While they grew with roots deep in Southern soil, these First Ladies understood all too well that a title could not protect them from the hardships life dealt in Washington. Amidst their own battles within, these leading ladies supported their husbands and countries through policy, war, sickness, and death.
- Letitia Christian Tyler
Although Letitia Christian Tyler preferred a quiet life at home far more than the spotlight of Washington, she moved with her husband to the White House following the death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841
Not one who relished the spotlight, Letitia Tyler took on the role of First Lady after the unexpected death of President William Henry Harrison. While longing for the comforts of her Virginia home, her own time at the White House would be short-lived.
Letitia Christian Tyler was born to a wealthy Virginia family in 1790. She grew up on Cedar Grove Plantation and was raised in the fine details of keeping a household. Introverted by nature, she met a young John Tyler at a party in 1808. The two courted for five years, mostly through written correspondence, as her future husband was slowly building a career in politics. The couple was married at Cedar Grove in 1813.
For the bulk of John Tyler’s rising career in Washington, Letitia Tyler remained at their Williamsburg home. With seven children, she felt most comfortable raising them while overseeing the running of the home. She was a gracious hostess as First Lady of Virginia during her husband’s governorship, but she never seemed to take to Washington as the wives of many politicians did. Her reclusive nature only worsened after a stroke confined her to an invalid’s chair in 1839.
When John Tyler took the oath of Vice President in 1841, he fully intended to perform the bulk of his responsibilities from the couple’s home in Williamsburg where he could be at his wife’s side. But the death of President Harrison one month after taking office interrupted any such plans. Letitia Tyler followed her husband to Washington and to the open view of the White House, but not even as First Lady would she relish the attention it brought.
The Tylers’ daughter-in-law and former actress, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, took over the hostess responsibilities of the First Lady, as Letitia quietly ran the household from the second-floor living quarters. Only once did she make a social appearance in her role at the White House, graciously greeting guests at the wedding of her daughter Elizabeth to William Waller in 1842. The same year, Letitia Tyler had another stroke. She passed away in the White House on September 10, 1842. She was buried where she seemed to feel the most comfortable in life, at Cedar Grove Plantation.
- Sarah Childress Polk
Unlike most Southern girls at the time, Sarah Childress Polk’s father valued his daughters’ education and enrolled them at the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina
Unlike many women of her status at the time, this First Lady was well educated in more than just household duties. While not born in a time that would have allowed her a political career of her own, Sarah Polk’s opinions were sought out and respected by her devoted husband.
Sarah Childress was born on September 4, 1803, just outside Murfreesboro to a prominent Tennessee family. Her father saw value in his daughters’ education and enrolled them at the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina. It was there that young Sarah began the foundation on which she would help build her husband’s political career, with classes in Bible study, Greek and Roman literature, arithmetic, geography, and grammar among other arts and social skills befitting a proper lady. She returned to Tennessee after the death of her father.
James Polk had already launched his political career when he began courting Sarah. He was serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives when the couple married at the Childress home on New Year’s Day 1824. The Polks never had any children but enjoyed a busy life together nonetheless. She traveled with her husband whenever she could, and she was a gracious hostess during the years he served as a Congressman and governor of Tennessee. It was well known that Sarah served in an unofficial capacity as his secretary, and he greatly respected and sought her advice on political matters. Because of her husband’s affection and her own intelligence, she was admired throughout elite Washington circles.
As a first lady, she held social gatherings twice weekly, but as she was also a strict Presbyterian, and withheld from the dancing and drinking that highlighted many a Washington party. She was highly regarded by many during her husband’s presidency.
During their time in Washington, Sarah renovated the “Polk Place” home in Nashville where the pair had planned to spend their retirement. But merely three months after starting their new, relaxed life together, former President Polk passed away. Sarah is said to have remained in mourning the remainder of her life at Polk Place. She died forty-two years later in their home.
- Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor
While Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor, also known as “Peggy,” was a devoted military wife, she did not encourage her husband to run for President
A devoted military wife, this First Lady accompanied her husband across the nation before settling into Washington life. Unfortunately, life had taken a toll on her before her husband’s election, and much of her time as First Lady was spent out of the spotlight.
Margaret Mackall Smith was born September 21, 1788, to wealthy Maryland tobacco farmers. After the death of her mother when she was ten, and that of her her father when she was sixteen, Margaret, also known as Peggy, moved to Kentucky with her sister. It was there she met Lieutenant Zachary Taylor, and married him on June 21, 1910. After spending much of their early marriage on the farm Zachary’s father had given them, Peggy Taylor, along with their growing family, moved wherever her husband’s military career took them. The couple had six children together, but sadly two young girls died in 1820 from a fever that also impaired Peggy’s health for the remainder of her life.
Perhaps because of the hardships he saw his wife endure as a military wife, General Taylor did not want his daughters marrying soldiers. Despite their father’s wishes, each one did, including the marriage of the Taylors’ second daughter, Knox, to Lieutenant Jefferson Davis. Not long after their wedding, Knox died of malaria.
Peggy, although supportive, did not encourage her husband’s run for Presidency. She had no desire for the social life of a First Lady, and upon his election passed much of her social responsibilities to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth. Rumors spread that she was mentally ill because of her reclusion from public life, but Peggy spent her time in Washington taking care of her husband and housekeeping affairs, as well as welcoming close friends and family to their private quarters. Her time at the White House came to an abrupt halt when, in 1850, President Taylor died from a stomach illness. Peggy was in such grief that she was unable to attend his funeral. Two years later, Peggy died in Pascagoula, Mississippi, while living with her daughter Betty.
- Mary Todd Lincoln
From her wealthy background to her scandalous time in the White House, Mary Todd Lincoln became one of the most unpopular and misunderstood First Ladies in history
First Lady to one of America’s most fondly remembered Presidents, Mary Todd Lincoln’s time in the White House was often misunderstood and marked by tragedy.
Mary Todd was born December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky. While she would become an abolitionist later in life, Mary was born to a wealthy slave-owning family. As her mother passed away before her seventh birthday, she was raised for much of her young life by her stepmother. Despite the advantages she was born into, she did not speak fondly of her childhood, and at the age of twenty, she moved to Springfield, Illinois, to be near her sister.
It was in Springfield that Mary met Abraham Lincoln, ten years her elder. His gentle spirit seemed drawn to her fiery temperament, and the two began a tumultuous relationship that included a broken engagement before their marriage on November 4, 1842. The couple had four sons together, only two surviving into adulthood.
It was no secret that Mary expected the same quality of life she had come to assume through her time in Kentucky. She desired a rich social life surrounded by life’s luxuries, and such desires resulted in her unpopularity when her husband was elected President of the United States on November 6, 1860. By the time he took office the following year, the country had torn in two. The South regarded Mary Lincoln as a traitor, as did many of her Kentucky family and friends. Many Northerners thought she was a Confederate spy, and others were merely put off by her extravagant spending during times of war. Regardless, her husband undoubtedly loved his spirited wife.
Mary Todd Lincoln was sitting next to her husband in Ford’s Theatre when he was assassinated on April 14, 1865. The death of her husband was a loss the eccentric First Lady was never able to reconcile. The darkness seemed to follow her for the rest of her life, with her son committing her to an asylum for a short time. Her depression exasperated her problems until her death in 1882 at the home in Springfield where she and her famed husband had been married.