Louisa Adams

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 in her youth.

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.

Napoleon crowning Josephine at his coronation, c.1804. The Monroe’s were part of the American Delegation attending.

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.

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe’s grave.

Dolley Madison


Dolley in her prime

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.

Twilight years

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.

Patsy Jefferson


Patsy Jefferson Randolph

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.

Audacious Abigail


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.”

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.  – L.P. Hartley

First Lady of the United States. As Americans, we hear the wife of every current President announced by this moniker, but what does the title signify? What makes a Lady First?  Since the President of the United States is such an overwhelming powerful figure, where does the First Lady (no First Gentlemen yet) figure in the grand sweeping melodrama that encircles the President, along with the policies and public showmanship that characterizes his reign?

I distinctly remember as a child perusing my maternal grandmother’s World Book Encyclopedias from the ’50s, thumbing through their yellow pages. Mostly, I would look up U.S. Presidents and read about their wives who were delegated to the back page of their husband’s section. There would be a small black and white print  photograph of the First Lady, and under it would be a very short bio. I recall contemplating if the space she was given amounted to the importance she played in her husband’s Presidency, and to a further extent the times in which she lived.

A former potential History major, before I chose English, I love reading about historical personages, especially Americans, whose lives I use as an inspiration to enrich – both good and bad ways – my own existence in this U.S. of A., circa 2012. Discovering the past First Ladies going all the way back to the late 1700’s, I want to discover the ways this role has changed and the performance each Lady gave whilst the man was occupying and wielding tremendous power in the Oval Office. Were these women as ambitious as their husbands in seeking the Presidency of the United States? Supportive? Or were some unhappy and disconcerted at being judged and held up as the President’s wife? Was the “Lady” role suffocating and unbearable?

In seeking the answers to my questions, I will read a biography of each “Lady” that occupied the White House with her “Gentleman.” However, there are about a handful of First Ladies that were not wives and I hope to discover how these ladies were chosen amongst others within the President’s family and social sphere.

My decision to write a blog about the First Ladies Past and Present occurred only after ditching the idea of reading about all former and current U.S. Presidents. At Times Dull sparked my curiosity and I’m indebted to its blogger, Janet Potter. Smart gal. Nevertheless, reading a biography of George Washington I came to the realization that I wanted to read about his wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. Now here I am. First Ladies instead of U.S. President’s.

Alas, I have no time goal for finishing this project. Michelle Obama is our 44th First Lady. That’s 44 books to read! Here I go!

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