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How To Be First Lady
The ground rules have changed drastically since 1789. Abigail Adams, stifled in her time, would have loved being First Lady today.
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
Like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams did not attend her husband’s inauguration: it was still a political, not a social, event. But once arrived in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, she took up First Ladyship with her characteristic vigor. Soon she was giving dinners several times a week to as many as forty guests. The Adamses’ food was less lavish than the Washingtons’ and their wines less fine, but the new First Lady kept the conversation lively and charmed her guests with her wit and vivacity.
By the winter of 1797-98 Abigail Adams had made herself Philadelphia’s leading hostess. As she drove through the streets, people bowed or took off their hats. Even the Quakers, she boasted, noticed her “in their way.” She was beginning to enjoy being First Lady but was too wise a woman to confuse popular success with political license. For the four years of Adams’s Presidency, she succeeded admirably in holding her tongue in public, though she did not cease voicing her deeply felt political opinions in the private circle of her family and friends.
Abigail Adams was a woman of remarkable intelligence and public spirit, but if as First Lady she was not the wooden doll Martha Washington was, neither did she expand the role. She left the office of First Lady as she found it.
Thomas Jefferson’s wife died long before he took office, and his style as President was in deliberate contrast to Federalist formality and polish. No teas, no levees, the least possible number of state dinners. On the official occasions he could not avoid, he often called on Dolley Madison, wife of his secretary of state, to be his hostess. Thus she had the rare advantage of on-the-job training for the office that, in 1809, was to become hers.
Dolley Madison embraced First Ladyship with a joy unmatched before and long afterwards. She was first to attend her husband’s inauguration and first to celebrate it with an inaugural ball. She had been born a Quaker and had customarily worn Quaker dress, but as First Lady she shed dove-gray for shimmering iridescences and fashionable décolletage. A female guest described her at the inaugural ball, wearing a champagne-colored velvet gown with a long train, pearls at her throat and ears and wrists, crowned with a turban made in Paris of matching velvet and white satin, topped with “the superb plumes of the bird of paradise feathers.” She carried her finery with “perfect propriety [and] unassuming dignity.” Here was republican female perfection, queenly high style complemented by democratic simplicity of manner.
In 1835, some eighteen years after the Madisons left the White House, the English journalist Harriet Martineau visited them at Montpelier, their Virginia plantation, and reported that “Mrs. Madison is celebrated throughout the country for the grace and dignity with which she discharged the… duties which devolve upon the President’s lady.… [With] such discretion, impartiality and kindness it is believed she gratified everyone and offended nobody. ”
Discretion, impartiality, and kindness—what are these but purity, piety, and passivity translated from domestic into public virtues. It was Dolley Madison’s nearly miraculous feat to achieve that translation, though few who followed her as First Lady were able to follow her in this. Mrs. James Monroe, her immediate successor, a beautiful and sophisticated woman, did not try. She hated White House entertaining and sent her daughter to be hostess in her stead. Through the rest of the century, a disconcerting number of women—Mmes. Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, among others—followed the Monroe rather than the Madison pattern. Some would not, others said they could not, appear in public.
Two notable First Ladies in midcentury took up their duties with Mrs. Madison’s enthusiasm but not her success. Mary Lincoln was and still is the most unpopular First Lady in American history; Julia Grant, now nearly forgotten, shared the popularity of her lionized general in his lifetime, and his fall from public favor after his death.
Mrs. Lincoln is said to have aimed at the White House from the time she was a girl. Whether or not that is true, as First Lady she behaved most disagreeably toward any woman who seemed to be competing with her for public deference. In January 1861 she went to New York City to outfit herself for her new position and behaved like a greedy child let loose in a candy store. She spent two thousand dollars, then a huge sum, for her inaugural ball gown. In one four-month period she bought three hundred pairs of gloves. By 1864, unknown to her husband, she owed some twenty-seven thousand dollars to dressmakers and mantua-makers. To a confidante she pleaded: “I must dress in costly materials.… The very fact of having grown up in the West subjects me to … searching observation.”
The Civil War public believed she could do nothing right, but of all her offenses the gravest was meddling in politics. Her public remarks had embarrassing or even dangerous political implications; her importunate letters to generals and politicians demanding jobs for her favorites added to her husband’s heavy burdens. Later she excused these transgressions by saying, “A deep interest in my idolized husband and country alone caused me ever to trouble myself about other than womanly matters.” But at another time she confessed, “My husband always enjoined upon me to be quiet.”