(This is the first in a ten-part series of articles providing the first history of the use of images of presidential candidates’ spouses on items used during presidential campaigns, beginning in 1856)
During even the earliest presidential elections, spouses of some candidates took such an avid interest in the success of their husbands that they pushed to boundaries of what was considered the acceptable role of women in any sphere outside of their family life. It was not until 1845 that the first organized movement to demand that women be granted the equal right to vote. It would be another 75 years before they received it.
During the 1808 and 1824 “electioneering” of the ultimately successful candidates James Madison and John Quincy Adams, both of whom lived in Washington and were serving as Secretaries of State their wives used their considerable social skills to cultivate personal commitments of loyalty among members of Congress, who served as the electoral body that ultimately chose the winner.
One begins to see the first stirring of public interest in the potential role that candidates’ spouses might play in a presidency during the 1828 election, circling around the controversial divorce of Andrew Jackson’s wife from her first husband.
Not until another quarter of a century, during the 1852 presidential campaign is there considerable press coverage again about a candidate’s spouse, in this case the wife of Democrat Franklin Pierce, in this case simple straightforward coverage of her dislike of politics.
It was the next presidential election, coinciding with the founding and first candidate of the Republican Party that suddenly one finds a spouse thrust into the public realm by being used as a campaign symbol.
That year, the new party’s candidate John Fremont, famous as a western explorer and U.S. Senator from the new state of California, brought to national attention a woman already famous in her own right, his thirty-two year old wife Jessie Benton Fremont.
Born in Virginia, daughter of the Democratic U.S. Senator from Missouri, Jessie Fremont was as intelligent as she was beautiful, and not afraid to show it, engaging herself openly in political discussions with other political figures and national press reporters that emphasized her husband’s breadth of experience.
With experiences as a Senate daughter familiar with White House social life, the court life of Europe and the rugged deprivations of the far West, Jessie Fremont assumed an unusually overt prominence in public life for a 19th century woman.
When it came to her husband’s presidency candidacy, the novelty of her prominence was consciously integrated into the printed material used to rally support.
While it is unclear whether or not either John or Jessie Fremont were asked for permission to use her image, that year those citizens who supported the Republican presidential candidate showed their loyalties by the envelopes they used. The envelopes showed who they wanted to be not just President, but also “first lady of the land,” a term prematurely applied to Mrs. Fremont and just then coming into popular use in the national press.
At least two different versions exist, one depicting both of the Fremonts, and another of just Mrs. Fremont.
The envelopes using the image of Mrs. Fremont may well have been commissioned by Fremont campaign managers since the image of the candidate with his wife is the same one used on a popular campaign poster.
There is also a silk ribbon of just her, with the campaign slogan, “John and Jessie,” printed beneath it which has survived a century and a half.
The expression, “Oh, Jessie!” as a substitute for “Oh, hell!” was then a popular colloquialism and appropriating the name of the candidate’s spouse made ironic use of it for political purposes. While this expression was not itself used, a slight play on words led to the campaign slogan “Our Jessie!”
Fremont ultimately lost to the Democratic candidate, but the idea of an overtly political first lady was strongly established.
As an obituary of her recalled, “it was broadly whispered afterwards that if the lovely Jessie had been the actual candidate she, and not Buchanan, would have occupied the Presidential chair.”
In the next election, the next Republican presidential candidate’s spouse was a woman who assumed a similarly overt political role in the promotion of her husband’s campaign. Mary Todd Lincoln, from a prominent Kentucky family of Whigs, was as strident as Jessie Fremont in her opposition to slavery and as convinced that her husband was the right person to lead the nation.
With the first break of southern states from the United States coming before her husband was even elected to the presidency in November of 1860, however, it may well have been that sensitivity to sectionalism discouraged any use of Mrs. Lincoln’s image on the growing number of campaign emblems that were being used.
Too, Mrs. Lincoln was not as nationally known as Mrs. Fremont had been at the time her husband first ran for president and her not being viewed as either an asset or liability was the reason her image was not used.
She was, however, prominent enough in the public mind just weeks after her husband’s victorious election that the nation’s leading weekly publication determined she was already important enough to be depicted.
During the transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, a photograph that had been recently made of Mary Lincoln with her two youngest sons Willie and Tad was used to create the full-page engraving gracing the cover of the December 15, 1860 of Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper.
From the very beginning of her tenure as First Lady, Mary Lincoln was a popular if controversial subject who garnered more national press coverage than any of her predecessors since Julia Tyler.
Within the first months of her husband’s presidency, for example, her photograph was printed and sold publicly as a carte-de-visite cardboard card, a popular format for people to collect and review the images of famous Americans, often placing them in large albums.
A year later, in 1862, she was featured in another newspaper engraving, in an image showing her full-length, in one of her famously rich gowns.
Thus, even to a nation that still considered the young movement pushing to give women the right to vote a rather radical concept, the appearance of Mary Lincoln on campaign badges two years later, during President Lincoln’s re-election campaign in 1864 must have seemed simply a natural course of progress.
There are at least two known pieces of campaign paraphernalia that used images of Mary Lincoln in 1864 , one of which is in the permanent collection of the National First Ladies’ Library.
Both items are “badges,” an early form of what would shortly evolve into the modern-day campaign button.
They were essentially carte-de-visited card images that were framed not in cardboard but in metal, often pinned to a colorful ribbon and with a small hole bore into the top of it, enabling it to be pinned to the wearer’s coat, jacket or dress.
Unlike the Jessie Fremont envelopes, that were printed in mass production, the Mary Lincoln badges, like those depicting her husband had to be hand-made.
Both known surviving versions are extremely rare to find today, a reflection that may not be due alone to the item’s fragility as the relatively limited number that were created.
Like the dual portrait images of the Fremonts on the 1856 campaign envelopes, one of the Mary Lincoln badges was part of a pair with an image of President Lincoln in the same type of metal frame.
During the 1868 presidential campaign, for a third, consecutive time, the spouse of a Republican presidential candidate made no effort to conform to conventional ideas on the role of women in the public realm of politics.
Even before her husband had begun his legendary military career, culminating in his role as the Union general who led the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, Julia Grant was convinced that her “Ulys” was destined to lead the nation as president.
During the Civil War, “Mrs. General Grant” also posed for a studio photograph in 1864 and made no protest to it being sold as a carte-de-visite card to the general public, thus permitting herself to be thrust into the wider, national consciousness not only by her very existence but her appearance.
Thus, by the time Ulysses S. Grant was running for president four years later, his wife was already a familiar public figure. In one private, family letter there is reference to the fact that Mrs. Grant’s image was used in a badge, perhaps similar to the ones using Mrs. Lincoln.
Although no extant copy of the original badge can be found in the collections of historical presidential campaign collections, the image that was almost certainly used was the most widely circulated one of her from the Civil War era. An apparent ersatz version of it, however, has recently appeared on the ebay auction site in the form of cufflinks.
By the time Grant was seeking re-election in 1872, another woman would appear on campaign paraphernalia, not as a candidate’s spouse – but as a candidate herself. That year, the radical women’s equality advocate, writer and publisher Victoria Woodhull made history as the first woman to campaign for the presidency.
Although the majority of Americans viewed her effort more with curious bemusement, it was serious enough that it produced at least one known campaign item using her image, a poster.
As the movement to finally win the vote for women, the issue would find itself counterpointed in the increased use of candidates’ wives as the ideal images of domesticity.