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Presidents Who Were Widowers

Five Presidents were widowers when they moved into the White House, three became widowers while in office, one was widowed and then remarried prior to being elected President, and two were both widowed and remarried while in office.

Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson had only been married for ten years when she died on September 6, 1782, after having given birth to a total of seven children (only three of whom lived past childhood). When Jefferson moved into the White House in 1801, he had been a widower for 19 years and had become as capable of handling social affairs as he was at political matters. He did, however, frequently rely on Dolley Madison, the wife of his Secretary of State, as well as "Patsy," his oldest surviving daughter, to play hostess at state social functions.

When Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson Robards got married in 1791 they believed that Rachel's estranged husband, Captain Lewis Robards, had obtained a divorce. Unfortunately for the Jacksons, Robards had not followed through with his divorce petition and, as a result, Andrew and Rachel were technically guilty of adultery. Robards then sued for divorce again on grounds of adultery and desertion, and his petition was granted on September 27, 1793. Rachel and Andrew had a "proper" marriage in Nashville on January 7, 1794. The questionable circumstances surrounding the marriage became a major issue during Andrew's 1824 and 1828 presidential campaigns, and the many public attacks on her character drove Rachel into a deep depression. When Andrew was elected President in 1828, Rachel was unsure whether she could be an effective First Lady, but was prepared to follow her husband into the White House anyway. She did not get the chance, however, as she died of a massive heart attack on December 22, 1828. Jackson became so despondent upon her death that he even considered resigning the presidency before taking the oath of office. He did of course take the oath, and he subsequently turned his grief into a determination to rid the federal government of everything he saw as detrimental to the well-being of the nation.

Martin Van Buren and Hannah Hoes Van Buren were approaching their 12th anniversary when she died on February 5, 1819, probably from tuberculosis. A widower with four bachelor sons when he moved into the White House in 1837, Van Buren did not have a regular hostess for social functions until his eldest son, Abraham, married Angelica Singleton, a relative of Dolley Madison, in 1838. Thereafter, while Abraham served as his father's private secretary, Angelica served as the "First Lady."

Letitia Christian Tyler had been confined to an invalid's chair for two years when her husband, John Tyler, unexpectedly became President. Once in the White House, Letitia tended to the needs of her family as best as she could but did not attempt to take part in the social affairs of her husband's administration, leaving the role of "First Lady" to her daughter-in-law Priscilla, the wife of the Tylers' oldest son, Robert. The first wife of a President to die in the White House, Letitia Tyler died on September 10, 1842. On June 27, 1844, the American public was informed that President Tyler, then 54 years old, had married 24-year-old Julia Gardiner the day before, making Tyler the first President to marry while in office.

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur died of pneumonia on January 12, 1880, and Chester Alan Arthur was still mourning her death when he was elected Vice-President. After moving into the White House upon the death of President James Abram Garfield, Arthur would not give anyone the place that would have been his wife's, but he did ask his sister, Mary McElroy, to handle some of the White House social duties that would have normally been handled by the First Lady and to help him care for his daughter.

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison was already in frail health when she moved into the White House with her husband, Benjamin Harrison, in 1889. Despite frequent bouts with illness, she carried out all the social obligations that came with being First Lady with extreme grace and charm, oversaw major renovations to the White House, and even found time to work for local charities. Her busy life eventually caught up with her, however, and on October 25, 1892, she became the second wife of a President to die in the White House. The Harrisons' oldest daughter, Mary Scott Harrison McKee, acted as White House hostess for the remainder of her father's term. In 1896, former President Harrison married his late wife's widowed niece and former secretary, Mary Scott Lord Dimmick.

Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt died on February 14, 1884, two days after giving birth to her and Theodore Roosevelt's only child, and eleven hours after the death of Theodore's mother. The double tragedy led Roosevelt to temporarily give up his political career and seek adventure in the West. Returning to his Oyster Bay, New York, home in 1886, Roosevelt rekindled an old childhood flame and, on December 2, 1886, married Edith Kermit Karow.

Woodrow Wilson became the third President to lose his wife while in the White House when Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, whom he had married on June 24, 1885, succumbed to Bright's Disease on August 6, 1914. Wilson's grief was lessened when a chain of friendships led to his meeting Edith Bolling Galt, the widow of Washington, D.C., jeweler Norman Galt, who had died on January 28, 1908. Wilson took an instant liking to the widow, and they were married privately on December 18, 1915.

Our First Ladies

Thomas Jefferson
Dorothea "Dolley" Payne Todd
Andrew Jackson
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson
Martin Van Buren
John Tyler
Chester Alan Arthur
James Abram Garfield
Benjamin Harrison
Theodore Roosevelt
Woodrow Wilson

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