Presidential First Wives
Madison and Roosevelt
By the Contributors to Kaboose.com
Presidential spouses must achieve a delicate balance of personal devotion and public duty. Few individuals have faced such enormous pressures and enjoyed such a privileged view of history. “I was keenly aware that I had a unique opportunity, a front row seat, on an unfolding story and nobody else was going to see it from quite the vantage point that I saw it,” observed Lady Bird Johnson. As Betty Ford said of her predecessors, “Now that I realize what they’ve had to put up with, I have new respect and admiration for every one of them.”
President: James Madison
Years in Office: March 4, 1809- March 4, 1817
White House Wife: As the very first First Lady to reside in Washington D.C., Dolley became the spunky standard-bearer for presidential spouses to follow. Her defining moment -- rescuing Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington just minutes before the British set fire to the White House in 1814. She also packed up precious Cabinet documents along with the silver, the china, and the red silk velvet drapes.
Trendsetting Style: The Merry Hostess. Dolley hired Ben Latrobe, a renowned architect from New York, to refurbish and redecorate the White House. Together they produced a vibrant style that was neither excessively fancy or foreign. Dolley was fond of wearing feathered turbans to receptions, but during the War of 1812, she slept with a saber next to her bed in case of attack by British soldiers.
Legacy: After her husband’s death, Dolley remained on the political scene, and was consulted on matters of diplomacy and protocol. Her popularity was such that she was granted an honorary seat on the congressional floor. She was the recipient of Samuel Morse’s famous message by telegraph. She died in 1849 at the age of 81.
Quotation: “Politics is the business of men. I don’t care what offices they hold, or who supports them. I care only about people.”
President: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Years in Office: March 4, 1933-April 12, 1945
White House Wife: Although she was born into a wealthy family, Eleanor Roosevelt understood the circumstances of the working poor and underprivileged in a post-Depression America better than most. Orphaned at age 9, she was moved by the plight of the underdog. This gave her tremendous awareness of society’s ills, and a greater life purpose. As she wrote at 14, “…no matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.”
Trendsetting Style: Tireless Defender. Plain in appearance, but magnificent of purpose, Eleanor was the country’s moral center and acted as her wheelchair-bound husband’s eyes and ears on the social issues of the day. She traveled across the country, giving speeches and speaking on radio broadcasts, and held weekly press conferences. Eleanor served her country first, and her husband second. She was a major role model for girls and young women, including a young Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Legacy: After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor took a position as American spokesperson in the United Nations. In 1946 President Truman appointed her to be a delegate to the UN General Assembly. She chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was hailed by Truman as “First Lady of the World.” The various volumes of her autobiography were published in 1961. During her life she received 35 honorary degrees and won an United Nations Human Rights Prize in 1968. She remains one of the twentieth century’s most admired individuals.
Quotation: “I have never felt that anything really mattered but the satisfaction of knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed and had done the very best you could.”