This posting is adapted from a response provided to a member of the public inquiring on the best sources to consult in beginning a research effort on internationalism and First Ladies.
by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
Many First Ladies took an active interest in matters of foreign affairs and some often weighed in on their husbands decisions or those of the Secretary of State.
The level of detailed information will determine the type of sources one might begin to consult as part of a research effort.
As far as primary sources, one will find original documentation on the foreign trips made by First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush in the files archived in their husbands’ individual presidential libraries. Documents there will trace the intent, planning and execution of their activities while overseas. Even more detail about the arrangements made for entertaining heads of state will be found in materials usually classified as “social files” in the presidential libraries.
Certainly the most extensive of these will involve Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton both during and after their tenures as First Lady, the former having served in an official capacity with the United Nations and the latter as Secretary of State.
It is not yet certain what repository will ultimately hold the papers related to Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State under the Obama Administration. Michelle Obama’s papers related to international matters will eventually be housed in the Obama Presidential Library, the site location of which is yet to be determined.
Individual biographies of these and earlier First Ladies are certainly the best place to begin; from there more specific sources can often be found in the bibliography and endnotes.
There’s an important distinction to be made between a First Lady making an international trip and their general or specific interest in matters of state during their husbands’ presidencies. Many who never made state trips nevertheless took an interest in international issues. There are also many examples of how they expressed their opinions or played a role which involved foreign affairs.
Edith Roosevelt who served as a private emissary between the President and British Ambassador. Sylvia Jukes Morris has written the most extensive biography of her details the role she played as emissary. Lou Hoover lived in a number of foreign nations, including China during the Boxer Rebellion and one finds a great level of new material in the Nancy Beck Young biography of her, the most scholarly published source to consult.
Eleanor Roosevelt took an especially active interest in European and Asian affairs before the United States became involved in World War II, and of course during the war. For this topic, there are several good general source biographies to consult, including Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph Lash for the pre-war and war years and Doris Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time for the war years.
Florence Harding disagreed with Commerce Department policy on provisions to send supplies to Russia and my own biography of her includes examples of her opinions on U.S. foreign policy and how she expressed them.
Among the autobiographies of First Ladies, those of Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush go into great detail not only about their foreign trips and the issues which drew them there, but also the wider context of those issues.
Although much of American history focuses on global events beginning with the 20th century, it is misleading to suggest that those First Ladies who served previous to this had interest only in domestic political issues. Harriet Lane, for example, lived in Europe and served in a public role for her uncle during his tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.
Louisa Adams is the only First Lady both born and educated in Europe and also had extensive experience living abroad after having come to the U.S., returning there as her husband served in various diplomatic roles before his presidency.
Her papers and a diary she kept of a famous trip across the sweep of Europe during the Napoleonic era are in the Massachusetts Historical Society.
As a former First Lady, Mary Lincoln also lived and traveled extensively through many European countries. Likewise, Julia Grant joined her husband on a world tour after his presidency.
One might consult their personal papers; many extensive personal papers of First Ladies who served before the presidential library system was established by the National Archives are located in the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room.
You will also find general summary information on the subject within the individual biographies posted here online at the National First Ladies Library website, including those of Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Monroe, Louisa Adams, Nellie Taft, Edith Wilson, Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush.