Mental Floss

The Quick 10: 10 First Ladies Who Never Wanted the Title

Stacy Conradt
facebooktwitterreddit

As we all know, Michelle Obama is set to take the First Lady position tomorrow, and she has made it clear that she's not going to be a wallflower. This trend has been pretty prominent in recent years, but it wasn't always like that. In fact, some First Ladies never would have accepted the job at all if they had any choice in the matter.

martha
martha /

2. Rachel Jackson. Actually, she never had to be First Lady, since John Quincy Adams' campaign against her husband pretty much killed her. Rachel was married to Lewis Robards before Old Hickory, but found very quickly after the wedding that the guy was a cad. He was jealous to a fault, to the point where Rachel was completely unable to live with him, so he sent her to live with her parents who ran a boarding house. While she was there, one of the patrons was none other than Andrew Jackson. They fell in love, but by that time, Robards decided her "punishment" was over and made her come back. Andrew knew she was miserable and rushed off to rescue her; she and Robards divorced and she and Andrew married. Sort of. It turns out Rachel's divorce papers hadn't gone through, even though Robards told her they had. And it's not like Jacksons jumped the gun - she was told the divorce was final in December of 1790; she and Andrew got married in August 1791. They sorted it all out and got legally married in 1794, but this didn't stop John Quincy Adams and his supporters from dredging up accusations of adultery more than 30 years later. Rachel had a history of heart problems and couldn't take the personal attacks; she died just two weeks prior to Jackson's inauguration. It's probably for the best - no doubt more gossip would have spread during her tenure as FL.

anna
anna /

4. Margaret Taylor. Zachary Taylor was a soldier whose job moved him all over the unestablished U.S., and Margaret went with him with six kids in tow. Two of their daughters died by 1820, and by 1840 they had finally settled in one place where Margaret could make a real home. Before that, she had literally been raising her children in military encampments - tents, for the most part. Zachary was instrumental in the Mexican-American War and his successes made him a shoo-in for the 1848 presidential election. Margaret so detested the idea that she prayed every single night for his defeat, but no dice. She refused to play the part and stayed up in her room praying and doing needlework; all of her First Lady duties were delegated to their daughter. When Zachary died in 1850 after eating spoiled cherries (although this cause is often debated), men actually had to tear her off of his corpse so they could bury the body.

5. Abigail Fillmore. Her husband was Taylor's veep, so when Taylor met his strange end, Millard stepped in. Abigail wasn't quite as against the position as Margaret Taylor was, but she wasn't happy about it, either. All of the dinners and ceremonies and extravagant dresses and speeches bored her to death, and she wasn't very good at hiding her boredom. Plus, her health wasn't great - she suffered from horrible headaches and had some breathing problems. When her husband was elected, she pretty much took the Margaret Taylor approach and avoided her social duties when possible, delegating to her daughter, Abby, instead. She was beyond thrilled when Millard lost his re-election bid and couldn't wait to get back to Buffalo, N.Y., where he would practice law and she could rest at home and see him every day. Tragically, she caught pneumonia at Franklin Pierce's inauguration and died three weeks later. How sad is that?!

jane
jane /

7. Eliza Johnson. She taught her illiterate husband to read and write, gestures she probably regretted later in his career. She wasn't nuts about being the Second Lady, so when Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew was made POTUS, she was even more annoyed with the whole thing. She decided to devote all of her energy to Andrew and none of it to the First Lady gig: she gave her duties to their daughter, refused interviews, and spent all of her time mending Andrew's clothes, making sure he was eating right and clipping newspaper articles that involved him.

8. Eleanor Roosevelt once said she had never aspired to be the president's wife, finishing with "And I don't want it now." (SHe was First Lady at the time.) And she meant it, at least at first. Before she was First Lady of the U.S., she was First Lady of New York, and she adored it. She was worried that her new position would mostly have her holding tea parties and sitting quietly in a corner, "behaving". She settled into the role, obviously, and realized that she could use it to further her own causes and become a politician in her own right.

9. Bess Truman. Eleanor's successor cried when she found out she would be taking over the First Lady role. She had watched previous presidents and their families be ripped apart by the media and the public - every scrap of privacy they had splashed all over the newspapers and trotted out by political opponents. She loathed the idea of the same thing happening to her family. It seemed like he didn't have much of a shot at re-election, so when he won, she was disappointed. However, it was then that she took it upon herself to have the
White House restored to its former glory. At the time, it was in such a state of disrepair that their daughter's piano nearly fell through the floor. Although the consensus was to demo the whole thing and start over with a new building, Bess lobbied to have it renovated and restored instead, preserved for history.

pat
pat /
facebooktwitterreddit