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American First Ladies

Wives of the Presidents

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While the wives of American presidents haven't always been called "first ladies," the first wife of an American President, Martha Washington, went far in establishing a tradition somewhere between a democratic family and royalty. Some of those who followed have wielded political influence, some have helped with their husband's public image, and some stayed well out of the public eye. Some presidents have called on other female relatives to carry on the more public roles of a First Lady. Learn about the women who've played these important roles:

Martha Washington

Detail from Washington's Family by Edward Savage, about 1780
From a public domain image
(June 2, 1732 - May 22, 1802)
Wife of the first US President, George Washington.Martha Washington did not enjoy her time (1789-1797) as First Lady (the term was not then used) though she played her role as hostess with dignity. She had not supported his candidacy for the presidency, and she would not attend his inauguration. The temporary seat of government was in New York City, where Martha presided over weekly receptions, and was later moved to Philadelphia, where they lived except for a return to Mount Vernon when a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia. Martha Washington also managed the estate of her first husband and, while George Washington was away, Mount Vernon.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams - Gilbert Stuart portrait
Courtesy, Library of Congress
(November 11, 1744 - October 28, 1818)
Wife of the second President of the United States (served 1797-1801), Abigail Adams is an example of one kind of life lived by women in colonial, Revolutionary and early post-Revolutionary America. While she's perhaps best known simply as an early First Lady (before the term was used) and mother of another President, and perhaps known for the stance she took for women's rights in letters to her husband, Abigail Adams should also be known as a competent farm manager and financial manager.

Martha Jefferson

Martha Jefferson Randolph, also known as Patsy, in an 1881 engraving by J. Serz.
(c) 2008 Jupiter Images. Used by permission.
(October 19, 1748 - September 6, 1782)
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was the wife of Thomas Jefferson who became the third President of the United States (1801-1809). She died in 1782, 19 years before Jefferson's term of office. Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph, their daughter, served as Jefferson's hostess during two winters he was president; more often, he called upon Dolley Madison, the wife of his Secretary of State, for such public duties.

Portrait is of Patsy, the eldest Jefferson daughter; no portraits are known of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson other than one silhouette.

Dolley Madison

First Lady Dolley Madison
Jone Johnson Lewis, adapted from an image courtesy of the Library of Congress
(May 20, 1768 - July 12, 1849 )
Dolley Madison (Dorothea Payne Todd Madison), was America's First Lady 1809-1817, as wife of James Madison, fourth President of the United States. Her courageous response to the British burning of Washington -- saving priceless paintings and other items from the White House -- is what she's besk known for, but she also spent years in the public eye after Madison's term was over.

Elizabeth Monroe

(June 30, 1768 - September 23, 1830)
Wife of James Monroe, who was President from 1817-1825, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and was known for her fashion sense and her beauty. She lived abroad during Monroe's work there. She played a dramatic role in freeing from the French Revolution Madame de Lafayette, wife of the French leader who assisted America in its war for independence. Elizabeth Monroe was not very popular in America; she was more elitist than her predecessors had been.

Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams
Adapted from an image courtesy of the White House
(February 12, 1775 - May 15, 1852)
America's only foreign-born First Lady, Louisa Adams was the wife of president John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). She wrote two unpublished books about her own life, with details about life around her in Europe and Washington: Record of My Life in 1825, and The Adventures of a Nobody in 1840.

Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson
Adapted from an image, courtesy US Library of Congress
(June 15, 1767 - December 22, 1828)
Rachel Donelson Jackson died before her husband could take office in 1829. She married Andrew Jackson in 1791, thinking that her first husband had divorced her, but they had to remarry in 1794, giving rise to adultery and bigamy charges raised against Jackson when he ran for president. Her niece, Emily Donelson, served as Andrew Jackson's White House hostess, and when she died, that role went to Sarah Yorke Jackson, married to Andrew Jackson, jr.

Hannah Van Buren

Hannah Van Buren
Courtesy US Library of Congress
(March 18, 1783 - February 5, 1819)
Hannah Hoes Van Buren died of tuberculosis in 1819, almost two decades before her husband, Martin Van Buren, became president (1837 - 1841). He never remarried. In 1838, their son, Abraham, married Angelica Singleton, and she served as the White House hostess during the remainder of Van Buren's presidency.

Anna Harrison

Anna Harrison
Courtesy US Library of Congress
(1775 - February, 1864)
Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison was the wife of William Henry Harrison (president, 1841) and the grandmother of Benjamin Harrison (president 1889 - 1893). Jane Irwin Harrison, the widow of her son William, was to serve as White House hostess until Anna could be ready to come to Washington, but the president died before Anna ever moved.

Letitia Tyler

(November 12, 1790 - September 10, 1842)
Letitia Christian Tyler, wife of John Tyler, served as First Lady from 1841 until her death at the White House in 1842. She had suffered a stroke in 1839, and their daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler took on the duties of White House hostess.
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