She had it all, wealth, intelligence, education, inheritance, beauty, social status and every possible privilege that a South Carolina plantation background could afford her, and yet Angelica Van Buren with her signature corkscrew curls and swanlike neck, likely harmed more the presidential re-election campaign of her father-in-law than she did help it.
Born the day before Valentine’s Day in 1816, it’s easy to perceive her as a character out of a romantic novel, but she would fulfill the literary requirements of a tragedy as well: her father plunged to his death with her nephew when their train crossed a bridge that collapsed. Her sister endured spousal abuse.
During her five years as a boarding student at Philadelphia’s Madame Grelaud’s Seminary for Young Ladies (1831-1836), the future First Lady adopted the nickname of “Angelique,” a choice which provides a significant clue to her growing obsession with all things refined and French, a quality inculcated by the school founder Deborah Grelaud, a French native of Haiti who fled there during its 1793 revolution.
Students were rigorously trained entirely in French and educated on European art, literature and culture.
The exorbitant tuition ensured it would be an institution only for the daughters of the elite class, including of presidential families, like Martha Washington’s great-granddaughters, James Monroe’s daughter Maria and the future wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Letters from this period reveal Angelica with a balance of style and substance, as devoted to the art of writing as she was to the design of fashionable clothing in luxurious materials.
After graduation, Miss Singleton came to Washington with her sister Marion in December of 1837, with familial ties. Her mother’s brother had served as President Jefferson’s private secretary and lived with him in the Executive Mansion, and her first cousins included former First Lady Dolley Madison, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congressman.
In March of 1838, Mrs. Madison brought the Singleton sisters to a private White House dinner hosted by widower President Martin Van Buren, with his four unmarried adult sons also in attendance.
The draw between the southern belle and the president’s eldest son Abraham, a swashbuckling West Point graduate and brevet major of the Seminole Indian War, who wore a sash and sword, was likely intense for it was only a matter of eight months before they were married at the family plantation of the 22 year old in South Carolina.
Right after the wedding, the newlyweds went home to the White House where the bride was escorted by the President at formal private dinners and he asserted her assumption of the highest rank of women from other political families in attendance.
The press and the general public got to meet the new Mrs. Van Buren at the 1839 New Year’s Day.
That day, she received guests alone in the oval reception room (not yet designated the Blue Room). Her physical beauty and conversational skills made her instantly popular.
Despite the fact that no evidence suggests she influenced the President on domestic agricultural or abolition policy, the new First Lady symbolized the southern states rights demographic of the Democratic Party which was growing hostile to the potential threat of abolition while the President continued to placate abolitionists of his powerful New York base. Van Buren found his daughter-in-law served the political advantage of abating his increasingly tenuous hold on factions of his party.
It was the following autumn, when she and the president’s son made their delayed European honeymoon that her more politically inexpedient behavior emerged. Inspired by her heavy reading on European court life, Angelica Van Buren naively delighted in being received as the Queen of the United States in the royal houses of England and France.
There being no criticism in American newspapers of Angelica Van Buren’s gallivant with the royals at the time, she was inspired to create a similar court life the next year at the White House. Still, her aunt Sally, married to U.S. Minister to Great Britain Andrew Stevenson, was disturbed by how enamored her niece had become with royal life.
During her time in England, her uncle Stevenson drew her into an international scandal after being denounced by Irish patriot Daniel O’Connor as not merely an owner of enslaved people but a “slave breeder.” Although O’Connor ignored Stevenson’s challenge to duel, it reflected poorly on the U.S., fueled by the President’s refusal to recall him because he was the First Lady’s uncle.
The controversy prompted the abolitionist U.S. Whig Party to attach a negative association to Angelica Van Buren as they geared up for their 1840 challenge to defeat Van Buren for a second term in the 1840 presidential election.
When the general public next interacted with Angelica Van Buren again, at the 1840 New Year’s Day Reception, she received them in the formal and stiffly-held poses of the “tableaux,” a technique used in the European palaces by royal family members who held large bouquets of flowers in their lap and refused to any longer shake their hands in the expected democratic custom.
The French Minister withheld his customary criticism of the commonness of American behavior to instead praise Angelica’s “distinguished manners” and claim she would be popular “in any country.”
Mrs. Van Buren missed being hit by any direct criticism, soon enough vanishing from public sight for the expected “confinement” of her first pregnancy. Her first child was born in the White House on March 27, 1840 but died five days later.
Pregnant a second time that fall, during the President’s re-election campaign, she nevertheless proved to be a contributing factor to his loss.
As the nation endured a deep economic depression, newspaper coverage of Mrs. Van Buren’s receiving style at the New Year’s Day reception, as well as the anecdotal claim that she intended to re-landscape the White House grounds to resemble the royal gardens of Europe were used in a political attack on her father-in-law by a Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle.
He referred obliquely to her as part of the presidential “household” in his famous “Gold Spoon” speech. The attack was delivered in Congress and the depiction of the President as living a royal lifestyle was a primary factor in his defeat for re-election.
There was also a growing feel among some in the country at the time, however, that those like Angelica Singleton Van Buren, who’d been educated at institutions like Grelaud Seminary or lived in among Philadelphia’s elite class, were part of a new concept of “American upper class,” and antithetical to the ideal of democracy. Southern families settling there were blending with the city’s wealthy merchant class base who tended to be traditional, conservative Anglophiles. This coalescing defied regionalism and was a reaction to the growing movement empowering the working-class. Part of this emerging “upper-class” identity was the “French-centered” education, a status symbol restricted to all but the wealthy. Those seeking to establish access to education for all classes of women charged that the emphasis on European culture of institutions such as the Grelaud Seminary demeaned the new nation’s majority of more common citizens.
After leaving the White House with her husband, brothers-in-law and father-in-law, Angelica Van Buren assumed management of the former President’s home in the Hudson River Valley, which he used as headquarters for his intended return to elective national political office. Angelica and Abraham Van Buren and their three sons moved to their own home in New York City in 1848, along with her niece Mary who she raised as a daughter.
During a lengthy trip to Europe, she became exposed to various reform movements to help the laboring classes, inspiring her to undertake charity work upon her return.
Her new conscientiousness about the powerless of society was bolstered by the shocking realization of how her beloved sister, physically abused and financially exploited by her husband, had no legal recourse based solely on her gender.
Angelica Van Buren survived most of her family, including all of her siblings, and nearly every niece and nephew and her husband.
None of her three adult sons had any children and thus she leaves no descendants. She died in 1878, choosing to be buried not in South Carolina but beside her husband in the New York borough of the Bronx.