Dolley Madison Did Not Institute The White House Easter Egg Roll

Mrs James Madison (Dolley Madison), by Bass Otis

J.L. Bell debunks the myth at Boston 1775.  A taste:

Even the White House Historical Association passes on that factoid, though fobbing it off on others: “Some historians note that First Lady Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll…”

In fact, that’s all a myth. As the Dolley Madison Papers explain, there’s absolutely no evidence behind it. 

During the Founding Era,…religious observances such as Easter and Christmas were simply not part of the national calendar. Indeed, when James Madison was President of the United States, Easter was not yet a publicly celebrated holiday; it was observed neither at the president’s mansion—not yet officially known as the White House—nor by Congress. And a search of Dolley’s letters fails to produce a single mention of Easter or Easter eggs. That leaves two questions: when and where did the tradition begin, and what does Dolley Madison have to do with it?

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Jeanne Abrams

abrams comp final (004)Jeanne Abrams is a Professor, University Libraries at the University of Denver. This interview is based on her new book, First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role (NYU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: It was actually my last book, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health, which sparked my interest in the way our inaugural first three ladies carved out a role for themselves in the political life of the early American republic. Revolutionary Medicine examined the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison from the perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era. In the process of writing that book I gained a deeper appreciation for the role these formidable and path-breaking women, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, played in the grand experiment which transformed America from a colonial outpost to an independent nation.

JF: What is the argument of First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, the three “first” First Ladies of the United States, invented the position without a roadmap to follow to accommodate the demands of a new republican government. Although they had to walk a fine line between bringing dignity to the position and distancing themselves from the courtly styles of European royalty that were seen as inimical to the values of a republic, these three spirited women, who in their time could not even vote or hold office, exercised intelligence and initiative to play a substantial role in the nation’s early political life.

JF: Why do we need to read First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: First Ladies of the Republic demonstrates that the creation of the United States was not only a male enterprise. Although they were constrained by the customs of their era, elite women like the inaugural First Ladies played a substantial role in the nation’s early political life. All three helped shape the nation’s political culture and were able to transcend boundaries between the private and public sphere. The lives of these three extraordinary women intersected on many occasions, and they learned from one another as the brand new position of First Lady evolved. Moreover, though most historians have looked at male and female socio-political roles in their era as a binary divide, I argue that it is more useful to view the manner in which they operated together with their presidential husbands as members of a family unit. For early members of America’s governing elite, political life was often a joint cooperative undertaking, an effort in which they participated actively as part of a close-knit family circle. The three First Ladies were all deeply committed to the public good and the principles of independence and liberty which had first emerged in Revolutionary America and continued to develop in the early national period, but at the same time, they also worked to burnish the public images of their presidential spouses and advance their family interests.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JA: As a freshman in college many decades ago, I had to write a paper on American Loyalists in the American Revolution for a history class. I paid a visit to the New York Historical Society, and too my astonishment and gratitude, I was handed a box of letters written by Loyalists in the 1760s and 1770s. I couldn’t believe I was holding historical documents from two centuries prior in my hands, and the experience launched my on the road to becoming an historian. That fateful day, I immediately fell in love with primary sources, and it is a love affair that has endured to this day.

JF: What is your next project?

JA: I am now working on a book manuscript about the European journeys of John and Abigail Adams and how their time abroad influenced their increasing admiration for their home country of America and commitment to the republic of the United States.

JF: Thanks, Jeanne!

Not Since the Kennedys


It appears that Catholicism has returned to the White House.

One of the things we learned during the Trump visit to the Vatican is that Melania Trump is Catholic.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports at The Washington Post. 

A taste:

After she met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday, first lady Melania Trump confirmed a little-known fact about her faith: She is Catholic. And she described the visit with the leader of the Catholic Church as “one I’ll never forget.”

While President Trump referenced his Presbyterian identity during the campaign, her faith did not come up. He and the first lady were married in 2005 in an Episcopal church in Palm Beach, Fla., where their son Barron Trump was later baptized.

The church’s rector performed a traditional Episcopal wedding service, according to the Palm Beach Daily News. “The bride walked down the aisle carrying only an ancient rosary, not to Lohengrin or Wagner, but to a vocalist singing Ave Maria in an exquisite soprano voice,” the local newspaper reported.

Her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham confirmed in an email that Melania Trump identifies as Catholic, but Grisham did not respond to questions about whether the first lady attends Mass regularly at a specific parish and whether the first family are current members of a church. The first lady, who became a U.S. citizen in 2006, grew up in what is today Slovenia, which has been heavily influenced by Catholicism.

During their visit to the Vatican on Wednesday, the pope blessed the first lady’s rosary beads, and the two had a lighthearted conversation about what she feeds her husband. She spent time in front of a statue of the Madonna at the Vatican’s children’s hospital and laid flowers at its feet.

Read the rest here.


De Facto First Ladies


Angelica Singleton Van Buren

What role will Ivanka Trump play in the White House? Will she do the work of the First Lady while Melania Trump is living in New York with her son Barron?

JSTOR Daily has a nice historical piece on the women who did the work of White House hostess when the First Lady was absent.  They include Patsy Jefferson Randolph, Emily Donelson, and Margaret Wilson.

Here is a taste:

Martin Van Buren (1837–1841): Daughter-in-Law Angelica Singleton

Hannah Hoes Van Buren died before the age of 36, most likely of tuberculosis, in 1819, well before her husband’s time in office. The childhood sweethearts grew up in a small Dutch community in New York. Their eldest son, Abraham, met Angelica Singleton, a South Carolina belle visiting her cousin Dolley Madison. The two fell in love and quickly married. Angelica then took over hosting duties for her father-in-law.

Singleton’s portrait, with dark corkscrew curls and ostrich plumes, said to be Jackie Kennedy’s favorite, hung in the Red Room. Inspired by honeymoon visits with European aristocrats, Angelica spent her 1840 New Year’s Day reception sitting silently, “tableaux” style, holding a bouquet of flowers so that she could avoid the expected handshakes. Some historians think that press accounts of this royal behavior and her upper-class, finishing-school background helped lose Van Buren a second term.


Read the entire piece here.

From Presidents’ Failures to Their Wives’ Successes


Jesse Ann Benton Fremont

Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from this weekend’s annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  For another report on this panel see Elise Leal’s post from earlier today. Enjoy–JF

The 2016 conference of the Organization of American Historians came to a close on Sunday. After beginning with a discussion of the least successful presidents, it ended with presentations on two of the most consequential wives of presidents (or would-be presidents). My last session of the meeting was “Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership: Reconsidering the Power of the ‘First Lady,’” featuring Amy Greenberg on Sarah Childress Polk and Stacey Robertson on Jessie Benton Frémont.

As editor of the letters of James K. Polk, in whose administration both Sarah Polk (obviously) and Jessie Frémont were active, I took almost embarrassingly copious notes. I won’t bore you with these. Drs. Greenberg and Robertson will, when ready, publish their findings much more fully and precisely than any summary of mine could. I will note, though, that their papers fit together in a welcome synergy.

Much scholarship of nineteenth-century gender history has divided into two areas: the domestically oriented sphere in which most women operated and the quest by some women and men for more nearly equal rights and opportunities. Yesterday’s papers showed us that women’s political empowerment (to use a word that neither the speakers nor their subjects did) arose through both avenues. Sarah Polk became one of the most powerful people in American politics by assisting her husband in a discreet and submissive manner. Jessie Frémont promoted husband


Sarah Childress Polk

John C. Frémont’s presidential campaign by, literally, stepping onto the political stage herself. Greenberg’s and Robertson’s papers thus bridge two large bodies of scholarship that, considered together in new ways, may yield new insights into both separate spheres and the early days of women’s rights. Along these lines, commentator Susan Johnson suggested that historians of politics take the household, not the individual, as the unit of action.

On another level, the panelists’ scholarship should help draw into the historical spotlight two women whose political activity (especially Sarah Polk’s) has faded into undeserved obscurity. Matt Gallman, the other commentator, pointed out that rates Polk as the twenty-third most influential first lady, right behind Julia Dent Grant. Like her husband’s a century ago, perhaps her star is now on the rise.

Until next year!

Reflections on Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership at #oah2016


Sarah Childress Polk

We were very pleased to have Elise Leal, a Ph.D candidate in American history at Baylor University, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence.  Leal’s research examines the relationship between evangelicalism, social reform, and childhood in the early nineteenth century with a particular focus on the American Sundays school movement.  Enjoy her post!–JF

As a newbie to the OAH, I was pleased to discover that the conference offered a range of fascinating panel choices. I mainly attended sessions on American religious history, since that is my primary field of research. I also took a tour of the American Antiquarian Society on Saturday morning, which I’ll be writing about soon. However, for my last day at the conference, I chose to attend a panel slightly outside my wheelhouse, entitled Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership: Reconsidering the Power of the “First Lady.”

In this session, presenters Amy Greenberg of Penn State University and Stacey Robertson of Central Washington University made the provocative claim that historians need to broaden their definition of political involvement in order to account for the informal, but highly significant ways that women influenced antebellum politics. While women could not hold formal political office or cast votes, they wrote political pamphlets, attended meetings, organized campaigns, and presided over political debates within their homes. Greenberg and Robertson both contended that these activities were crucial in shaping American politics, and they supported this argument using two compelling case studies.

Greenberg began the session by analyzing the political activities of Sarah Childress Polk, wife of the 11th President of the United States, James Polk. Greenberg argued that Sarah Polk was one of the first truly political first ladies and that understanding the way Polk used her role can transform historical interpretations of female political power in the antebellum period. Polk exercised political influence in a variety of ways. For example, she served as her husband’s private secretary and created special spaces in the White House for political discussion, such as when she converted the Yellow Room into the Red Room specifically to provide ladies with a place to discuss politics. Polk’s political influence was so well known at the time that she was called “Mrs. President.”


Jesse Ann Benton Fremont

Greenberg argued that Polk actively distanced herself from the growing feminist movement and adopted a lifestyle of female submission. Because she presented herself as an extension of her husband, Polk was less threatening to the patriarchal establishment, which in turn enabled her to exercise unusually high amounts of political influence. Sadly, as Greenberg points out, Polk’s willingness to accept wifely submission as a means of exercising informal power also led to her virtual erasure from the scholarly narrative, which prefers to focus on the rise of antebellum feminism.

Similar to Greenberg’s presentation, Robertson’s paper showed how it was virtually impossible for a man to navigate the treacherous waters of antebellum politics without a capable wife to guide him. Shifting our focus from the White House, Robertson analyzed the political activities of Jesse Fremont, wife of the first Republican presidential candidate of 1856, John Fremont. Robertson described how Jesse Fremont, who was much more politically capable than her husband, emerged as a leading figure of abolitionism in the 1840s and 1850s. She wrote compelling anti-slavery publications, organized women’s participation in political rallies, and served as her husband’s main campaign manager and political strategist. Her actions were so inspiring that women across the country formed female political societies in her honor during the 1856 election, often adopting names such as “Jesse’s Tribe” or “Jesse’s Band.” Robertson argued that these activities fall within the category of informal political influence, substantiating her larger claim that the scholarly definition of political activity needs to be widened. She did assert, however, that abolitionist activities provided a more direct way for women to engage in politics and that Jesse Fremont led the way in forging this radical path.

As pointed out by commentators Matt Gallman of University of Florida and Susan Johnson of University of Wisconsin–Madison, the idea that historians need to widen the definition of politics is not new. Scholars like Catherine Allgor and Rosemary Zagarri helped pioneer this argument, so perhaps Greenberg’s and Robertson’s main accomplishment was providing additional examples that highlight the need broaden our definitions further. However, Greenberg and Robertson still broke new ground by using elite female examples. As Gallman noted, previous women’s histories often focus on reconstructing middle-class experiences, leaving high-profile women like Fremont and Polk relegated to the sidelines. Greenberg and Robertson showed that, with proper care, historians can use elite figures to effectively support larger scholarly claims that are also applicable to ordinary women’s experiences.

In sum, this was an insightful and thought-provoking panel. Attending this session reinforced the value of stepping outside my specific area of interest and engaging in scholarly discussions on unfamiliar topics. When I attend the OAH again, no longer a rookie, I’ll keep this lesson in mind.

Abigail Adams: Letters

LOA jacket templateThe Library of America has announced the publication of Abigail Adams: Letters.  The collection of 430 letters from the former first lady is edited by historian and Adams scholar Edith Gelles.

In a post at The Library of America blog, Gelles discusses Abigail’s remarks on the election of 1800:

“The Spirit of party has overpowerd the Spirit of Patriotism,” observes Abigail Adams in her January 29, 1801, letter to her eldest son John Quincy, then American minister to the Prussian court in Berlin. Written after having learned that her husband John had been defeated for a second term as president, Adams’s letter vividly conveys the unsettled nature of American politics in the early republic.

The election of 1800 was perhaps the most vituperative in our history. Federalist John Adams, the incumbent, was despised by a prominent faction of his own party, the so-called Essex Junto. Alexander Hamilton, the de facto leader of the Federalist party, had written a pamphlet denouncing the President as a madman. This fratricidal conflict opened the door for the two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who, by a fluke of the original electoral process established by the Constitution, ended up tied in the Electoral College, with Adams coming third. The deadlock shifted the decision to the House of Representatives, where it would take 36 ballots for Jefferson to secure election. Denied a second term, President Adams, in a move that was as controversial then as it would be today, made a series of “midnight appointments” in the final days of his administration, including that of John Marshall to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As the young nation prepared for the first transfer of power from one party to another, the outgoing First Lady despaired for the future.

Adams’s mood in this letter is melancholy for more personal reasons as well. She had recently arrived in the swampy new capital, the first First Lady to occupy what would become known as the White House. On her journey to Washington, over roads that were so rutted that “it was like a ploughd field,” she had passed through New York City to pay a “dying visit” to her beloved second son, Charles, who was fast fading from the effects of alcoholism. Not yet regarded as a disease, alcoholism was then considered a sign of personal weakness and a sin. She prays that Charles, the son she remembers as the charming and loveable man “he once was,” will be forgiven, and that John Quincy will become a surrogate father to his younger daughter. Abigail and John took Charles’s older daughter, Susanna, home with them to Quincy, Massachusetts, where she remained until her marriage in 1817.

Read the rest here.

That Time Gerald Ford Lost His Voice

This past week at the Fred W. Smith Library at Mount Vernon I attended a discussion of American first ladies with C-SPAN’s Susan Swain and presidential historian Richard Norton Smith.

The discussion was based on Swain’s book  First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women.  (The program will air on C-SPAN on Sunday night at 7pm).

I learned a lot of things I did not know about First Ladies.  For example, I did not know that Gerald Ford lost his voice on the day of the 1976 presidential election.  After Jimmy Carter won the election, first lady Betty Ford delivered her husband’s concession speech.

C-SPAN’s "First Ladies: Influence & Image"

Did you get a chance to see the first installment of C-SPAN’s new series on American First Ladies? It looks like the cable network is devoting Monday nights for the course of the next year (with a break in the summer) to covering the lives of every First Lady in American history. 

I did not see last night’s episode on Martha Washington, but there was some buzz about it on Twitter.  Check out #firstladies

Abigail Adams will be the focus of next week’s episode.