Popular Frances Cleveland was even depicted on the cover of the Democratic National Convention program in 1888. (pinterest)
This is the first in a series of NFLL Blog articles adapted from a response to a September 2015 media inquiry about the history of those who had different types of influence on the presidential campaigns of their spouses. The article series focuses only on those who became First Ladies; of course, the larger perspective would also include those married to presidential candidates, be they in primaries or general elections, who did not win. This is an overview summary; each different role played by First Ladies during their husbands’ presidential campaigns are far richer in individual detail.
History proves that the spouses of presidential candidates can and have, at crucial turning points, had some important, even at times crucial influence on the success of presidential campaigns. What type of influence they have had varied widely, shaped by factors including the evolving electoral process of American presidential campaigns, the increasing role women took in national political life, and the wider platforms offered by emerging technologies. Regardless of the periods in which they lived, however, there has always been a duality of public and private roles exercised by those First Ladies who had substantive influence on their husbands’ presidential candidacies. More often than not, there is a considerable different between what they did covertly and overtly.
Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.
Long before women were granted the vote in 1920 by constitutional amendment, even in a time during American history when there were legal obstacles involving their rights of property ownership, inheritance and divorce, the spouses of men striving for the most powerful positions in the government found that their marriage offered them a venue for becoming involved, however subversively, in the political process.
Louisa Adams, far right, hosting one of her political soirees, ostensibly to honor her husband’s 1824 opponent for the presidency, Andrew Jackson, seen escorting his wife Rachel at left.
This was especially true of those with husbands seeking the presidency.
In the days of the early Republic, when the electors determining the final results of a presidential election were the members of U.S. Congress, two candidates’ spouses Dolley Madison used her legendary interpersonal skills as a hostess to curry favor with individual members of the Senate and House to incline them in support of husband’s initial presidential candidacy in 1808. His opponent DeWitt Clinton later declared that he had been defeated largely by “Mrs. Madison.”
Louisa Adams famously took this social politicking one step further. At the end of 1823, she held one of her famously crowded receptions to honor of General Andrew Jackson, ostensibly to commemorate his victory at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
Jackson attended with his wife Rachel. Of course, it was seen as a deft move of strategic flattery. Jackson was known to be intending to run against her husband months later, during the presidential election of 1824.
The Springfield, Illinois home of Abraham Lincoln during a campaign event. Mary Lincoln has been identified as sitting in the upper left window. (LC)
In the mid-19th century, Mary Todd Lincoln, who had grown up in an especially political family with strong alliances to Kentucky Whig Party figures like Henry Clay and was herself seasoned in what was involved in national political elections, made no apologies for what reporters at the time detected was her role as a campaign adviser to her husband.
Upon hearing of his victory in 1860, Lincoln famously yelled out to her, “We are elected!”
Still, when a grandstand was constructed in front of the Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois and crowds gathered in front of it to hear the candidate speak, the highly political Mrs. Lincoln was seen only inside the house, looking out and listening from an upper-floor window.
Julia Grant, from a powerful Missouri family with strong business affiliations to regional political figures, has been similarly credited with serving as an adviser to her husband and even encouraging others to propose her husband as a presidential candidate despite his professional experience being limited to the military rather than any elective or other political office.
By the late 19th century, as the technology of photography and printing rapidly advanced along the same timeline as the suffrage movement, there was a concerted effort to use wives on campaign paraphernalia to suggest that presidential candidates had a virtuous domestic life.
Lucretia Garfield is the first known candidate’s spouse to appear on a campaign poster, in the 1880 election.
An 1888 campaign poster placed Frances Cleveland at center and above her husband and his running mate.
When President Grover Cleveland was running for a second term, his White House bride, the 23-year old Frances Cleveland was exploited against his wishes by supporters who used her image on campaign posters. Young, physically attractive and graceful, she was a celebrity in her own right – but even her popularity failed to win his re-election.
In 1896, William McKinley made expert use of his wife’s disabilities for a variety of explanations that were covertly political in nature.
William and Ida McKinley seated on their front porch during the 1896 campaign.
For example, it was suggested that he decided not to go out into the country and deliver speeches from the back of a campaign train because he wanted to be at home so he could care for his wife. In fact, he knew he could never compete with the eloquent and inspiring speeches of his opponent, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Without having to state his support or opposition to women’s suffrage, he invited both men and women supporters who both supported and opposed the growing issue to come into their home and be received by his wife.
Despite this, along with the rising movement that would finally grant women the right to vote, the wives of presidential candidates still limited themselves in the public realm during campaigns.
The front porch of Theodore Roosevelt’s home, where his wife would not publicly appear. (oldlongisland.com)
Ida McKinley’s public appearance before large delegations of voters who came to hear her husband speak violated no societal expectation of the old adage that “a women’s place is in the home,” because the events took place at their residence.
The shift, of course, was subtle, for while she might have technically remained on the property, she had come out to appear on the front-porch.
Still, it was a slow evolution.
Eight years later, when Theodore Roosevelt came out on his front porch to formally accept his party’s nomination in 1904, his wife Edith Roosevelt insisted on listening to the proceedings from behind a screen that hid her, inside the house with the window open.