest children to live with her, to spare the extra expense. Nabby died in her parents’ house at age 44, of breast cancer.


Charles Adams died young – of alcoholism.

Charles Adams married his brother-in-law’s sister, Sally Smith, and they had two children,, Susanna and Abigail Louisa. But Charles fell prey to the twin curses of alcoholism and depression. He died at thirty, in squalor. Sally and her two children became a permanent part of Abigail’s household.

thomas adams

Thomas Boylston Adams. His life was neither happy nor successful.

Thomas Boylston Adams began auspiciously, but he never seemed to find a true path for his talents. He was a mediocre lawyer, married rather late, fathered seven children in eleven years, took to drink, and was dependent on his parents for the rest of his life.

The Nieces and Nephews

Abigail Adams may have carried a genetic “curse” of alcoholism, although the term itself is a modern one. Her only brother, William Smith, (no relation to any of the other William Smiths that peppered and confused the Adams family tree) became an alcoholic at a young age, and was a deep source of pain to his three sisters. Unable to support his family, when he died at only forty-four, his widow and four children were dependent on others for financial support.

JQ in Europe

Only John Quincy, Abigail’s oldest son, would achieve success.

His teenaged daughter Louisa came to live with Aunt Abigail about the time the Adamses returned from Europe and Uncle Adams became Vice President. She never married, seemed content to be the perpetual maiden-aunt who helped raise other relatives’ children, and tended to Aunt and Uncle Adams in their old age. In Abigail’s will, she left a generous bequest to “the faithful Louisa.”

Elizabeth Smith, Abigail’s sister, had married John Shaw, also an alcoholic. Elizabeth remarried Rev. Stephen Peabody after Shaw’s death, but their son, William (Billy, within the family) would suffer from the strains of his early youth all his life. Childhood accidents left him with various physical ailments, including a permanent limp. While his superb intellectual acumen was acknowledged by all (a rare occurrence, since all the Adamses were sparing in praise), his social and personal failings were also acknowledged by all. During John Adams’ Presidency, Billy Shaw served as his secretary, and lived with the family during their brief time in the White House. While there is no evidence of his alcoholism during that tenure, the alcoholic-gene came to roost, as William Shaw withdrew more and more into his books. While he became a practicing and respected attorney, his one true love, and lasting accomplishment seems to be the establishment of the Boston Athenaeum, which even today, is the envy of every American historical society.

The Grandchildren

abigail adams-2

Abigail Adams in her older years.

All the children of John and Abigail Adams were prolific, and nearly every one of their grandchildren came to live under their guardianship at some point.

Nabby’s children were part of the Adams’ household periodically; Charles’ widow and children were part of the establishment more or less permanently.

Thomas Boylston Adams lived nearby with his wife Nancy and their seven children. Despite his lackluster practice of law and even more lackluster stints in public service positions, he took to drink, and “managed” his parents’ homestead.  When John and Abigail made their wills, Tom’s inheritance was left in care of John Quincy; they did not believe Tom sufficiently competent.


George Washington Adams died before his 30th birthday – of the family curse of alcoholism…

When John Quincy Adams was appointed Minister to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1809, he and his wife Louisa took only their toddler, Charles Francis with them. George Washington Adams, age eleven, and John Adams II, age seven, were left in care of their grandparents for their education. T

john adams ii

…as did John Adams II.

hey remained on and off with John and Abigail for the next five years, and became very close to them. Despite that closeness and the usual watchful Adams’ eye, both George and John II spent misfortunate lives. Both took to drink (the family curse), and both died young. George was not yet thirty; John II only thirty-one.

Abigail had died by that time, and was spared the additional grief.


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

Gelles, Edith B. – Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage – William Morrow, 2009

Levin, Phyllis Lee – Abigail Adams – St. Martin’s Press, 1987




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George Washington Custis: Man in the Middle

George and Martha Washington with their grandchildren.

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

GW Custis: Fatherless Baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GWC: Student and Grandson

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

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

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

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

The President’s Step-Grandson

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

Young George Washington Parke Custis

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

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

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

GW Custis: Young Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

GW Custis: Father-in-Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Grant and Buckner: Three Conversations

The quintessential General Grant

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

Cadets Grant and Buckner

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

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

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

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

Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner

The acquaintanceship between them was pleasant, but casual.

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

Grant and Buckner: The First Crucial Conversation

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

Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant

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

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

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

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

Grant and Buckner: The Second Crucial Conversation

General Grant with four stars.

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

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

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

That left Simon Buckner.

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

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

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

Grant and Buckner: The Third Crucial Conversation

Mark Twain, a great admirer of General Grant.

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

Grant’s Memoirs provided handsomely for his family.

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

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

One of the last photographs taken of General Ulysses Grant

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Louisa Adams, Neglected First Lady

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams

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

Louisa: Englishwoman of High Standing

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

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

JQ in Europe

Young John Quincy Adams

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

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

Louisa: Learning to Cope

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

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

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

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

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

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


The cosmopolitan Mrs. Louisa Adams

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

Louisa: Mrs. Secretary of State

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

John Quincy Adams in the prime of life.

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

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

Mrs. John Quincy Adams

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

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

FLOTUS Louisa Adams

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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George and Martha Washington: Dinner for Two

mount vernon

Mount Vernon. The mecca for Washington admirers.

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

Col. And Mrs. Washington

washington family

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

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

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

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

The General and Mrs. Washington

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

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

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

An interior room of the Washington HQ at Valley Forge

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

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

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

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

The Morristown, NJ Winter HQ (photo from the

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

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

The Mount Vernon Hotel

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

mt vernon dining room

The Washington dining room at Mt. Vernon.

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

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

The President

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner for Two

george and martha

George and Martha Washington

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

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

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


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

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

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


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Warren Harding: Bloviator of Nostrums and the Founding Fathers

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

Warren Harding at the podium. Bloviating.

Warren G. Harding: Newspaper Man

Harding was always a hands-on newspaperman.

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

harding w-moustache

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

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

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

Warren G. Harding: Popular Guest Speaker

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

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

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

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

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

Warren G. Harding: Politician

Warren Harding

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

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

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

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

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

Warren G. Harding & the Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers – at least some of them.

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

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

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

Warren G. Harding & The Critics

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

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

H.L. Mencken, The Sage of Baltimore

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

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


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

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





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