So – while doing a tad bit of research about the women of President John Tyler’s White House, I came across this picture on the official website of his former plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest. Apparently, there is a ghost of Sherwood Forest called the “Grey Lady,” that one can hear in the Grey room of the mansion rocking in her chair. Every person who has lived in the house has encountered the “Grey Lady.”
A few years ago the Grey lady’s image appeared on the steps pictured below. Does this look real or fake? Creepy.
There were many firsts during the John Tyler WH: the first time a Vice-President took over as President; the first time a First Lady died in the WH; the first time a former actress served as WH hostess; the first time a President married while in office; the first time a First Lady had her own press agent.
President John Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, suffered a stroke within a year of Tyler’s term. It was her second, and it proved fatal. The Tyler’s were married 30 years and had seven children together, and Letitia spent most of the marriage bringing up the brood in Virginia while John sought political fame is Washington, D.C. A hausfrau.
Letitia was born November 12, 1790 on her father’s prosperous plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. During her courtship with Tyler she apparently kept him at arm’s length, and the first time they kissed was on their wedding night. When Tyler unexpectedly became President in 1841, due to the death of William Henry Harrison, she became First Lady of the Land, but, being ill, she spent most of her time in the bedroom.
After her death the Tyler’s daughter-in-law became the official WH hostess: Priscilla Cooper Tyler. Raised by an actor father and former socialite mother in New York City, as an adult Priscilla performed on the stage at a time when actresses were considered no better than whores. She knew poverty well, also. The financial crisis of 1837 hit the family hard and they survived on “strawberries and radishes.” During a performance of “Othello” in Richmond, Va., playing Desdemona, a member of audience became infatuated with the leading lady: Robert Tyler, eldest son of the Tyler’s.
Despite her social standing as an actress the Tyler’s welcomed Priscilla into their home with open arms. Her stint as WH hostess lasted from 1841 to 1844. Perhaps because of her acting abilities Priscilla was a lively, popular hostess; during her tenure she entertained famed novelist Charles Dickens and members of Napoleon’s family. The first actress to play WH hostess, she also was the first to give birth. A highlight of the WH years for Priscilla was accompanying her father-in-law on an official Presidential tour in 1843.
New York City was the most impressive: “I never saw so magnificent a spectacle in my life. All the other cities had done their best, but none have the number of inhabitants or the natural advantages of New York”, Priscilla wrote. “The President had really showers of bouquets and wreaths thrown upon him everywhere. Windows of the houses have been filled with the most beautiful women waving their handkerchiefs and casting flowers in his path.”
In 1844, Robert relocated the couple to Philadelphia and Priscilla’s reign came to an end. Robert practiced law in Philly for sixteen years but their Confederate sympathies forced them to flee to Richmond, the new C.S.A. capital. The family narrowly escaped lynch mobs. During the war he worked at the Treasury Dept. and, afterwards, as an editor at a newspaper in Montgomery, Ala. the first capital of the Confederacy. The Tyler’s resided in this southern capital until their respective deaths in 1877 and 1889.
In 1844, John Tyler married for a second time to a young coquette, New Yorker Julia Gardiner. Tyler had been friends with Julia’s father, David Gardiner; he was a member of a Long Island family and former state Senator. In a strange and macabre twist, Julia, her father David, and her sister Margaret were onboard the steamboat frigate, the Princeton, when David, along with a few others, was killed when a huge naval gun exploded during a testing onboard. Apparently, while comforting Julia over the loss, the President, thirty years Julia’s senior, proposed marriage. It was a low-key engagement. The two were married in New York City on June 26, 1844. Tyler’s daughters were less-than-thrilled over their new, young stepmother, especially Letty Tyler.
Though she was hostess of the WH less than a year, Julia had a daguerreotype made and hired a press agent. The last ball during the Tyler administration, which Julia oversaw, drew 3,000 guests. Julia went out with a bang. The Tyler’s relocated to Sherwood Forest in Virginia after the Presidency. They lived their for nearly twenty years until the Civil War broke out. During this time Julia had become sympathetic to the southern cause. In the early 1850s, Julia had written an article defending slavery pusblished in Northern papers including The New York Herald.
In 1861, John Tyler was elected to serve in the Confederate cabinet in Richmond, but was dead within a few months of the war’s beginning. Oddly, despite her southern sympathies, Julia decided to relocate to Staten Island with her mother. Maybe she was lonely or needed
help with raising the seven kids she and John had together. Her beliefs caused friction within her Northern family and in the Staten Island community. At one point her Uncle living with Julia and her mother moved out because of the arguments with his niece. Her two teenage sons served in the Confederate Army, also.
In 1871, Julia left Staten Island and returned to the South. Hit hard by the 1873 financial panic, she lived in genteel poverty for the remainder of her life, like Dolley Madison, and survived on a pension given to her as a Former wife of a U.S. President. She passed away in Richmond, Va. in July of 1889 at age 69. She is buried next to the President in Hollywood cemetery.
Crapol, Edward P. John Tyler, the Accidental President.
Goodheart, Adam. “The Ashen Ruin,” The New York Times. 15 Feb 11.
Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes /The Gardiner-Tyler House, West New Brighton, Staten Island; Where a President’s Widow Backed the Confederacy,” The New York Times. 20 Jun 99.
Wikipedia: Letitia Tyler; Julia Gardiner Tyler; Priscilla Cooper Tyler; Robert Tyler; Gardiner-Tyler Mansion; U.S.S. Princeton.
FirstLadies.org: Letitia Tyler
Here’s the National Registry of Historic Places plaque at Angelica’s brother’s plantation:
Here is my favorite part of Stroyer’s memoir:
Master went away that Spring for the last time, he never returned alive; he died at his summer seat. When they brought his remains home, all of the slaves were allowed to stop at home that day to see the last of him, and to lament with mistress. After all the slaves who cared to do so had seen his face, they gathered in groups around mistress to comfort her; they shed false tears, saying, “never mind, misses, massa gone home to heaven;” while some were saying this, others said, “Thank God, massa gone home to hell.”
A daughter of the south, Angelica Singleton Van Buren spent most of her life in the North after she married President Martin Van Buren’s son, Abraham. She was born into a family of prosperous cotton planters near and around what is now Sumter, South Carolina. At an early age she was sent to an elite school in Philadelphia along with her sister Marion. Former First Lady Dolley Madison, a distant cousin, introduced Angelica to Abraham Van Buren at a White House dinner during the 1837-1838 social season. For their honeymoon the Van Burens traveled to Europe where they were presented at European courts. Back in D.C. as hostess in the WH Angelica began incorporating royal court procedures at formal gatherings. Her plan to re landscape the WH lawns into something elaborate backfired badly. On a political level, Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle referred to the proposed plans in his famous “Gold Spoon” speech. In 1837, there had been a “Financial Crisis”, many were economically hit and President Van Buren was believed to be living in an opulent style which many believe cost him the re-election.
Angelica returned to South Carolina during the winters staying at “Home Place” the family’s plantation she inherited. The Van Burens main residence was Kinderhook in New York. A West Point man, Abraham served in the Mexican War; he was a career military man. In 1848, New York City became their permanent home and remained so until their respective deaths. During the Civil War Angelica consoled herself by the separation from her Singleton family and southern roots by sending blankets to Confederate soldiers in Northern prisons. One wonders if they ever received them. In 1877 or 1878 Angelica died and was buried at Woodlawn in the Bronx, New York.
Martin Van Buren is a forgotten President but researching Angelica was hands-on for me because I live in South Carolina where Angelica hails. I went to Sumter to visit the area. Angelica’s brother’s plantation exists, well, the house does. Most of their land has split up and either private or turned into highways. The family cemetery still exists but I wasn’t able to find it among the dirt roads and cotton fields. I visited the Ernest F. Hollings Rare Books and Collections Library at USC-Columbia and viewed, touched, and took a picture of her 1831 “Autograph” book she had at the seminary in Philadelphia. It was a weird feeling touching something she herself touched from 181 years ago. The handwriting within is beautiful.
What does a 1936 Joan Crawford period vehicle have to do with the First Lady of Andrew Jackson’s White House?? One-hundred years after Jackson occupied the Oval office, Crawford’s only period movie was released to tepid response. Because of its failure she never made a period movie again.
The Gorgeous Hussy told the story of Margaret “Peggy” Eaton a woman of modest background shunned by Washington society but defended by Andrew Jackson. Peggy’s father was an inkeeper in D.C. Many politicians roomed at the boarding house including Jackson when he served in the Senate during the 1820’s.
Formerly married to a navy pursar, Peggy married Jackson ally John Eaton in 1829, a year after her first husband was lost at sea. Eaton had just been named Secretary of War – an important government position no doubt. As a high-ranking official his wife was expected to be a hostess and invitee of important functions – but she was shunned. Gossip was spreading like wildfire through the capital that Peggy was not a lady but a hoe. The fun couple were accused of having an affair before Peggy’s first marriage was over.
Andrew Jackson was furious at the way the Eatons were being treated. His recently deceased wife, Rachel, had been the victim of malicious attacks during the 1828 campaign because, evidently, Jackson had married her whilst she was still together with her first husband. She dropped dead from a heart attack right before the inauguration and Jackson blamed it on his opponents and their dirty campaign. Jackson was a steadfast supporter of the Eatons and didn’t tolerate anyone who shunned them. The scandal caused tension within his family.
After Rachel’s death, his neice Emily Donelson and her husband Andrew came to live with Jackson in the captial. Emily was the official hostess and Andrew performed secretarial duties for Jackson whom depended upon the couple for emotional as well as professional support. Familial bonds were important for Jackson. Emily was self-conscious about the Jackson frontier background and wanted to be accepted by the captial society in-crowd so she refused to have anything to do with Peggy Eaton which made the Eatons furious. Cabinet member and future President Martin Van Buren tried to intervene with disastrous results. Unsurprisingly, Jackson and Emily came to heads over the matter and she returned to the Hermitage estate outside Nashville for a year.
Why would a possible infidelity cause tumult within political and social circles during the Jackson Administration? Basically, those close – and opponents also – to Jackson used it for political gain. The “Petticoat” Affair turned into something larger because of human ambition. For example, Emily’s husband Andrew and others were jealous of Eaton’s sway with Jackson. As Jon Meacham writes in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House:
That the race for the White House in a large republic should have been affected by the sexual history of the wife of the secretary of war seems bizarre; yet politics is often driven not only by large ideas about policy and destiny but by affections and animosities. From Helen of Troy to Henry VIII, what Alexander Pope called “trivial Things” in The Rape of the Lock have led to wars, revolutions, and reformations, and so it was to be in the administration of the seventh president of the United States.
To ease tension John Eaton resigned from the War Department alongside other cabinet members like Martin Van Buren. The Eatons returned to Tennessee ending the petticoat affair and the intrigues surrounding the hoopla. With the Eaton’s gone Emily and Andrew Donelson returned to the White House. In a way she had won. Standing by her convictions Emily never received Peggy Eaton.
I chose to write about the petticoat affair because it’s juicier than just a breakdown of the Jackson White House First Lady and Peggy Eaton is such an interesting character. To me, she outshines Emily in this scandal. A journalist who’d known Peggy claimed after her death in 1879 that “She belonged to the restless heart whose lives are always stormy, sometimes great, and rarely happy.” It’s hard to know whether she was guilty of the accusations made against her nearly two hundred years later.
From what I gather from Meacham’s Jackson bio Margaret preferred the company of men to women and didn’t keep her distance from male crowds. She was dramatic and didn’t keep her emotions at bay and doubtfully had any tact. Her behavior rubbed women the wrong way and they snubbed her. Peggy made herself an easy target for scandal and gossip mongering. For example, after Eaton’ death in 1856 she married a third time at 59 to a 19 year-old Italian dancing instructor!!!! OMG. It was doomed. The dancer took off with her grandaughter!
Meacham writes this about Emily Donelson and President Jackson: “On close inspection, they had much in common, perhaps most significantly a tendancy to be stubborn yet mask willfulness with charm and geniality.” Alexander Hamilton’s son recalled seeing Emily riding up to Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, on horseback with her baby in her arms. Emily would not live to see Jackson complete his second term. She contracted consumption(tuberculosis) in 1836 and passed away at the Hermitage awaiting the arrival of her husband.
It’s unfortunate Louisa Adams is an obscure First Lady because she’s the most interesting and complicated I’ve read about so far in this project. Okay, I know each of the four had their quirks, but, through time what’s passed down can seem filtered and blurred and one-dimensional, especially concerning women. I mean 200 years is a long time! Fortunately, many historians are discovering this forgotten First Lady. First off, she first set foot on American soil in her mid-twenties. The 1st First Lady not born in America (and I’m thinking the only one.) Born to an American father and English mother, Louisa grew up in London and Paris. Her father was a merchant who lost his fortune right before Louisa married. Life with husband John Quincy Adams was turbulent at times and Louisa never felt the approval of Abigail and John Adams. The Adams were a tough, demanding crowd. Louisa’s early family life little prepared her for life with the Adamses. Michael O’Brien writes in Mrs. Adams in Winter that “While the Johnsons were metropolitan and worldly, wore silk, and saw church as an occasion for fashionable parade, the Adamses were rural, mistrusted the world, wore broadcloth and thought church was for urgent prayer.” But the wife became part of the husband’s family back then and Louisa was lost in the Adamses’ quest for glory. I think she was a survivor and nothing if not interesting. For instance, she was a writer. In her later years, Louisa wrote two incomplete autobiographies, a Russian diary of the couple’s stay in St. Petersburg, a separate account of a trip she took through the battlefields of Europe in 1815, letters, her plays (or skits), her many poems. Many of her witty letters survive. “Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France, 1815,” was finally published in 1903. This trip from St. Petersburg to Paris is the plot of Mrs. Adams in Winter. On her way to meet John in Paris, the journey lasted 40 days and she came upon battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars meeting many disparate and interesting characters along the way. It was an Odyssey. It reminded me of Gone with the Wind when Scarlett flees Atlanta with Melanie and her baby, except it lasts for forty days, but the carriage was more comfortable and Louisa had a change of clothes. In fact, it was the same type of carriage Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI tried to escape France in. Her young son accompanied her during this great journey. He would be the only one to survive his parents. As with many women, the constant childbearing and loss of children took a toll on her emotionally and physically. Louisa’s tenure as First Lady in the mid1820’s was endured.. at this point in her life she was deeply unhappy. In her fifties she was proof that women grow more rebellious with age as Gloria Steinem says. The proof is in the writing she left behind where Louisa is critical of her husband and the Adamses as well as her place as a woman. She became introspective and looked into her past, noting with pride the journey she undertook in 1815 as a test of her will and courage when she believed she’d succeeded on her own. The one instance where she was dependent entirely upon herself, Louisa, and not that Adamses.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, wife of fifth U.S. President James Monroe, had the misfortune of following in previous First Lady Dolley Madison’s footsteps. She paled in comparison and perhaps this is the reason she’s an obscure figure from history, and, really, her only claim to fame being her marriage to Monroe. Despite her lack of luster in the White House, she had an interesting, and worldly, life for a woman of her era.
Born in 1768, the same year as her predecessor Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Kortright almost shared a birthday with me, June 30th to my June 29th arrival, alas over two-hundred years apart. A fellow Cancerian. Her family was a part of New York City’s older and elite circle, but her father during the Revolutionary War sided with Loyalists/Tories and, as a result, his fortunes were damaged.
Also like Dolley, Elizabeth met James Monroe in what was then the capital of the U.S., New York City, Elizabeth’s hometown. Despite her father’s Loyalist sympathies, James Monroe, who’d fought in the war alongside Washington, married Elizabeth in 1786. She was 17. They soon relocated to Fredericksburg, Va. where James established a law practice.
More interested in being in the political world than becoming part of the Virginia land gentry, the Monroe’s often lived a peripatetic lifestyle for most of their married lives. While James was a Senator in Philadelphia, Elizabeth spent most of her time in New York, but in 1794 Monroe was named U.S. Minister to France and Elizabeth relocated with him.
Elizabeth took like a cat to milk in Paris. She adopted French clothing and customs. Labeled “La Belle Americane,” she caused a stir when she didn’t make a social call on a visiting American in Paris. Apparently, this was French ritual. Her adoption of old world, European style protocol would be her undoing in later years as the President’s wife.
Aesthetics aside, Elizabeth was admired for her strength and will during this Paris period. She is credited with saving American French-born hero Marquis de Lafayette’s wife, Adrienne de Noiolles de Lafayette, during the waning days of the French Revolution. Elizabeth visited the Marquis’s wife and made sure that it was known the American contingent was acquainted with Adrienne. Shortly after the prisoner was set free. The French had been American allies and they most likely surmised executing Lafayette’s wife would have been disastrous diplomacy; France was already at war with several other European countries – they didn’t need another enemy.
The Monroe’s stay in France ended in 1796. Back in Virginia, Monroe was elected Governor.
But in 1803 Elizabeth and James set sail again for the Old World. James had been appointed United States Minister to England and Spain. While in Europe James was sent as a special envoy to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Not surprisingly, James and Elizabeth were part of the official U.S. delegation attending Napoleon’s coronation that December, 1804.
During the Madison Administration James served as Secretary of a State, arriving in Washington, D.C. The Monroe’s distinctly chose to live outside of the capital in the Virginia countryside curtailing their social activities, and Elizabeth reportedly did not reciprocate social calls paid to her.
Privately, Elizabeth had begun to suffer symptoms of epilepsy. Her husband’s election in 1817 coincided with this health crisis.
From her Firstladies.org entry:
“Elizabeth Monroe provided an extreme contrast to her predecessor Dolley Madison, who had conceived of her role as partially a public one. As a consequence of both her fragile health and reserved social nature, as well as the prestige she hoped to convey by limiting the access of the President’s wife to the spouses of other officials, Elizabeth Monroe established a European-style, less democratic protocol. To the spouses of Judicial and Legislative branch spouses, as well as those of the foreign diplomatic corps, she would neither make nor return the formal ‘call,’ meaning a visit that signified status and recognition from the Executive branch… When the Monroe’s decided to leave Washington for their nearby Virginia home instead of host the annual open house public reception on Independence Day in 1819, even those citizens not among the city’s elite were insulted. Dissatisfaction with Elizabeth Monroe’s protocol led to a boycott of all Administration receptions (not dinners) by officials in Washington.”
Her appearance – when she graced official events and gatherings – was praised for its grace, chic wardrobe, and handsome looks despite Elizabeth being 50ish.(I write this because that was considered elderly back then; not true today. Also, people didn’t have resources like, um, plastic surgery or sophisticated make-up.)
Elizabeth’s run as First Lady ended in 1825 and the couple returned to their estate in Virginia. Never much of a farmer, James’s plantation was badly managed and he was often in debt; selling slaves to raise much-needed funds.
Interesting that many of our Founding Fathers had such money problems in their later years…
Constantly ill 1825 onward, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe died in 1830, age 62. She was survived by her husband and two daughters, Eliza and Maria. James burned all their personal correspondence after Elizabeth’s death and passed away himself a little less than year following her.
American Experience: Dolley Madison
Born into a respectable Quaker family, Dolley Madison metamorphosed from a plain Jane girl into a stylish First Lady. A Jane Fondaesque transformation, if you will. Her parents were strict Quakers but they often were at odds with the Friendship society. As a young girl her father was cast out of the society for dishonesty about his debts. His starch making business collapsed and he sank into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Her mother opened a boardinghouse in Philadelphia which attracted many politicians as the City of Brotherly Love was the U.S. capital during this time.
Dolley was first married to John Todd, a young Quaker lawyer, at her father’s insistence probably to get her out of the house and not have to support her. Sadly, it was not a long marriage. John and a newborn baby were struck down during a yellow fever epidemic. A short time later she married James Madison after a brief courtship; four months after they’d first met. It was a marriage of opposites: she was vivacious and outgoing he considerably less so. Madison was a thinker, Dolley a feeler.
The newly christened Mrs. Madison shed her dull Quaker frocks and started clothing herself quite stylishly: showing off her ample bosom in empire waist gowns and wearing turbans. She was liberated. Cast out of Quaker society because of her marriage to an “outsider,” Dolley blossomed aesthetically but Quaker beliefs and morals stayed imbedded within her being.
In 1809, James Madison was elected as President of the United States; the fourth to serve. The Madison’s were a power couple. The opponent Charles Pinckney declared, “I was beaten by Mr. and Missus Madison.” Dolley delighted in her new role. She’d played hostess of the Executive Mansion for Jefferson because he was a widower, but this time the first Inaugural Ball was held there and she established that anyone who could pay the $4 fee was welcome to celebrate her brilliant husband’s victory.
Dolley set about establishing the Executive Mansion or President’s House, it wasn’t yet called the “White House,” as a gathering place for Washingtonians and visitors. She redecorated and became a much admired hostess. Mrs. Madison knew how to work a room.
In 1812 the U.S. declared war on Great Britain, a sort of continuation of the Revolutionary War. Britain had been harassing American ships. This was risky because our country had limited resources compared with the mighty Britain, especially their Navy.
In August of 1814, British troops, 4,000 of them, descended outside the capital. Dolley would be forever immortalized for her bravery during the sacking of Washington, D.C. Many Washingtonians fled the capital but Dolley stayed put with a few servants, including an African-American butler who later wrote a memoir about his time with the Madison’s.
The servants set about preparing dinner for the evening; Madison was at the front. Dolley surveyed the city with her eyeglass to spot troops and wrote letters to her sisters. At dusk a messenger came on horseback telling Dolley to clear out, the British were descending onto the capital city. Dolley rushed the servants into saving important papers, silver, and nice curtains and refused to leave until she was able to remove a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame.
She hurriedly fled as the British were entering the city.
The British torched government buildings including the Executive Mansion, but not before sitting down and eating the dinner prepared for President Madison and his guests. The Brits weren’t able to destroy the capital entirely; a thunder-storm hit and wiped out their plans. The Madison’s would never occupy the Executive Mansion again.
After the war ended in 1815, Mrs. Madison fought against relocating the capital back to Philadelphia because of the damage. It was an important symbol. A capital named after the first President. She believed if the captital was relocated they were giving the Brits a victory since the redcoats’ aim was to destroy the capital.
Dolley took up a cause as First Lady, a first. It wasn’t controversial: an orphanage for girls.
In 1817, Madison’s second term ended and the couple returned to his estate in Virginia: Montpelier. The ensuing years were spent caring for James and worrying about her profligate son, Payne. He was the firstborn of Dolley’s children with John Todd. Unfortunately, he caused Dolley and James much heartache. He even spent time in jail for nonpayment of debts; debtors prison.
After James Madison passed away she lived in poverty. Her son continued to squander money and rack up debts. Dolley couldn’t say no to his demands, after all she had very little understanding of money matters. Eventually, the Montpelier plantation was sold and Dolley moved to Philadelphia and in her last years Washington, D.C.
In D.C. Dolley might have been poor but she was American royalty. A last living member of Revolutionary America. She had known Mr. and Mrs. George Washington. She was a former First Lady. A trendsetter. Celebrity.
In 1844, Dolley was given a lifetime seat on the House floor. She was in her seventies at the time so “lifetime” seems an odd honor at her age, nonetheless, it was a symbol of her stature.
As writer Tom Fleming states: “Here was a woman who had drunk tea with George and Martha Washington, and she could reminisce and remember things that everybody said all the way back to those early days. She mesmerized every party she went to.”
She was in her early eighties when she died in 1849 and what was sad is that she wasn’t able to be buried alongside James for nine years because the burial ground was on private property.
Her legacy survives. After her – until Mary Todd Lincoln – one usually can’t name any First Ladies. I sure as Hell can’t. Mrs. Madison was one of the earliest so maybe it’s understandable we in the present remember her.
- Former First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited Dolley Madison as an inspiration in her bestselling memoir Living History.
- Dolley was invited to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. She was one of the few people alive at the time who had actually met the Founding Father.
- When the first telegraph line in the world was erected between Washington and Baltimore, she was asked to be the first private citizen to send a message.
Mr. Jefferson’s Ladies, by Gordon Langley Hall
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson , by Joseph Ellis
Patsy(Martha) Jefferson Randolph, was the eldest surviving daughter of Thomas Jefferson, gave birth to twelve children, and was married to a possibly mentally ill/alcoholic husband. She infrequently played hostess during Jefferson’s two terms as President in the early 1800’s. Her mother, Martha Jefferson, had passed away not too long after giving birth to her third surviving child in 1782.
Jefferson biographer Joseph J. Ellis describes Patsy at 13 as an “uncommonly tall and long limbed girl with her father’s bright eyes and angular bone structure.” Both Patsy and her sister Polly accompanied Jefferson to Paris, France where he was serving as a diplomat. Jefferson placed both girls in a convent; however, he removed them promptly when he learned of Patsy’s intention to become a nun.
Like Martha Washington, Patsy was mistress of a southern plantation; at her father’s Monticello. She never spent much time at the White House: she had eleven kids! Of course, being a plantation mistress was no easy task and her duties including being a midwife at times.
As for Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s girlfriend for many years, it is difficult to claim Patsy’s ignorance: she lived with her father throughout the duration of his affair with Sally. Yet, according to Ellis, Patsy went to the grave defending her father against accusations of having a slave lover. Yes, before the revelation of this relationship in 1998, there was much speculation and gossip mongering in Jefferson’s time over it.
Like many mistresses of plantations, Patsy had to notice the physical similarities between young slave children and the white masters. It’s pretty much common knowledge the white men of plantations often took advantage of slave women; often fathering many mulatto children. There was nothing for her to do but turn her head the other way.
After her beloved father’s death in 1826, Patsy was a pauper. She was estranged from her husband. All furniture and valuables from Monticello were sold to pay off debts; later Monticello itself was sold. Two years after her father’s death her husband died.
At one point Patsy was given $10,000 by the states of South Carolina and Louisiana, in honor of her father’s memory, in lieu of starting a girl’s school in Charlottesville, Va. She invested these funds into the Uni. of Va., a source of a modest income, but until her death in 1836 Patsy lived in straightened circumstances.
Two things struck me about Abigail Adams’ complex personality and contradictory life: her long separations from John and her teaching an indentured black servant.
John and Abigail gave up a stable married life so he could focus on being a public servant for their fledging country. John spent years away in Philadelphia, then later Europe, working on the foundation of our country along with other Founding Fathers. Abigail should be credited along with a handful of other women as Founding Mothers. She sacrificed a family life – but there were other gains. After a five-year separation from John (five years!), they reunited in France where John was serving in an Ambassador type role during the War. So Abigail was uncommon compared to many others in her day in traveling across sea to Europe, meeting royalty, observing different cultures and visiting grand 1700’s capitals such as Paris and London. Still I cannot imagine the longing she must have felt for her husband during their long separations.
My favorite anecdote about Abigail was her reaction to a white man’s confrontation over an indentured servant boy of hers. The boy’s name was James and Abigail had taught him to read and write; however, she didn’t believe in racial equality. Nevertheless, Abigail was a big advocate of educating women and blacks. Women were barely educated and blacks received none. When a night school opened, James expressed interest in attending and Abigail gave her blessing. A neighbor confronted Abigail over the matter, stating all the white boys were leaving school because a black boy was attending. She told the man if they didn’t have a problem with blacks sitting in church with whites or James playing the fiddle at their dances then they shouldn’t complain about his attending school. “Tell them I hope we all go to heaven together.”