Through slander, grief, and war, these women stood beside the Founding Fathers of our country as leaders in their own right. They were America’s First Ladies, with all the wit, grace, and charm that come from roots planted deep in Southern soil.
- Martha Dandridge Custis Washington Martha Washington was a young widow with two children when she met wealthy planter George Washington (steel engraving by J. Cheney and J. G. Kellogg, circa 1843)
Over her lifetime, the first First Lady of the United States experienced a war for freedom, the birth of a new nation, the devastating loss of her four children, and the passing of both of her husbands. Moreover, she stood at her husband’s side in front of the world, in a position she could have lived without.
Born to a respectable Virginia family on June 2, 1731, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was the eldest of eight children. When she was eighteen, she married one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, Daniel Parke Custis. While the couple welcomed four children during their marriage, sadly, both Daniel Jr. and Frances died before the age of five. Mere months following the death of their second child in 1757, Custis became ill and passed away, leaving behind his widow and two young children, Jacky and Patsy.
Less than a year following her husband’s death, George Washington began courting Martha Custis. The attraction was immediate, and the couple married on January 6, 1759. The young family moved to Mount Vernon shortly after. The newly married Martha Washington settled comfortably and contentedly into life once again.
The Revolutionary War disrupted her comfort, as it thrust the Washingtons into the spotlight of her husband’s leadership. She traveled often to be with him during the war, and despite her desire for privacy, stood beside him during his Presidency as the first First Lady, although the term had not yet been coined. Writing to her niece, she commented, “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.” Both of her remaining children had died before the end of the war.
Upon retirement and their return to Mt. Vernon, the Washingtons had hoped to spend their remaining years enjoying their grandchildren and each other’s company. But the First Lady’s happy ending eluded her once more, and she became a widow in 1799, less than two years after returning home. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington joined her husband forever on the grounds of Mt. Vernon in 1802.
- Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson After marrying in 1722, the Jefferson and his wife Martha moved to Jefferson’s Monticello. After his wife’s death in 1782 he never remarried. (Photo courtesy of Martin Falbisoner)
A talented musician and described once by her granddaughter as “a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman,” the only wife of the nation’s third President did not live to see her husband take office nor was she able to fulfill the duties of the First Lady.
When Thomas Jefferson first began courting Martha Wayles Skelton, she had been a widow for two years and lived at her family’s plantation, The Forest, with her three-year-old son, John. Much to her grief, the young boy died the following year, and six months later the couple married on January 1, 1722.
During their ten-year marriage, the Jeffersons had six children together and Mrs. Jefferson supported her husband through his election to the Continental Congress and his drafting of the Declaration of Independence. She also took her place beside him as the First Lady of Virginia during his governorship. She passed away in September 1782, four months following the birth of their last child, Lucy Elizabeth (their second child by that name). Thomas Jefferson would become the third President of the United States nearly twenty years later.
The couple’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, wrote of her grandmother, “Her loss was the bitterest grief my grandfather ever knew, and no second wife was ever called to take her place.”
- Dolley Payne Todd Madison Perhaps one of the most charismatic and well-known of the First Ladies, Dolley Madison loved the social life of Washington (painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1804)
While Dolley Madison was already well known in Washington’s social circles by the time her husband became President, her charm and wit quickly found a welcome home at the White House and among its most distinguished guests.
Born in North Carolina in 1768, her father, John Payne, eventually moved the family to Philadelphia among a Quaker society. The young, vibrant woman married John Todd, Jr., a local lawyer, in 1790, but the marriage was short-lived. Yellow fever took both her husband and second son, just three months old, on the same day in 1793.
Dolley Payne Todd married James Madison in 1794, and she and her young son, John Payne, moved to Montpelier – leaving behind the Quaker faith and embracing her new role in society.
Dolley Madison graciously opened her home while her husband served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, even often accompanying the President when a First Lady role needed filling. Her social skills have been credited to helping forward her husband’s career, and if anyone was made to be a First Lady, it was Dolley. She held the first inaugural ball upon her husband’s taking office on March 4, 1809.
While her grace and social flair set the standard for the role of First Ladies to come, it was her acts in 1812 that secured her place in history. Before fleeing the White House as the British army approached during the War of 1812, Dolley Madison is credited with saving many artifacts from the home, including a full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
After her husband’s retirement, the couple returned to Montpelier where they enjoyed their life together until his death in 1836. Sadly, it was upon his death she learned of her son’s gambling and poor money management. She sold Montpelier and returned to Washington to live in a row house her husband had owned. She passed away in her Washington D.C. home in 1849.
- Rachel Donelson Jackson Unbeknownst to the couple, Rachel and Andrew Jackson’s first wedding was not legally recognized, as Rachel’s first husband had not completed their divorce
The relationship of this first couple was marred by scandal and rumor, but it was the First Lady’s gentle spirit that won over naysayers.
A Virginia native, Rachel Donelson married Lewis Robarbs of Kentucky at the age of seventeen. A jealous man, the couple separated, and Rachel moved to Tennessee to live with her mother. When she arrived in Tennessee, she met Andrew Jackson, a boarder her mother had taken in. The two fell in love and, believing she was divorced, married. The newlyweds later discovered that her first husband had not finalized the divorce. The couple quietly remarried in 1794, leaving the past where it may be.
As Jackson’s political career took off, however, his wife became an easy target. Rumors of her infidelity floated around social circles, and Jackson was quick to defend his love. While the couple had no children, they had a hand in raising nieces and nephews at their Nashville mansion, the Hermitage.
When her husband ran for the Presidency, rumors of Rachel’s past resurfaced once more. The stress of the campaign and slander, along with what is believed to have been tuberculosis, got the best of the new First Lady before her husband’s inauguration on December 22, 1828. Forever blaming his opponents for the death of his beloved wife, Jackson buried her in the gown she would have worn to his inauguration the following March.
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