Abigail Smith Adams was the first American woman to become both the wife of a president and the mother of another. Her role in American history is little discussed in classrooms, but it was as significant as any of the men known collectively as the Founding Fathers. During his many absences from their Quincy, Massachusetts home, in Philadelphia, and in France and later Holland, Adams maintained a steady correspondence with his wife, who replied in kind. They exchanged over 1,000 letters, most which survive, in which their mutual affection remains evident two centuries later. Abigail’s views on government, women’s rights and roles, and the conduct of diplomacy were adopted by John, and through him entered the debates over the shaping of the young United States.
The Constitution of the United States was debated in secret, with the convention sitting as a Committee of the Whole. Much of what occurred during those discussions that is known today came from John’s letters to Abigail, as well as her responses. She also maintained a steady correspondence with other founders, including Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris. Her influence on the formation of the new government in the United States was immeasurable, based on the long love affair and deep friendship she shared with her husband. Abigail Adams was the first First Lady to take up residence in the Executive Mansion, though for a short time only, late in her husband’s single term in office.
England’s King George III is primarily remembered in America as the last monarch to rule over the 13 British colonies. Widely regarded as a tyrant in American history texts, George III was one of Britain’s longest serving monarchs. He ascended the throne during the final months of the Seven Years War, and retained it until his death in 1820, though during the latter years of his reign power was in the hands of the Prince Regent, his son George. His wife, Queen Charlotte, was the longest serving Royal Consort in British history until surpassed by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Charlotte endured a tumultuous reign, which included the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, some of the most danger laden days of all British history.
A little known fact of history is Charlotte’s long friendship with her French counterpart, Marie Antoinette. Though they never met, they maintained a lengthy correspondence, discussing the arts, their families, gardening, and patronage. When the revolution erupted in France, Charlotte offered Marie and her family and entourage sanctuary in England, and had rooms prepared to accept them should they be forced into exile. When Louis XVI and his Queen fled the revolutionaries in June, 1791, it was to rally forces of royalist supporters, rather than an attempted escape to England. It is impossible to determine how history would have changed had they accepted Queen Charlotte’s hospitality and the protection of the British king and nation. George and Charlotte were parents of two subsequent British monarchs, George IV and William IV, as well as the grandparents of Queen Victoria.
Benedict Arnold was a dashing hero of the Revolution when he served as military commander of Philadelphia. There he met, courted, and married Peggy Shippen. Shippen was the daughter of a local merchant of wealth, and a spy on the payroll of British Major John Andre. Her family were prominent Tories. Shippen’s spying is demonstrated in the existence of coded letters, written in her hand and addressed to Andre, some of them in invisible ink. The exact role Shippen took convincing her husband, at the time America’s foremost field commander, to betray the Revolution remains debated. Some believe she initiated it with promises of monetary reward and elevation to the nobility by the grateful British.
The Arnold plot to surrender West Point to the British failed, and little actual harm occurred to the American military position. Nonetheless it was a deep blow to American morale at a critical juncture of the Revolutionary War. Neither Benedict nor Peggy found much happiness following their treachery, living in England after the war, where both were shunned by society. Her family in Philadelphia denied her participation in the plot, and even her knowledge of it before it was discovered. Hoards of damning evidence leave little doubt she was a willing, active participant, and likely persuaded her husband to turn traitor. Arnold died in London in 1801, Peggy in the same city three years later. They are interred together at Battersea, in a churchyard.
Dolley Madison and her husband James made a strange pair in public to society eyes. James was small, slender, and reserved in public appearances, while his wife was large, boisterous, and skilled at socializing. She revolutionized the American capital during her period as First Lady, during both her husband’s administration and at times for the Jefferson administration which preceded it. Madison hosted levees and other social events, inviting the highlights of both of the contentious political parties of the day. She adroitly maneuvered among those holding opposing views, fostering civil discourse. It was a distinct change from the polarized situation in Washington which emerged during the Washington and Adams years. Dolley established doing business in an informal atmosphere, during what would in a much later day become known as cocktail parties.
Their marriage was a long one, 42 years, and lasted until former President Madison died at his Montpelier estate in Virginia in 1836. After Madison’s death Dolley returned to Washington, where she sorted and catalogued her husband’s papers, zealously protecting his legacy. She was forced to sell his beloved plantation to settle debts, many of them the result of mismanagement on the part of her son. She continued to be welcomed in Washington society for the rest of her life, including in the White House, and in the halls of Congress. When she died in 1849 her family interred her remains in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, though she was later exhumed and reinterred alongside her husband on the grounds of Montpelier, near Charlottesville, Virginia.
10. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie Chotek
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie Chotek, fought long and hard for the privilege of marrying each other. A member of the Habsburg Dynasty, Ferdinand could not marry outside of the reigning dynasties of Europe (or former reigning dynasties, such as the Bonapartes). Sophie’s family did not enjoy such lofty credentials. Ferdinand finally obtained permission for the marriage from Emperor Franz Josef in 1899, promising that he would renounce the right of any children from the marriage ascending to the throne of the empire. Sophie was not allowed to appear beside him in public in Austria, nor ride in the royal carriage. They were married in Bohemia in July, 1900, and had four children, the last a stillborn son in 1908.
In 1914, during a visit to the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the restrictions against appearing together did not apply, they rode through the streets of Sarajevo together in an open automobile. They were assassinated side-by-side by Gavrilo Princip, who shot first Franz, then Sophie. Earlier that day they had been uninjured during a bombing attack by anarchists. Princip was another such anarchist. Though during life Sophie could not often appear at her husband’s side, they were buried together, side by side, in Artstetten Castle in Austria. Princip died in prison in 1918. The assassination was the final catalyst in the long buildup to war in Europe, and is generally regarded as the first shots of the First World War.
Much of the life of Annie Oakley is mythologized, with conflicting dates for events and stories of accomplishments attributed to others. Her marriage to Frank Butler is one such, with some sources claiming they were wed in Cincinnati in 1876, others in Greenville, Ohio in 1881. Her prowess with a rifle is unquestioned though, and through her tours with her husband’s shooting shows, followed by their joint appearances with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she gained world fame. Throughout her life she trained women to use firearms to defend themselves, with one source estimating over 15,000 learning to shoot through her personal instruction. She offered to form an all-women rifle company for service in the Spanish-American War, which President William McKinley declined.
Frank continued to work as Annie’s manager after his own shooting career ended, and the couple worked closely together for the rest of her life. In 1904 she was falsely reported as dependent on cocaine in several newspapers; she eventually prevailed in more than 50 lawsuits for libel. In 1924 her health declined and she died the following year in Greenville, Ohio at the age of 66. Frank was so despondent that he quit eating entirely. He traveled to Michigan, where he stayed at the home of Annie’s sister, Hulda Haines. He died 18 days after Annie, with some sources claiming the cause as suicide by starvation. Others attribute his death to senility. He was 79. Annie and Frank Butler were lifelong advocates of women being taught the means to defend themselves, in an age where many men considered such behavior unseemly.
Harry and the girl who eventually became known as Bess Truman met when the two attended school together as children in Independence, Missouri in the late 1800s. By 1910 Truman courted Bess, to the dismay of the girl’s mother, and when Harry proposed in 1911 the girl turned him down. Bess was from a wealthy family, at least to outward appearances, though her father committed suicide over mounting debts in 1903. When Harry returned from service in Europe during World War I he proposed again, over the objections of her future mother-in-law. Throughout their long marriage, including while in residence in the White House, Bess’s mother believed her daughter had married beneath her status.
The Truman marriage lasted 52 years, ending with his death in 1972. During those years they faced business failures, the Depression, and World War II, during which Truman served in the US Senate, before becoming Vice-President and eventually President. He sought counsel from Bess when facing virtually every major decision of his career, and she remained at his side throughout the many crises which challenged his Presidency. During his retirement in Missouri they resided in the house in which Bess had been raised as a child. Harry always told visitors that it was his wife’s house. Bess lived to the age of 97, dying ten years after her husband’s passing. They are buried together at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence.
TR was a wealthy young man and his young bride, Alice Hathaway Lee, a well-known New York socialite. The couple planned for a large family, purchasing property near Oyster Bay with the intention of building a spacious home. Alice gave birth to their first child, Alice Lee Roosevelt, in February 1884, while Teddy was in Albany, serving in the New York General Assembly. The telegram he received announcing the birth was followed by a second, announcing his wife’s perilous condition. He rushed home, and held her in his arms as she died on February 14, of a kidney ailment which her pregnancy had masked. Roosevelt’s mother had died earlier the same day, in the same house.
Teddy was so distraught over his wife’s death he could not speak her name, nor care for the child she had borne. To escape his grief he fled to the Dakotas, where he developed the ranching and hunting skills which helped shape his public image and subsequent political career. It also developed his lifelong appreciation for the environment, which he used to expand the National Park System as President. Roosevelt eventually remarried and with his second wife achieved the large family he and Alice had sought. For the rest of his life Teddy referred to the daughter they had together as Baby Lee, and later simply as Lee, unable to speak her mother’s name in the family home.
Clementine Hozier’s father’s true identity was the subject of much gossip among London’s social elite when she was introduced to 29 year old Winston Churchill at a ball in 1904. It remains a matter of speculation among her biographers. In 1908, after numerous meetings at formal events, and social settings, Winston proposed. The marriage took place in September of that year. They had five children together over the next fourteen years, though one died at the age of two. Throughout the remainder of their marriage, Clementine, whom Churchill called Clemmie, supported her husband’s many careers in politics, the military, and literature.
Churchill was noted for taking controversial stands throughout his political career, and Clementine found herself the target of social snubs as a result, often salted with renewed gossip over her heritage. She did not suffer them in silence, particularly when they were directed toward her husband. She supported her husband’s views and defended his honor in public and private. Before World War II she often traveled with her husband, both at home and abroad. Their marriage lasted 56 years, during which she supported Winston’s odd working hours, extensive absences, and his well-known penchant for alcoholic beverages throughout the day. Winston died in 1965, and Clementine remained a widow until her own death in 1977.
Isador Straus, born in Germany, emigrated to America and served the Confederacy during the American Civil War. After the war his father, Lazarus Straus, opened a crockery department at R. H. Macy and Company. Their crockery sold well, and by 1888 Isador and his brother Nathan became full partners in Macy’s. Isador had by then married Rosalie Ida Blun, known simply as Ida, and the couple raised their six children (a seventh died in infancy) in New York. In 1896 Isador and Nathan achieved full control of Macy’s. Isador traveled frequently, both on company business and during a term in Congress. Ida traveled with him when she could, when she did not the couple wrote letters to each other daily. Friends and acquaintances called them exceptionally close.
They spent the winter of 1911-12 in the South of France, touring other countries in the early spring, before boarding a ship for home. The ship was RMS Titanic. Eyewitness accounts reported as the ship was sinking Isador and Ida were offered seats in Lifeboat 8. Isador refused to enter the boat while there were still women and children aboard the sinking liner. He urged his wife to board, but she refused, telling him, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go”. They had then been married 41 years. Both perished together, last seen on the boat deck, arms entwined. Isador’s body was recovered, though Ida’s was not. A cenotaph in their name is in Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York.
Lucien, a younger brother of Napoleon, married Christine Boyer, an illiterate sister of an innkeeper in France, in 1794. Neither his brother nor his mother approved of the match. Christine died in childbirth in 1800. Lucien later met and married Alexandrine, a daughter of the French aristocracy and a widow with one child. Napoleon disapproved of that marriage as well. Along with other disagreements between the brothers, including Lucien’s opposition to Napoleon declaring himself Emperor, the marriage led to Lucien entering a self-imposed exile in Frascati. Napoleon continued to pressure him, and local authorities, to return to France, abandon his wife, and accept marriage to a Spanish princess and a royal title.
Napoleon demanded all of his siblings marry members of the royal houses of Europe, in order to legitimize his own upstart dynasty. Desperate to thwart his brother’s intentions, Lucien boarded a ship bound for America, where he intended to start a new life with Alexandrine and their children. The ship was captured by a British cruiser, and Lucien taken to England. There he accepted exile among the British, with Napoleon regarding his brother as a traitor. Following the Emperor’s abdication in 1814 Lucien returned to France, and rejoined Napoleon during the subsequent 100 Days. In return, the Emperor recognized his marriage and included the children in the House of Bonaparte. When the Bourbons returned to the throne they refused to acknowledge Lucien’s standing. He remained married to Alexandrine until his death in 1840. Together, they had ten children.
Edward VIII is famous as the monarch who abdicated his throne in order to marry a divorcee and commoner, and perhaps worst of all to the Royal Family, an American. he exasperated his father, King George V, with a series of affairs with married women, many of them carried on with a distinct lack of discretion. When George V died, Edward became King Edward VIII. As King, Edward demonstrated a knack for creating controversy in political affairs as well as societal, breaking with tradition, and creating a scandal by having the as yet not divorced Wallis Simpson accompany him on a Mediterranean cruise. Most of the scandal however was on the American side of the Atlantic, the British press bowed to pressure and failed to inform the public of much of the King’s doings.
That changed when Edward informed the Prime Minister of his intention to marry Wallis once her divorce was finalized. He issued the ultimatum, he would marry Simpson with the support of the government, or he would abdicate the throne. On December 10, 1936. Edward abdicated in favor of his brother, Prince Albert, who reigned as King George VI. Simpson’s divorce was finalized seven months later. In 1937, Edward and Wallis, with the titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor, visited Adolf Hitler at his Berghof home, where the former King of England rendered a full Nazi salute to the Fuhrer. They remained married until Edward’s death in 1972.
Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde were in a relationship which came to the attention of Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess publicly called Wilde a sodomite, which led to the playwright charging him with criminal slander. Douglas encouraged the action. During the Marquess’s trial, evidence emerged that his accusations were in fact true, forcing Wilde to drop the charges, and exposing him to criminal charges, as same sex relations were at the time illegal in Britain. The trial also strained the relationship between Douglas and Wilde, following the evidence of Wilde’s homosexual behavior with several other young men.
Wilde was tried and convicted of gross indecency in 1895 in a second trial, after the first ended with a hung jury. Following his conviction, which likely would never have occurred had Wilde not first charged the Marquess of Queensbury with libel, he was imprisoned for two years. After his release, Wilde and Douglas were reunited briefly in Naples, though by the time Wilde relocated to Paris in 1898, Douglas had returned to England. After converting to Catholicism, Douglas denied any relationship with Oscar Wilde other than friendship, a stance he maintained for the rest of his life. Wilde, who died in 1900, was the only one of the many men cited in his trials to face charges, or go to prison for his acts. Douglas later served six months in prison for libel, on unrelated charges brought by the crown on behalf of Winston Churchill.
19. Daniel Sickles, Philip Barton Key, and Teresa Bagioli
Daniel Sickles was a noted attorney and politician in New York and Washington, married to Teresa Bagioli. While married, Sickles drew censure from the State Assembly when he brought into its chambers a known prostitute. Sickles later took the same woman with him on a trip to London, when he was assigned to the American legation there. Meanwhile his wife, Teresa, entered into an extramarital affair with Philip Barton Key, another attorney of note. He was the son of Francis Scott Key, the writer of what later became America’s national anthem. When Sickles learned of the affair he accosted Key, in broad daylight in Lafayette Square, in sight of the White House, and shot him dead.
His defense at his trial was extreme emotional distress. He was acquitted. It was the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense in American legal history. Sickles obtained a signed confession from Teresa with details of the affair, which he leaked to the press, creating considerable scandal and public outrage. After his acquittal, Sickles and Teresa briefly reconciled, though their marriage was effectively over. On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Sickles lost a leg while leading his corps into a position forward of the Union line. His corps took heavy casualties as a result, rendering it ineffective for the rest of the battle. After the war and the death of Teresa in 1867, he remarried, though he continued for the rest of his life to promote his reputation as a ladies man.
John Alden was not among the religious dissenters known to Americans as the Pilgrims. He was a carpenter and cooper, both skills highly valued on long ocean voyages. Mayflower’s captain, Christopher Jones, hired the young man for the voyage. He made the decision to remain in the New World at some point before the first huts of the colony were erected, as evidenced by his signature on the Mayflower Compact. During the first winter hunger and disease ravaged the settlers, and one – Priscilla Mullins – lost her entire family, both parents and a brother. Priscilla married John Alden, likely in 1622, since the division of land in 1623 listed John Alden, but not her.
The romantic story regarding John, Priscilla, and Miles Standish is almost certainly entirely fictional. It stems from the poem The Courtship of Miles Standish written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (a direct descendant) one of a series of works which fictionalized American history. Standish was married when the Pilgrims arrived, his wife Rose was one of the casualties of the first winter. His second wife, Barbara, arrived in late 1623, they were married in the spring of 1624. By that time, John and Priscilla were residing in the house he built at the foot of Burial Hill. Eventually John and Priscilla had ten children together. She died sometime around 1685, in Duxbury, where they moved in 1627. John Alden died in 1687, one of the longest-lived of the original voyagers in the Mayflower.
Both Caroline – known as Carrie – and Warren G. Harding were married when they began their affair, which at first they were able to keep a secret from their respective spouses. The four were friends, socializing together and even travelling to Europe together. When Florence Harding, wife of Warren, learned of the affair, she exploded in fury, informing Carrie of other affairs her husband had pursued. The Phillips’ went on another European trip while the Harding’s remained at home in Marion, Ohio. Carrie decided to remain in Germany, her husband returned to the United States alone. Harding meanwhile won a seat in the United States Senate. Carrie returned to the United States as it became evident that war was imminent.
In 1920, Harding secured the Republican nomination for President. Aware that Carrie retained more than 200 letters which Harding had written, he informed the leading party officials of their existence. They approached Phillips with a request that the letters be kept private, to which Carrie responded with demands of her own. In order to obtain her discretion, Republican leaders agreed to pay for a lengthy journey to the Pacific and Asia for Carrie and her husband. They also agreed to continued annual payments for the rest of her life. What Harding had not told the party was that the affair had continued up to the time he stood for the nomination, a fact revealed when a trove of letters to Carrie written by Harding was discovered in 1964. All were written between 1910 and 1920.
While serving as the Director of the Screen Actors Guild in 1949, Ronald Reagan received a message from Nancy Davis, who had been included in a list of communists subject to blacklisting. In her case it was mistaken identity, and Reagan helped her clear up the issue. They married in 1952. Another Hollywood actor, William Holden, served as Reagan’s best man. It was his second marriage, her first. By all accounts their relationship was strong, warm, and very close. Both used pet names for each other, even decades later when Reagan served as the 40th President of the United States. He relied on her counsel in all things, and was not ashamed to speak about it.
Her influence on his two terms in office was often controversial. At times it was subject to open ridicule, as when reports surfaced that she consulted an astrologer for recommendations on which days were fortuitous for various activities, such as travel. Her influence led to friction with Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Don Regan, and according to several sources led to his being fired by the President. Regan later wrote, “Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise”.
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