Mary Clemmer Ames and “Ten Years in Washington”

March being “Women’s History Month,” it seems appropriate to say a little something about a woman whose name is more than likely unknown to most present-day Americans. She wasn’t a leader in the abolitionist movement or a suffragist. She gained no fame as an advocate of temperance. She was, though, a lifelong resident of the District of Columbia, and chronicled the Washington scene from the 1860s into the early 1880s.

Her name was Mary Clemmer Ames (1839-1884) and her book Ten Years in Washington, first published in 1874, is an engaging account of the notable buildings and agencies centered in the nation’s capital, and the people whose activities breathed life into them. Her descriptions of the many individuals, male and female, prominent and not, who set the social standards of the political class, or who did the everyday work of the federal bureaucracy, are intelligent, sympathetic, at times witty, and fully human portrayals.


Mary Clemmer Ames, author of Ten Years in Washington.  (Frontspiece of the book Ten Years in Washington.)

This post will pay most attention to the commentary of Mrs. Clemmer that particularly illustrated the role of women of “Gilded Age” Washington. However, as James A. Garfield is inevitably the subject in some way of what you read on this page, what Mary Clemmer had to say about him will not be neglected.

Ten Years in Washington covers a wide variety of topics. There is a historical treatment of the designation of ten square miles of land given by the states of Maryland and Virginia for the establishment of the District. Mrs. Clemmer goes into great descriptive detail about the Capitol building, “the President’s House,” the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. The inner workings of the U.S. Treasury, the Post Office and the Patent Office and other agencies are a prime focus of her writing. The State Department, the Army, the Navy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Interior Department all came into view.

Mrs. Ames had something to say about every mistress of the White House, whether she was the President’s wife or daughter (there is a highly complimentary portrayal of Martha Patterson, daughter of Andrew Johnson). Her portrayal of Sarah Polk includes the following:


Sarah Knox Polk, First Lady of the United States from 1845-49.  (Wikipedia)

Mrs. Polk, intellectually, was one of the most marked

women who ever presided in the White House. A lady of

the old school… her attainments were more than ordinary…

Never a politician, in a day when politics… were forbidden

grounds to women, she no less was thoroughly conversant

with all public affairs…

She was her husband’s private secretary, and, probably,

was the only lady of the White House who ever filled that

office. She took charge of his papers, he trusting entirely to

her memory and method for their safe keeping… [and when

needed] it was Sarah’s ever ready hand that laid it before his


Conjured by Mrs. Clemmer’s pen, Mrs. Grant, the then-current First Lady, was a worthy object of the respect and admiration of that generation of Americans.

First Lady Julia Dent Grant in the White House

Julia Dent Grant, First Lady of the United States, 1869-77.  (Wikipedia)

Mrs. Grant’s morning receptions are very popular, and

deservedly so. This is not because the lady is in any sense

a good conversationalist, or has a fine tact in receiving, but

rather, I think, because she is thoroughly good-natured, and

for the time, at least, makes other people feel the same. At

any rate, there was never so little formality or so much

genuine sociability in the day-receptions at the White House

as at the present time.

Ten Years in Washington is full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Many of these illustrate the contributions and the plight of female federal workers. Here, in her chapters on the Treasury Department, Mrs. Ames lauds the ability of the women who performed their work so well:

“After the great Chicago fire in 1871, cases of money to the value of one hundred and sixty-four thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-seven dollars and ninety-eight cents, were sent to the United States Treasury for identification… All these charred     treasures were placed in the hands of a committee of six ladies… What patience, practice, skill, were indispensable to the fulfillment of this task, it is not difficult to conjecture… After unpacking the money… the ladies separated each small piece with   thin knives made for the purpose, then laying the blackened fragments on sheets of blotting paper, they decided by close scrutiny, the value, genuineness, and nature of the note.  Magnifying glasses were provided, but seldom used…’”

Mrs. Ames identified the members of this committee of six as Mrs. M. J. Patterson, Miss Pearl, Mrs. Davis, Miss Shriner, Miss Wright, and Miss Powers. “The most noted case [Mrs. Patterson] ever worked on was that of the paymaster’s trunk,” that sank with the Robert Carter, in the Mississippi River.


Martha Patterson, daughter of President Andrew Johnson.  (Andrew Johnson National Monument, National Park Service.)

“After lying three years in the bottom of the river, the steamer was raised, and the money, soaked, rotten and obliterated, given to Mrs. Patterson for identification. She saved one hundred and eighty-five thousand out of two hundred thousand   dollars, and the express company, which was responsible for the original amount, presented her with five hundred dollars, as a recognition of her services.”


Female workers at the U.S. Treasury Department during the period Mary Clemmer Ames describes in Ten Years in Washington.

And yet, the familiar refrain best summed up in the old adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” was as pertinent in the distant 1870s as it it today.

Of the forty-five ladies in the Internal Revenue Bureau,

there is but one, and she is fifty years of age, who has not

more than herself to support on the pittance which she is

paid. Nevertheless, whenever a spasmodic cry of

‘retrenchment’ is raised, three women are always dismissed

from office, to one man, although the men greatly out-

number the women, to say nothing of their being so much

more expensive.

Today’s crusaders for “equal rights for equal pay” have soul mates going back 140 years and more. There are connections between we, the living, and past generations of Americans. History is not bunk. The past is not entirely past. It is not dead.

For many years Mary Clemmer authored a column called, “A Woman’s Letter from Washington.” This journalistic exploit for the New York Independent encouraged her passion for description, and her interest in the common man and woman. Her delight in limning the social elite sprang from that same reportorial flare.


James A. Garfield, from an engraving in Ten Years in Washington by Mary Clemmer Ames.  (Ten Years in Washington)

It then comes as no surprise that in the March 27, 1879 issue of that column she presented a word portrait of Congressman James Garfield that mixed reservation with admiration:

“In mental capacity, in fine, wide, intellectual culture, no Republican for the last decade has equaled, much less surpassed him… Were it possible to honor his moral purity as one must his intellectual acumen, he would  be as grand in personal and political strength, that no whim of man, no passion of the hour, no mutation of party could depress, much less overthrow.”

A month later, Garfield learned of the column’s complex account of his character through a letter from a Boston, Massachusetts correspondent, Jeremiah Chaplin. According to Garfield’s diary entry for April 27, 1879, Chaplin quoted the column, which “criticizes me in a vague, unjust, and indefinite way.” Calling on Mrs. Ames a few days later, he left [Chaplin’s] letter “for her to read at leisure and to let me know what she meant by her language. She asked me to call on Wednesday evening to see her about it. I am curious to know what she will say.”

Two days later, Garfield called on Mrs. Clemmer at seven o’clock in the evening. “I had a strong conversation with her on the subject,” he wrote afterward. Did she remind him of the marital infidelities of which he had been accused some years earlier? Did he refute these as unjust? Did he invoke the current state of his relationship with his wife as his defense? Alas, the content of that conversation is not known.

What is known is that in 1882, the year after President Garfield’s assassination, a new edition of Ten Years in Washington appeared. It now featured, “A Full and Authentic History of the Life and Death of President James A. Garfield.”


Title page of the 1882 edition of Ten Years in Washington, featuring “A Full and Authentic History of the Life and Death of President James A. Garfield.”  (Ten Years in Washington, Hartford Publishing Co., 1882).

Was the inclusion of the Garfield biography intended as a well-deserved homage to the late president whose character the author had once questioned, or, (more cynically) was it designed to boost new sales of the original book?

The biography includes passages on First Lady Lucretia Garfield, who, returning from her own convalescence at Long Branch, New Jersey

bravely took her place by her husband’s side, and

comforted and cheered him during his long and weary

fight for life. How grandly she rose to the occasion,

how tenderly she endured the weary weeks, always

wearing a cheerful face, while her heart was breaking

with its cruel load, the whole world knows. Her heroic

devotion to her husband grandly typified the loyal and

self-sacrificing spirit of wifehood, which finds no more

conspicuous illustration than in our American homes…


Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, First Lady of the United States, March 4-September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Cognizant of all that had occurred between 1879 and 1882, driven perhaps by the changed perspective that death brings, Mrs. Ames concluded in 1882 that, “President Garfield was large-framed, large-brained, and large-hearted.”

He was six feet tall in height and was a splendid picture

of a man. His personal character and habits were clean  and

pure, and his home life at Mentor or Washington as

simply delightful. … In a word, James A. Garfield was a

man physically, intellectually, and morally who was an

honor to his country and … no more imperishable name

will ever adorn our country’s annals.

It was not long after this writing that Mary Clemmer herself died at the age of 45, only a year after her 1883 marriage to Edmund Hudson, editor of the Army and Navy Register. Her earlier marriage to Daniel Ames ended in divorce in 1874, the same year in which Ten Years in Washington was first published.

Death came early to Mary Clemmer Ames Hudson, but she has left behind a wonderful chronicle of Gilded Age Washington.


-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

The First Lady and the Queen: Two Women Brought Together by Tragedy

In the 1880s two notable women shared a bond that resulted from personal tragedy. One was a Head of State, Queen Victoria of Great Britain; the other was the wife of the Head of State, the American First Lady, Lucretia Garfield. On the surface, their lives did not suggest that the two women had much in common, but a closer look at their early married lives and later actions as widows demonstrates that similar conditions produced similar responses to their roles as the spouses of notable men.

Lucretia Rudolph met James A. Garfield at the Geauga Seminary in Chesterland, Ohio. The friendship which began there blossomed into a courtship at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College). A long engagement, and then marriage, followed. Both were 26 years old when they married in the home of Lucretia’s parents in Hiram on November 11, 1858. The first years of the Garfield marriage were difficult due to long separations; Lucretia later referred to these as “the dark years.” Garfield served in the Union army during the Civil War and was stricken more than once with illness; at one point he came home to recuperate. It was during this recovery in Ohio that their relationship finally began to improve and strengthen. In these early years of marriage, Lucretia bore first a girl, Eliza Arabella, and then a son, Harry. The death of “Little Trot,” and the birth of “the boy” drew Lucretia and her husband closer together.

This photo of James A. Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph was taken around the time of their engagement.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

This photo of James A. Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph was taken around the time of their engagement. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Likewise, some uncertainty plagued the heart of the young British Queen. Victoria was just 18 in June 1837 when she ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom. It was expected that Victoria would marry and produce an heir to the throne. The family hoped that she would marry her German-born cousin, Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg. Initially, Victoria did not want to marry Albert, but her feelings changed over time, and she confessed in her diary: “Oh, when I look in those lovely, lovely blue eyes, I feel they are those of an angel.” They married on February 10, 1840.

James and Lucretia had seven children; Victoria and Albert, nine. All of the children of Victoria and Albert lived into adulthood; five of the Garfield children did. However, all of these surviving children lived to see the early death of their father.

Prince Albert’s untimely death took place on December 14, 1861. He was just 42. He had long suffered from ill health. The exact cause of his death has been variously ascribed to typhoid fever or kidney failure. The Queen and five of their nine children were at Prince Albert’s bedside when he died. By the time of his death, Albert had become an indispensable support to the Queen. His death sent her into a deep mourning that lasted the rest of her life. Public grief resulted in the construction of many memorials to Albert, most notably Royal Albert Hall.

Prince Albert died in 1861 at the young age of 42, sending his wife into a deep mourning.  Queen Victoria never remarried and mourned her husband's death for the next 40 years.  (Wikepedia)

Prince Albert died in 1861 at the young age of 42, sending his wife into a deep mourning. Queen Victoria never remarried and mourned her husband’s death for the next 40 years. (Wikepedia)

The death of President Garfield in 1881 moved the Queen, who never ceased mourning the loss of her own husband. On September 25, 1881, the day before President Garfield’s massive funeral in Cleveland, Queen Victoria wrote a letter to Lucretia Garfield. “I have anxiously watched,” she wrote, “the long, and fear at times, painful sufferings of your valiant husband and shared in the fluctuations between hope and fear, the former of which decreased about two months ago, and greatly to preponderate over the latter- and above all I fell in deeply for you!” As a gesture of her deep sorrow for Mrs. Garfield and the people of the United States, the Queen sent a large wreath of white tuberose to the funeral. The wreath was placed on the President’s casket as his body lay in state in Washington, D.C. and during his funeral in Cleveland.

Lucretia Garfield was so touched by this gesture and the Queen’s handwritten note that she sought to preserve the wreath (along with many other funeral flowers and artifacts) after the funeral. She sent it to Chicago to be preserved using a wax treatment. Today, visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site can see the wreath displayed in the Memorial Library vault.

Queen Victoria sent this floral wreath and a handwritten letter of sympathy to Lucretia Garfield after the president's death.  The wreath was on Garfield's casket throughout the lying in state and funeral.  Today, visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site see it in the Memorial Library vault.  (NPS photo)

Queen Victoria sent this floral wreath and a handwritten letter of sympathy to Lucretia Garfield after the president’s death. The wreath was on Garfield’s casket throughout the lying in state and funeral. Today, visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site see it in the Memorial Library vault. (NPS photo)

Ironically, the Queen and her husband were both 42 at the time of his death, and Mrs. Garfield and the President were both 49 when he died. Queen Victoria and Lucretia Garfield would each live nearly 40 years after their husbands’ deaths. The Garfield’s oldest child, Harry, was nearly eighteen, and their youngest, Abram, was almost nine when their father died. Princess Victoria was 20 years old at the time of her father’s death; the youngest princess, Beatrice, was just eight.

The Queen, monarch of one of the world’s richest empires, entered widowhood with the advantage of not having to worry about her family’s finances. Though she had more domestic help available to her to assist with her large family, as Queen she had the added burden of ruling the British Empire.

Queen Victoria around 1887, twenty-six years after her husband's death and six years after the death of President Garfield.  (Wikipedia)

Queen Victoria around 1887, twenty-six years after her husband’s death and six years after the death of President Garfield. (Wikipedia)

Conversely, though relieved of her public role, Lucretia Garfield was faced with the daunting task of providing her young family both emotional and financial support. She moved back to the Mentor home and competently managed the family farm while raising and guiding her young children. A public subscription fund was started for the Garfields which eventually raised around $350,000. These funds, which would equal about $8 million today, allowed Lucretia Garfield to make a number of improvements to her Mentor property and home, including constructing the Memorial Library.

For both women, preserving their husband’s memories was very important. Queen Victoria left untouched several of the rooms Prince Albert had used. For the rest of her life, she also had a set of his clothes placed on his bed every day. In her Mentor home, Lucretia Garfield decided to leave the President’s office (what she called “the General’s snuggery”) the way he had left it when they moved into the White House – with few exceptions. Her most meaningful change was this: she had the words “In Memoriam” carved into the wood over the fireplace. “In Memoriam,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson was their favorite poem.

In a new addition to the home, Lucretia Garfield also went to work on cataloging and organizing her husband’s papers, which covered his nearly 20-year public career. The papers were eventually stored in the Memorial Library vault that still holds the Queen Victoria wreath. (Garfield’s papers, stored in the vault for about 50 years, now reside in the Library of Congress.)

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield was just 49 when her her husband died.  She lived another 37 years, dying in March 1918.  This photo was taken around 1881, the year in which she was briefly First Lady and in which her husband was assassinated.  (Library of Congress)

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield was just 49 when her her husband died. She lived another 37 years, dying in March 1918. This photo was taken around 1881, the year in which she was briefly First Lady and in which her husband was assassinated. (Library of Congress)

After President Garfield died, his wife and others began to work on a proper memorial to serve as his final resting place in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. A large fundraising campaign ensued that eventually raised $135,000 to build the massive and beautiful Garfield Memorial, dedicated on Memorial Day 1890. Mollie Garfield, the only surviving daughter of the couple, wrote this in her diary after her father’s death: “It is something really beautiful to see how much the people had gotten to love Papa through his sickness.  He would be deeply touched.” The President’s remains were moved into the Memorial, and Lucretia’s remains were placed by his side following her death on March 13, 1918.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, he was entombed in the Frogmore Royal Mausoleum in Windsor, Berkshire, England. Queen Victoria joined him there after her death on January 22, 1901.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria lie together in the masoleum at Frogmore.  Other British royals are buried and entombed here as well.  (

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s remains lie together in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. Other British royals are buried and entombed here as well. (

In the prime of life, few are prepared for the death of a spouse. Mrs. Garfield and Queen Victoria, though, met the challenges that faced them. In their private lives as widows, they raised their young, fatherless children by themselves; they devoted themselves to keeping the memories of their husbands alive for themselves, their families, and the public; and they both mourned the loss of their beloved husbands for the rest of their lives.

James and Lucretia Garfield's remains lie together in the Garfield Monument in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery.  The urns in front hold the remains of their daughter, Mollie, and her husband, Joseph Stanley-Brown.  (

James and Lucretia Garfield’s remains lie together in the Garfield Monument in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. The urns in front hold the remains of their daughter, Mollie, and her husband, Joseph Stanley-Brown, who had been Garfield’s private secretary during his 1880 campaign and his 200-day presidency. (

-Rebecca Hayward, Volunteer

Mrs. Mount Rushmore, Part II

A little while back we posted a blog that asked the question: if you could design a Mount Rushmore for our First Ladies, who would you carve into that mountain? The results of that questions revealed that our Facebook fans would choose Dolley Madison, Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abigail Adams (in that order). We couldn’t help but ask though, “Why?” So in the spirit of exploring what these women did to earn the admiration of people generations later, we’re going to explore each one of them one at a time.

So with that said, our next edition of Mrs. Mount Rushmore explores the accomplishments of Mrs. Dolley Payne Todd Madison. What do you know about Dolley Madison? I was surprised by the sheer number of answers I received to this question. Even among “history buffs” there are a staggering number of stories associated with Dolley Madison. And upon some reading and research a staggering number of these staggering stories are, staggeringly, mythical in nature. Meaning they’re a tad… embellished. Reading about Dolley Madison paints a picture of a powerful woman who loved beautiful dresses, big parties, politics, and America. She’s almost larger than life. But which of these stories is true and which ones have been blown up?

Dolley Madison, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Married to fourth President James Madison, she was both a noted entertainer and a shrewd political operative during their eight years in the White House. (The James Madison Museum)

Researcher Mary Ellen Scofield recently published an article entitled “Unraveling the Dolley Myths.” In her article Scofield points out that most of the tall-tales associated with the great Dolley Madison are rooted in truth. For example: cupcakes and ice cream. Everyone is familiar with the famous brand of snacks called “Dolly Madison.” And of course the stories of how Mrs. Madison was the first to serve ice cream in the White House. While Mrs. Madison loved herself a party, she can hardly be credited for creating a brand of snack cakes – the Dolly Madison brand came about in 1937 when Roy Nafziger founded a brand of snack and named it after a First Lady whom he found fascinating. And Dolley wasn’t the only White House hostess to serve ice cream. Abigail Adams beat her to the punch, as did Thomas Jefferson for that matter.

These aren’t the stories that make people adore Dolley Madison though. These are simply stories that inflate her a little bit. The big story that even some school children can recite is the story of how Dolley Madison saved the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Dolley braved the flames of the White House, burning down around her during the War of 1812, so that she could save this classic portrait of our first great leader. This paints for us an amazing picture of a woman concerned more about her country’s well-being then her own. And needless to say it’s the grounds for a great action scene in some Hollywood blockbuster. But….not 100% true.

A detail from the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison “saved” when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. (

While Dolley Madison certainly saved the famous portrait of our Commander-in-Chief, she herself didn’t actually carry it out of the White House. The First Lady and remaining White House staff had advanced notice of the enemy advance on Washington, D.C. before the British even there. Before they had even hit the city limits, Mrs. Madison had asked a staff member to break the frame of the painting and rescue the canvas because they were unable to unscrew the frame from the wall itself. The Madison’s doorkeeper and gardener, both still present, assisted Mrs. Madison with loading valuables, including the painting, into a wagon that set off well before the British arrived. And while it’s also true that Mrs. Madison stayed in the White House far longer than would have been safe, she didn’t actually run from a burning building.

This Tom Freeman painting shows British soldiers burning the White House on August 24, 1814. Dolley Madison had escaped with the Stuart portrait of George Washington before the British troops arrived at the White House, but she certainly stayed longer than was safe. (White House Historical Association)

Another misconception is that Dolley Madison had served as Thomas Jefferson’s surrogate First Lady during his time as President. Jefferson’s own wife had died years before the Presidency. And tradition held that the host of a White House event, be it dinner or a gala ball, needed to have his wife or a female substitute present in order for other politicians and invitees to be able to bring their wives. This tradition is true enough. But the misconception began with two biographical pieces that were written about Dolley Madison in 1836 and 1886. The first was a biographical piece in which the author, Margaret Bayard Smith, states that, “the president’s house was the seat of hospitality, where Mrs. Madison always presided (in the absence of Mrs. Jefferson’s daughters).”  The second piece was a collection of letters published by Lucia Beverly Cutts, a grandniece of Dolley herself. In this collection Cutts states, “Mrs. Madison, aided by her sister, usually presided at the White House and was much depended upon.” Many authors over the years have taken these two women at their words and as such the stories have “become fact.”

The truth, however, is a little different. Thankfully Thomas Jefferson kept a very detailed list of guests who attended all of his functions. And upon doing some reading, some tallying, and some math, you quickly discover that Dolley Madison was not around nearly enough to be considered a surrogate First Lady. A vast number of dinners held by President Jefferson had no women in attendance. How much is “vast?” Only 20% of his dinners between 1804 and 1809 had women in attendance. If you further break down the dinners in that 20%, Dolley Madison wasn’t present at any more than half of them. To give her credit where it is due, Mrs. Madison was present more often than any other cabinet member’s wife. And at those dinners at which she was present she did perhaps assist in hostess duties. But her presence is far from consistent, and not nearly enough so that she could be called a surrogate First Lady.

Martha Wayles Jefferson died at age 33 on September 6, 1782, eighteen years before her husband was elected President. Contrary to popular belief, Dolley Madison did not serve as a substitue First Lady for Jefferson. (

So then…why is she held in such a great light? If some of these fundamental “truths” are not actually completely true, then how was this woman so great? Dolley Madison grew into a figure larger than life over the course of history because she herself was a bit larger than life for a woman of the time. Mrs. Madison could throw a party like it was no one else’s business. She understood the ins and outs of socializing and mingling and exactly what it could accomplish politically. Even if her ice cream wasn’t original, she put together guest lists, entertainment, and planned events that went down in Washington history. More than one politician and V.I.P. came away saying that Mrs. Madison’s charms made them feel not just welcome, but important. This set the stage for some hardcore political “moving and shaking” amongst the guests. Combine this with Dolley’s taste in fashion and love of fancy dress, and you have the makings of a hostess who could easily become a political heavyweight.

Dolley Madison was also a highly visible woman. Being the First Lady she was able to hold the same types of gathering that other socialites were already having. But by virtue of her position, and bolstered by her ability to entertain, her “crushes” as they were called (due to the sheer number of people present) garnered much attention. She was also known for her grace and delightful nature when giving and receiving gifts. As the wife of a politician, both of these things are necessary talents. These things made her a popular topic in social circles. These stories were passed along by word of mouth, perhaps inflated as they went. This ensured Mrs. Madison’s reputation among people whom she had never even met. So you have to ask yourself – how could she not have become bigger than life?

So if you step back to examine Dolley Madison in this light you find a woman who may not have had as many “firsts” as you previously thought. She may not have run from a burning building. And she may not have actually “reigned” over Washington like a queen. But what you have is a woman exercising her political know-how at a time when women didn’t usually have (or at least couldn’t show) a lot of political know-how. Politics was a man’s world – not fit for a lady. Dolley Madison broke stereotypes and proved to the young United States that the President’s wife was more than just an accessory. She was a valuable asset. And even though we have to separate some myth from some truth, you still have a woman who definitely seems to have earned her place on Mrs. Mount Rushmore.

-Andrew Curtiss, Volunteer

Mrs. Mount Rushmore?

Ranger Joan turned and asked across the office, “If you could make a Mount Rushmore for the First Ladies, who would you put on it?” And so… it began. The conversation went from a fun question between a Ranger and a Volunteer to a group debate that even brought Ranger Allison out of her office to put in her two cents.

All of us here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site have our niches that we fit into. Ranger Scott knows just about everything there is to know about James Garfield in the Civil War, for example. Ranger Alan knows more about the political climate of the time than anyone else. And Ranger Mary specializes in Victorian art and style. I may not be a ranger, but my specialty is our First Ladies’ lives and times. So a question like Ranger Joan’s is a dangerous invitation to a LONG conversation from which I will not let you escape!

All jokes aside, Ranger Joan’s question warrants some discussion. It also brings up a LOT of questions. As Ranger Alan and I starting throwing out names, the question became: if you were going to make a First Ladies Mount Rushmore, how would you possibly decide who deserves to be up there? What are the criteria? Does Jacqueline Kennedy deserve to be up there as much as Martha Washington? What about Abigail Adams? Certainly Eleanor Roosevelt… right?

Do we hear any votes for Lucretia Garfield? (White House Historical Association)

So, for some fun, we posed the same question that Ranger Joan asked me originally to our community of great friends on Facebook. The post unexpectedly became our most popular post in the two years our page has been running. TONS of people got involved and made their opinions known. There are certainly some names that show up more than others. And there were a few surprises as well. So if we were to go only off the Facebook votes, and stick to four women, the First Ladies Mount Rushmore would be (drumroll please):

#1 – Dolley Madison

#2 – Eleanor Roosevelt

#3 – Abigail Adams

#4 – Martha Washington

The overwhelming response to this list is: okay – that sounds right. But why does it sound right? When you think on it, measuring the success and contributions of our First Ladies is almost more difficult than that of the Presidents. The First Lady has no official job. She is not mentioned in statute books and her tasks are not outlined for her in the constitution. She literally has an unofficial title and no real power to speak of. So why exactly do those women above “sound” right? (Not that I’m arguing their nominations, of course.)

Dolley Madison is revered for saving priceless White House treasures when the British burned the Executive Mansion during the War of 1812. (White House Historical Association)

Before we can really talk in depth about the four women mentioned above we have to stop and look at who and what the First Lady is. Be warned, though, that is a topic that many authors have written full books about. So in the interest of keeping this brief, let’s put it in a nut shell, shall we? As far as the Constitution is concerned, the President’s wife is nothing more than the President’s wife. Even the title of First Lady is ceremonial – historians even argue over when the term started to see regular use. Sure, today the First Lady has a staff and office of her own. But it can be very safely said that this is a more recent development. Our first First Ladies were simply expected to run the household, raise the kids, organize and prepare parties, and so forth. Not that any of those are easy tasks, especially when they’re being held under a microscope – but you get the idea.

However, what the First Lady does have is recognition. Going back in time, the First Lady has always been one of the most easily recognized women of her time. At a time when women had few rights, “famous” women were hard to come by. People certainly knew who Martha Washington was though. So while the First Lady has no real power outlined by any document, the sheer amount of recognition and attention she gets, just by being married to one certain man, is where her power comes from. As early as Dolley Madison’s time, the First Lady had begun to realize what she could do with that little bit of attention. Today the role has evolved to the point where we actually expect the First Lady to set goals and accomplish them. Our First Ladies take on projects and causes in an effort to better the world in their own special ways – from Lucy Hayes’s feelings for the temperance movement to Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity. The First Lady has a truly unique chance to affect people all over the country simply by being herself.

Betty Ford’s openness about such previously undiscussed subjects as breast cancer and addiction endeared her to many Americans, male and female alike.

So, with all of that being said, how do we measure her success? The four women chosen up above certainly experienced success in affecting the American public in some beneficial fashion. Dolley Madison showed us the power behind a successful dinner party and how it could bolster the President’s popularity. Eleanor Roosevelt proved that a woman was capable of as much politicking as any man – and she could be just as good, if not better, at it. Abigail Adams showed us that a woman could handle business decisions, moral dilemmas, and be a trusted advisor even when the rest of the world wouldn’t have believed it so. And Martha Washington set a precedent for activity by being present to mend soldier’s uniforms, cook them meals, and nurse them to health.

But haven’t other First Ladies been equally “successful” by those same standards? What about Betty Ford’s open honesty about breast cancer? How many lives were saved because she told women what happened to her and told them to go get checked? Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s wife, Happy Rockefeller, stated outright that she was checked and her breast cancer discovered early because of Betty Ford’s openness. And what about her desire to discuss addiction and how to treat it? And then there’s Caroline Harrison. Sure, she’s a name that people don’t really know today. But she single-handedly managed to get Johns Hopkins University to begin expecting female students. She started the Daughters of American Revolution, a group dedicated to the preservation of history. And she brought electricity to the White House, while also ridding it of a terrible rat and bug infestation. Are Mrs. Harrison’s accomplishments any less important than Betty Ford’s? And is Mrs. Ford’s ability to discuss anything with anyone more valuable than Eleanor Roosevelt’s political savvy? Our Facebook poll reveals VERY few votes for Betty Ford and even less so for Caroline Harrison.

Caroline Harrison wanted to make a difference as First Lady. She made the White House more livable by adding electricity and updating rooms. She also struck a deal with Johns Hopkins University: the school agreed to enroll women in return for her support in building a new wing on a Baltimore hospital. (

So now I pose the question to you again: who deserves to be up on “Mrs. Mount Rushmore?” Is our list of four women at the top sufficient? Who would you put up there, and why? Over the course of a few blog posts I will explore these four choices with you and see if we can get to the bottom of why these four women deserve to be up on a mountain. Tune in again soon for further discussion on “Mrs. Mount Rushmore.”

-Andrew Curtiss, Volunteer