The unique sorority of women known as America’s first ladies have been (and are) many things to many people. They have been ambassadors. They have been confidants. They have been advisers, friends, partners, campaign managers, and sounding boards for their presidential spouses.
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They were also many things before they ever occupied the White House. These flesh-and-blood women were little girls, young women, daughters, sisters, cousins, brides, aunts, and girlfriends — and most of them were mothers. Only one first lady never had any children and that was Sarah Polk. She and James Polk were a political power couple for the ages, but that’s a different article for another day. This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day, and so we recognized the first ladies of our country who were and are mothers.
It’s hard enough being a mother under what we might consider “normal” circumstances. Mothering children while living in the White House fishbowl is quite another story. In most cases, this becomes an issue early, on the presidential campaign trail. With today’s smartphones, 24-hour-news and the Internet, it’s hard for first ladies to protect their children and their everyday activities from the prying eyes of the outside world. It makes their jobs as mothers even harder — and that challenge is something these women have shared for centuries.
When Congressman James A. Garfield went off to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1880, it was to nominate a presidential candidate, not to become one. However, he returned to his wife, Lucretia, and their family in Mentor, Ohio, as just that. Garfield then proceeded to conduct the country’s first presidential front-porch campaign. The Garfields had extensively renovated their Lawnfield estate, and the last thing Mrs. Garfield expected or wanted was some 20,000 people roaming across her pristine yard — but that’s what happened.
She also had her five children to think about. She did not want them bothered or drawn into the ever-growing media circus.
During the campaign, Mrs. Garfield would stand at the front door and wait for her husband to come downstairs from his second-floor office, where he would then walk out the front door to greet the masses. She would promptly shut the door behind him. She did allow some people into the house. There were important supporters, military members, and party officials who needed to be entertained on a more personal level, and they were welcomed into the front foyer — but only the front foyer.
There, she served “standing” refreshments such as water, tea, or lemonade, maybe some cookies to the privileged supporters — but she provided no seating. This was all part of an effort — a successful one — to keep her children out of the public eye. Sadly, President Garfield was assassinated less than a year into his presidency, so there is little to go on in terms of how she raised her children as first lady.
Grover Cleveland was the second bachelor to be elected president (James Buchanan was first). But Cleveland didn’t stay single for long. He married Frances Folsom — he was 49, she was only 21 — on June 2, 1886. She remains the youngest first lady to date and they’re the only presidential couple to be married in the White House. The young and attractive Frances Cleveland took Washington, D.C. by storm. She was Jacqueline Kennedy before Jacqueline Kennedy. She was stylish and charming, and before long, there were babies in the White House.
During the Cleveland administration, the White House and its grounds were still fairly open and accessible to the public. People would come right up to the Cleveland children and pick them up out of their strollers and out of the hands of their nannies. The public back then (as it does now, in some respects) believed the White House and everything in it belonged to the people — and that included the president and the first lady’s children. But this was completely unacceptable to Mrs. Cleveland, who took measures to put an end to this kind of behavior.
The Clevelands chose to spend less time at the White House. They were there for the social season, but during the summer months and off months they took up residence near what is now Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. The public felt snubbed. Many thought the Clevelands had become reclusive and snobbish as they tried to hide their once-celebrated children from the public.
Yet Mrs. Cleveland cared not a whit. She put her children’s well-being ahead of her own popularity and her husband’s. As it turned out, the negative opinions weren’t enough to keep the Clevelands out of the White House for a second term. They were the only president and first lady to serve two nonconsecutive terms.
After President Willian McKinley was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901 — and died eight days later — the country had a new president in Theodore Roosevelt and a new first lady in his wife, Edith. After the Roosevelts moved their six children from New York to Washington, D.C., the White House was once again alive with youthful, bustling activity.
If you count President Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt now had seven children to look after in the White House. The Roosevelts were responsible for one of the largest structural renovations there, and Edith Roosevelt worked tirelessly with a well-known architect to redesign the executive mansion. They moved the family quarters upstairs and built the East and West Wings of the White House.
Given the size of the family and all of the pets that went with them (including a pony, a lizard, a barn owl, a hyena, numerous guinea pigs, and a blue macaw named Eli Yale) — the renovations were a necessity. The public couldn’t get enough of this amazingly interesting family.
Ultimately, Edith Roosevelt decided to give the public what it wanted — the children. She, however, would control the access. She very wisely hired a professional photographer, Frances Johnston, to shoot a series of portraits of the family to give to the press. These photographs remain some of the best-known pictures of any presidential children.
There is a picture of son Quentin on Algonquin, the pony, as a police officer stands watch. (Algonquin was the only pony ever to have ridden in the White House elevator.) Another picture shows Archie on his favorite bicycle. Kermit is in a picture with one of the family’s beloved dogs, Jack. Theodore Jr. proudly holds the famous blue macaw in another photo. The girls, Alice and Ethel, wore lovely dresses and stood under trees. These pictures were famously compiled and published in The Ladies’ Home Journal and seemed to satisfy the public’s vast appetite for images of the Roosevelt children.
In more modern times, we’ve seen such presidential children as Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton struggle through their teenage years. We saw the Reagan children go through some rough patches with their parents, and, very recently, mourn them deeply in public. The Obamas have kept a watchful eye over their daughters and restricted media access to them. Now, during the 2016 presidential campaign, we’ve seen a new group of political offspring make their way across campaign stages, eat ice cream sundaes in public, give speeches at some events, and share their lives with the world while standing beside their aspiring parents.
The White House is the people’s house. Presidents and their families are “hired” by “we the people,” and they represent us in many ways. They are, of course, just people, striving to do their best in sometimes trying circumstances. But from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, America’s first ladies have always worked to protect their families and their children, come what may — and for this they can be applauded.
Andrew Och, digital director at LifeZette, is the author of the new book, “Unusual for Their Time: On the Road with America’s First Ladies.”