This posting is an adaption of a recent written and telephone response to a media inquiry about the prospects of a President of the United States who is single, be they unmarried, widowed or divorced, and the even greater rarity of a bachelor being a candidate for the presidency. With the recent announcement of South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham that he is seeking the Republican Party nomination for the highest office of the land, it seemed an important though rarely addressed subject.
Among the forty-three individual men who have served as President of the United States, nine were incumbents as single men, for either a period of, or the entirety of their tenure.
Two Presidents were elected as widowers, Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and Martin Van Buren in 1836.
One President was married at the time of his 1828 election but widowed by the time he was inaugurated in 1829, Andrew Jackson.
A fourth man, Chester Arthur, was a widower in 1880 when he was elected as the Vice President and remained unmarried when he inherited the position of President upon the 1881 death of President James Garfield.
Three Presidents who were elected as married men, became widowers during their presidencies: John Tyler in 1841, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, and Woodrow Wilson in 1914.
One divorced man ran for the presidency, but failed to win the election: Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson who was defeated by Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower in both the 1952 and 1956 elections.
Finally, two men were elected to the presidency as bachelor: James Buchanan in 1856 and Grover Cleveland in 1884.
Considering how, from the inception of the presidency, the public took an avid interest in the wives of Presidents who would act as hostess alongside him at public receptions, formal dinners, official ceremonies and other events, and too how many of these wives received critical consideration in the national media regarding their “qualifications” as role models for women of the country, how did they react to the prospect of a presidential candidate who was single?
In the case of the very first single President, Thomas Jefferson, there was no public concern about his marital status during his 1800 election.
Some press accounts gave mention to the fact that his married daughter Martha Randolph always appeared at social events hosted at his Virginia estate Monticello.
If the matter even crossed the minds of citizens, perhaps there was a general assumption that Mrs. Randolph would provide some sense of feminine identity in the presidential mansion.
Certainly during his re-election campaign in 1804, however, his marital status only fueled the anti-Jefferson press in their reports that he had made one of enslaved women on his estate, Sally Hemings, his mistress.
The single status of Martin Van Buren also generated no media attention or known public reaction during his 1836 presidential candidacy.
The fact that both Jefferson and Van Buren were single by their status as widowers may have been the reason they were spared any speculation about serving as Presidents without wives, by the election of 1856, the matter was raised with the the very first candidacy of a bachelor, Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan.
Having served as the American Ambassador to England, Buchanan had something of a national reputation by the time he ran for President and the public role played there by his orphaned niece Harriet Lane, who served as his hostess and was as emotionally close as a daughter to him, was already known to party leaders and some of the national press.
Still, his status as a single man was considered an unusual anomaly and some reporters from newspapers supporting his political opposition in the new Republican Party, sought to deride him for being unmarried.
The basic idea underlying opposition to him on the grounds of such a personal matter seemed rooted in the idea that he lacked the sort of emotional support and balanced perspective that a strong marriage could provide a President. Perhaps the most famous derision poked at Buchanan’s bachelorhood was a ditty, part of which ran:
Whoever heard in all of his life,
Of a President without a wife?
Whatever prejudices there may have been against a bachelor in the White House, however, it didn’t prevent his victory.
As his Administration ensued, there was constant speculation about Buchanan taking a wife and making her First Lady, his every interaction with unmarried and widowed women fodder for gossip.
There was also an incurrent, again from political foes, that Buchanan was, in the terminology of the day, an “old maid,” or “Aunt Nancy,” euphemisms implying that he may have been what would today be termed “gay.”
While his affectionate and emotional intimacy with the late U.S. Senator William Rufus Devane King had earlier in his career been a point of demeaning comments and observations by leading national Democratic Party figures, it was also inextricably intertwined with assessments of him as being politically weak.
Thus, it is often difficult to delineate what were genuine critiques of his marital status and speculation about why he remained single from sarcastic and satirical remarks motivated by politics.
What is clear is that the institutionalized sexism of that time universally cast women as weak and those who were advanced in age and unmarried as querulous, petty and fussy. It was as the caricature of an “old maid” that President Buchanan was soon enough universally parodied.
The 1884 campaign of the only other man elected to the presidency as a bachelor besides Buchanan, led to a different kind of speculation about him as an unmarried man.
In this case, that of Grover Cleveland, it was not any suggestion about his preferences but rather what this bachelor’s relationships with women had been up to that point.
With Cleveland, who had served as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, the question rapidly grew into a controversy that threatened to derail his candidacy.
In fact, he had been sexually intimate with an unmarried Buffalo woman by the name of Maria Halpern and further, had fathered an illegitimate son by her.
Once spoken rumors of his fathering the child hit the public press, Cleveland recognized he had to somehow address the rapidly spreading scandal and its potential harm to his victory.
He crafted a public statement suggesting that he might have been the father of the child, thus implying another other number of men could also have done so. This tactic had the effect of not only casting Maria Halpern as a woman of lose morals, but also earning Cleveland at least some public respect for “honesty.”
The colorful story led to the legendary ditty of, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!” There was at least one political cartoon and song printed on sheet music satirizing the situation.
Well over a century later, as proven by recent scholarship, it was learned that the real story had a far darker side, suggesting that Cleveland likely raped Maria Halpern while consciously intending to have her publicly depicted as seducing him into the encounter.
In her lifetime, she was never vindicated.
Elected and inaugurated as a bachelor, President Grover Cleveland soon enough shifted his marital status. Becoming the only chief executive to ever wed in the White House, he married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room there, in June of 1886.