White House Valentines

Combining President’s Day and Valentine’s Day, an essay on presidential marriages

 For more than 200 years, the White House has been a center of American politics. In some administrations, it is also a haven of romance.

All but one president was a married man, and in three instances the chief executive was a groom during his term. The most famous example was Grover Cleveland, who married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room of the White House on June 2, 1886.

The only president to serve nonconsecutive terms, Cleveland’s wedding during his first administration captured the imagination of the nation. Today, however, some may find the union a bit distasteful. Cleveland, then 49 and a lifelong bachelor, was 28 years older than his wife, the daughter of a close friend. The future president actually had bought baby gifts for Frances during her infancy, and she became his ward upon her father’s death in 1875.

Sometime during her college years, the pair became romantically involved, and Cleveland proposed by letter in August 1885. However, the couple did not announce their plans until five days before the wedding, which was attended by family, friends and cabinet members.

The ceremony marked the only time a president has been married in the White House, and Frances became the darling of both the American public and press. “It was a huge deal,” said Dr. William Bushong, historian of the White House Historical Association in Washington. “The president was a bachelor who married a beautiful young woman, and it created a sensation.”

Twice presidents lost spouses during their term, only to remarry before they left office. One was John Tyler, whose first wife, Letitia, was an invalid who left her upstairs quarters of the White House only once. She died on Sept. 10, 1842, 17 months into her husband’s term.

Tyler then married Julia Gardner, a New York woman 30 years his junior, in a Long Island ceremony on June 26, 1844. Because of his wife’s young age, Tyler was able to continue his large family, and 14 of his children lived to adulthood. He fathered his last child at age 70.

Some of Tyler’s sons also fathered children at a late age and, incredibly, some of the president’s grandchildren survive today, despite the fact that Tyler left office in 1845.

Woodrow Wilson followed a similar path as Tyler. His first wife, Ellen, died of Bright’s Disease on Aug. 6, 1914, leaving her husband despondent. He recovered, however, and married Edith Galt, a jeweler’s widow, at her Washington home on Dec. 18, 1915.

Their courtship and subsequent marriage was the talk of the nation and the subject of much press. One misprint in the Washington Post, though, caused a few laughs. Writing about one of the couple’s dates, the Post reported that “The president spent much of the evening entering [entertaining] Mrs. Galt.”

“She was quite a contrast to the first Mrs. Wilson,” remarked Dr. Bushong. “She was never shy or reserved, and loved public attention. Wilson and Edith had much in common, like golf and riding in automobiles, and they became inseparable companions.”

When Wilson endured a debilitating stroke in 1919, Edith Wilson became what Dr. Bushong called “a secret president,” handling many executive duties.

Several presidents entered the White House as widowers. Thomas Jefferson lost his wife of 10 years, Martha, in 1782 and never remarried, though his later relationship with slave Sally Hemmings has been the subject of much speculation.

Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died 10 weeks before her husband was inaugurated, leaving him with both a heavy heart and a vengeful motive. Believing his wife had been slandered by his enemies, he swore revenge on all who had wronged her.

Others who lost their wives before their terms and never remarried were Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s hand-picked successor, and Chester A. Arthur. Benjamin Harrison’s wife, Caroline, died on Oct. 25, 1892, in the final days of her husband’s failed reelection bid against Cleveland.

Harrison, however, remarried in 1896 to his wife’s niece, Mary Dimmick, also known as “Mame.” Twenty-five years his junior, Mame had been a fixture at the White House as her aunt Caroline’s assistant. The union mortified Harrison’s adult children, who refused to attend the ceremony.

The only president who was never married was James Buchanan, whose vivacious niece, Harriet Lane, handled the duties of First Lady during his term.

“When a president does not have a wife, he loses not only a spouse but a political partner,” commented Dr. Bushong. “Since there is not a First Lady to fill the social role for entertaining, those presidents usually brought in a female relative like a daugther, daughter-in-law, or niece, as opposed to a First Lady, to handle that end.”     

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.

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