Wednesday, March 22, 2006

White House…and Internet…Phantoms

No, I’m not talking about ghosts, but rather First Ladies. We often talk about women who excelled in the role of White House hostess, but just as we sometimes forget obscure Presidents we also tend to forget obscure First Ladies. First Ladies don’t campaign (well in modern society they do a lot of campaigning with their husbands, but you know what I mean) for office, rather they might not have ever supposed when they married their husband that he would one day be President. In the case of these two women, they actively tried to talk their husbands out of running for the office. Now I went looking for information on these two obscure First Ladies (Carl Anthony used the term “phantom” to refer to Peggy Taylor if you want to know where I got it from) and really found there was little information online beyond the obligatory biography in the “usual” places (the White House, the National First Ladies Library, etc.) and that they really were extremely similar and offered little new or exciting to get us interested in these women. So I decided to add some information from my own library to rectify that problem in a small way. The links are to what I considered the most in depth biographies available online.

Jane Pierce detested the life of a politician’s wife and repeatedly tried to get her husband to get out of politics. He told her that did not actively seek the nomination and only ran because they nominated him anyway. She found after his election that this was a lie. She agreed to go to DC, though, but on the way there her son, Bennie, was killed in a train wreck. Jane Pierce (Mrs. Pierce’s father was a religious fanatic and she took to many of his beliefs) blamed her husband for the boy’s death, deciding the God had killed the boy so Franklin would have no distractions while in office. She went into mourning for two years, refusing to come out and even go so hold a séance at the White House, trying to reach her son’s spirit. Even after this period, she did very little as First Lady. [Source: Carl Anthony’s First Ladies, vol. 1, pg. 157 – 159] Carl Anthony wrote: “She cast a permanent pall on the administration and rendered Pierce’s political career – which she so detested – and Washington – which she viewed with condescension – obsolete in her sphere.” [Anthony, 159]

Rumors abounded about why Margaret Taylor was never seen while her husband was President. Some said she was an embarrassment to the family and too “uncouth” to be seen in public or said she hated politics. The truth was she was a educated, genteel Southern lady, who had grown up with Martha Washington’s granddaughters. Margaret “Peggy” Taylor prayed that Henry Clay would be nominated in place of her husband for President. While she did not act as the White House hostess (her daughter Betty Bliss did instead), she did entertain special guests in her upstairs rooms. [Source: Carl Anthony’s First Ladies, vol. 1, pg. 145-147] According to legend, Peggy Taylor prayed that her husband would survive the Mexican War and if he did she would never partake of a social life again. [See website link for more information on this…Carl Anthony actually doesn’t bring this up which tells me there is probably no factual base to this legend]. Peggy Taylor predicted upon her husband’s nomination that he would die in office and he actually did – she called his nomination a “plot to deprive me of his society, and shorten his life by unnecessary care and responsibility.” [Anthony, pg. 146] Peggy Taylor was so little know in DC that there is no verified photograph or painting of her (there is more information on this on the website link…there is supposedly a photo that was found in 1998…Carl Anthony also addresses this issue in his footnotes).


Michael said...

Mrs. Pierce may be the reason that President Pierce said upon losing renomination by his party, "there's nothing left to do but get drunk." Which he did repeatedly the rest of his life before dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869. It sounds like she was very difficult to live with.

I think the most obscure First lady was Anna Harrison. She never even made it to Washington! Wikipedia ( notes:

"When her husband was inaugurated in 1841, she was detained by illness at their home in North Bend. When she decided not to go to Washington with him, the President-elect asked his daughter-in-law Jane Irwin Harrison, widow of his namesake son, to accompany him and act as hostess until Anna's proposed arrival in May. Half a dozen other relatives happily went with them. On April 4, exactly one month after his inauguration, the President died. Anna was packing for the move to the White House when she learned of William's death in Washington, so she never made the journey."

Jennie W said...

She was definitely not cut out to be a politican's wife. She never liked the life and therefore only inhibited her husband's career. It makes you wonder if Franklin Pierce could have been an effective president if he had chosen a different wife.

Anna Harrison never got a chance to be a First Lady - but then WH Harrison never really got a chance to be President either.

I think some of the most obscure First Ladies are the ones who served in place of dead or invalid wives. Most people would never think of women like Angelica Van Buren (Hannah Van Buren died 19 years before her husband was elected and Angelica was a daughter-in-law) or Mary McElroy (Chester Arthur's sister). While they served as White House hostesses, they are seldom mentioned in books on the First Ladies or quickly passed over.