The Wives of American Presidents and Vice-Presidents

This is a follow-on from this post, itself a response to ‘s “feminist challenge to your US Vice-Presidential knowledge base”. Compiling this information has been an interesting experience. The title of “First Lady” is now retrospectively applied to whoever the official hostess of the White House was, plus whoever the President’s wife was; the title of “Second Lady” seems to me rather bogus, in that I have never seen it used outside WikiPedia.

So I decided to look at the vital statistics for women who have been married at any time to men who served as President or Vice-President of the United States. I’m aware that this is a heteronormative approach; it is determined really by the available records (which are themselves patchy in places). Many of the men concerned had relationships with women to whom they were not married; in most cases, history does not record their biographical details.

I would have very much liked to include Julia Chinn, a slave belonging to future Vice-President Richard Mentor Johnson; they lived together openly in 1820’s and 1830’s Kentucky, and she bore him two children who took his surname and inherited his property. However her year of birth, and the year in which their relationship started, are unknown, as is the precise date of her death in 1833, three years before he was elected Vice-President (uniquely, by the Senate, as the Virginia electors would not vote for a man who had lived with a black woman). Reluctantly, I have to strike her from my list.

I also considered including James Buchanan and William Rufus King, who served respectively as President from 1857 to 1861 and as Vice-President briefly in 1853. Both were bachelors; they lived together in Washington for fifteen years, and Washington gossip of the time appears to have assumed that they were in a sexual relationship. However, I think I want to look at women here, and also if I have excluded Julia Chinn I guess I have to exclude other partners who were not officially married.

I was able to find years, but not precise dates, of birth for four women married to vice-presidents of the middle period: Evelyn Colfax, born in 1823, whose husband Schuyler served under Ulysses S Grant from 1869 to 1873; Mary Wheeler, born in 1828, whose husband William served under Rutherford Hayes from 1877 to 1881; Cornelia Fairbanks, whose husband Charles served under Theodore Roosevelt from 1905 to 1909; and Dorothy Barkley, whose husband was Truman’s vice-president in 1949-53 (though she had died in 1947). By contrast, the biographical data for the most recent and also the earliest women in my list were pretty easy to track down; if WikiPedia didn’t have them I could usually find another source easily enough.

Anyway, that leaves me with a list of 83 women married at some time or other to the 72 men who have served as President, Vice-President or both. Eleven of those men were married twice: nine of them – Aaron Burr, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Hannibal Hamlin, Schuyler Colfax, Benjamin Harrison, Levi P. Morton, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Alben Barkley – were widowed and remarried, and Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller both divorced their first wives; but I have included them all. I was surprised that multiple marriages turned out to be more common among the women, with fifteen of them known to have married more than once (and there may be more I missed). Martha Washington and Martha Jefferson were already widows when they married George and Thomas respectively; both of Aaron Burr’s wives were widows when he married them, his second wife possibly twice over; likewise Mary Harrison, Edith Wilson and Jane Hadley Barkley; Rachel Jackson, Florence Harding, Jane Wyman and Happy Rockefeller all divorced their first husbands; and Caroline Fillmore, Frances Cleveland, Muriel Humphrey and Jacqueline Kennedy all married again after their husbands’ deaths (Jane Wyman also married and divorced the same man twice after her marriage to Ronald Reagan).

Longevity: 13 of the 83 women are still living. They are, in order of birthdate, Jane Wyman (93), Betty Ford (89), Nancy Reagan (86), Judy Agnew (also 86), Barbara Bush (82), Happy Rockefeller (81), Rosalynn Carter (turns 80 next month), Joan Mondale (turns 77 next month), Lynne Cheney (turns 66 next month), Laura Bush (60), Hillary Clinton (59), Tipper Gore (turns 59 next month), and Marilyn Quayle (whose 58th birthday is tomorrow). Leaving them aside, the average lifespan is 69 years 8 months, and the median just under 72 years 3 months. Apart from Jane Wyman, eight made it past their 90th birthdays: Eliza Bowen Jumel (Aaron Burr’s second wife; more on her in a moment), Caro Dawes (whose husband Charles was VP under Coolidge), Tod Rockefeller (Nelson’s first wife), Jennie Hobart (whose husband Garret was McKinley’s first Vice-President), Ilo Wallace (whose husband Henry was FDR’s second vice-president), Lady Bird Johnson (who inspired this piece of research), Ann Gerry (whose husband was Madison’s second vice-president, and gave his name to the gerrymander) and Bess Truman. Bess Truman was the longest-lived of all, born 13 February 1885, died 18 October 1982, a total of 97 years, 8 months and 5 days. At the other end of the scale is the tragic figure of Alice Roosevelt, who died on 14 February 1884 of kidney problems just after giving birth to Theodore’s first daughter; she was born on 29 July 1861, so was only 22 years and six months old. None of the other women on the list died in their twenties, though at least four died in their thirties – Martha Jefferson, Lucy Morton (whose husband was later to serve as Benjamin Harrison’s vice-president), Hannah Van Buren, Sarah Hamlin and possibly Evelyn Colfax, who was born some time in 1823 and died on 10 July 1863.

Age at marriage: Taking all 83 women here, but considering only their marriages to the men who became President or Vice-President, the average age at that marriage was just over 25 and the median just under 23. (For all the women’s first marriages, the average age is 23.2 and the median 22.6.) Fourteen of the women were married before they turned twenty: Harriet Wilson, whose husband Henry was Ulysses S Grant’s second VP, appears to have been the youngest – just past her sixteenth birthday when they were married in 1840. (She died in 1870, a couple of years before he became vice-president; he in turn died in office in 1875.) The other teenage brides were Hannah Tompkins (whose husband Daniel was VP under Monroe), Eliza Johnson (wife of Andrew Johnson), Mary Wheeler (married to Hayes’ VP), Mary Breckinridge (whose husband was VP under Buchanan), Elizabeth Monroe, Sophia Dallas (whose husband was Pierce’s VP), Sarah Hamlin, Rosalynn Carter, Floride Calhoun (whose husband was VP to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), Alice Roosevelt (TR’s first wife, as noted above), Barbara Bush, Mamie Eisenhower and Abigail Adams (John Adams’ wife). In addition, Eliza Jumel (possibly; see below), Rachel Jackson, Theodosia Burr, Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson, Caroline Fillmore, Florence Harding and Happy Rockefeller had all married their first husbands before they were 20. I have not been able to find a date for Jane Hadley Barkley’s first marriage, so she may possibly be in this category too.

The oldest bride by quite some way is perhaps the most exotic story of the lot. Eliza Bowen Jumel is a difficult but fascinating figure to pin down; compare the glaring differences between the two on-line biographies of her here and here. She was born in 1775 (or 1769), and married her second (or first) husband Stephen Jumel in 1804 (or 1801). Her murky background meant that they had difficulty being received in New York society, so they emigrated to France where she became a friend of Napoleon’s, offering him safe passage to America after Waterloo. They moved back to New York in 1828; Stephen Jumel died in 1832, and the following year Eliza, now reputedly the richest woman in America, married Aaron Burr, who had served as vice-president under Thomas Jefferson thirty years earlier. He was 77, she was 58 (or 66). It didn’t work out; they separated after only a few months, and their divorce was finalised on the day of Burr’s death, 14 September 1836. She lived on until 16 July 1865, dying at the age of 90 (or possibly 96). She sounds a much more attractive person than Burr, whose main political achievement was the dubious one of killing Alexander Hamilton. (The oldest first-time bride was Bess Truman, who was 34 when she married Harry in 1919.)

Taking the 83 marriages of the 72 men, the average age is 31.5 and the median 27.8, making the average age gap 6.5 and the median 4.2 (counting first marriages for the men only, the average age is 28.3 and the median 26.3; the average age gap is 4.7 and the median 3.7). The youngest of the men at marriage – and the only teenager – was Andrew Johnson, 18 and 4 months when he married 16-year-old Eliza McCardle in 1827. The oldest President to marry for the first time was Grover Cleveland, aged 49 when he married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in the White House in 1886, the year after he first became President. John Tyler, Nelson Rockefeller, Millard Fillmore, Woodrow Wilson, Benjamin Harrison, Alben Barkley and Aaron Burr all married for the second time when they were over 50, Burr being the oldest at 77 (as described above). Apart from Cleveland, Presidents Tyler and Wilson married in office (both having lost their first wives since becoming president) and Alben Barkley married while vice-president.

The 33-year gap betwen Vice-President Barkley, born on 24 November 1877, and his second wife Jane Hadley, born 23 September 1911, is the largest for any of the couples here; they were married the week before his 72nd birthday, when she was 38. The biggest gap for a President is that between John Tyler (born 29 March 1790) and his second wife Julia (born 4 May 1820); they were married on 26 June 1844. The biggest gap for a first marriage on both sides is the 27 years between Grover and Frances Cleveland. Ten or eleven of the women in my sample were older than the husbands considered here. The biggest gap was between Aaron Burr (again!) and his first wife Theodosia, who was nine years older than him. Florence Harding was five years older than Warren, Cornelia Fairbanks probably four years older than Charles, Abigail Fillmore almost two years older than Millard, and Tod Rockefeller just over a year older than Nelson. There was less than a year in it for Caroline Harrison (Benjamin Harrison’s first wife, who died the week before he lost his bid for re-election), Pat Nixon, Martha Washington, Ilo Wallace, Lou Hoover and probably Evelyn Colfax.

In office: The youngest woman married to a President was Frances Cleveland, as noted above, followed in order by Julia Tyler, aged 21 and 24 respectively when they married the President of the day. The youngest woman whose husband became President was Jacqueline Kennedy, aged 31 in 1961. The oldest First Lady was Bess Truman, almost 68 when her husband’s term ended in 1953 (though Jane Wyman was 75 at the end of her ex-husband’s term in 1989). Ellen Hamlin was only 25 when her husband Hannibal became Vice-President in 1861. At the other end, Etty Garner was 71 at the end of her husband’s second term as Vice-President in 1941.

Death: The average length of the marriages here considered is 32.7 years, the median being 31.8. The longest married couple in the sample are both in fact still alive: George and Barbara Bush married on 6 January 1945, 62 years and almost seven months ago. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who celebrated their 61st anniversary last month, are not far behind. In between are Caro and Charles G Dawes, married for 62 years and 3 months, and Abigail and John Adams, married for 61 years and 8 months. Ten other couples made it past fifty years of marriage: Joan and Walter Mondale are still alive, the others being Louisa and John Quincy Adams, Ilo and Henry Wallace, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Etty and John Nance Garner, Mamie and Ike Eisenhower, Pat and Richard Nixon, Bess and Harry Truman, Judy and Spiro Agnew, and Betty and Gerald Ford. At the other end of the scale, the briefest union was the three years and two months of Aaron Burr’s marriage to Eliza Jumel, ending simultaneously with their divorce and his death; followed by the three years and three months of Theodore Roosevelt’s first marriage to the unfortunate Alice. Four other couples did not make it to their tenth anniversary; Benjamin Harrison, Alben Barkley and Woodrow Wilson all died within a decade of their second marriage, and Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan divorced after eight and a half years.

On average, the women of my sample outlived their husbands by 5.7 years, the median being 4.9. (This excludes Happy Rockefeller, Judy Agnew, Reagan’s two wives and Betty Ford, all of whom are still living.) Mary Harrison, Benjamin Harrison’s second wife, outlived him by 46 years. She remarried; Sarah Polk, who outlived her husband by 42 years, did not. Of vice-presidents’ wives, the longest widowhood was that of Jennie Hobart, who outlived her husband Garret by 41 years (after 30 yeas of marriage). At the other end, Levi P. Morton lived to his 96th birthday, almost 49 years after the death of his first wife, Lucy, but had remarried. Martin Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson both lived as widowers for over 43 years without remarrying. (Aaron Burr survived his first wife by 41 years.) In the middle, both Letitia Stevenson (whose husband Adlai was Cleveland’s second VP) and Eliza Johnson (married to Andrew) died within six months of their husbands.

Change over time: To a certain extent we are comparing, if not apples and oranges, at least Seville oranges and clementines here. Things have changed for women’s life expectancy quite a lot over the centuries since the future Martha Washington was born in 1731. It is striking, for instance, that of the fourteen couples whose marriages lasted more than fifty years, twelve lived in the twentieth century (and the other two were Adamses). Here is a graph mapping ten point moving averages of age at marriage (to the husbands considered here), difference in age with husband, and age at death as against year of birth.

The big variation is of course in lifespan. Of the seven women on the list who have most recently died, four lived to be over 90 (ie, half the total number of nonagenarians on the list) and two of the other three to be over 80. The low point appears to be the early nineteenth century; of the the sixteen women born between 1815 and 1840, six died before the age of 50 (Mary Wheeler, 47, 1828-1876; Harriet Wilson, 45, 1824-1870; Evelyn Colfax, ~40, 1823-1863; Sarah Hamlin, 39, 1815-1855; and Lucy Morton, 34, 1836-1871) and none reached their 90th birthday.

The average marriage age seems to start at just over 25 and ends at just over 25 as well, but with a dip precisely at the same point as the shortest lifespans. Five of the sixteen women born between 1815 and 1840 married as teenagers, (Harriet Wilson and Eliza Johnson at 16, Mary Breckinridge and Mary Wheeler at 17, and Sarah Hamlin at 18; three of them are also on the list of those who died early in this cohort. 31% of these sixteen married as teenagers, compared to nine of the other 67, 13% of the rest of the sample).

(I plotted the average age gap as well just to see if I got anything interesting out of it, but I don’t.)

Conclusion: This has to an extent been a fun vacation bit of historical number-crunching. But only to an extent. One keeps on running up against stories like that of Alice Roosevelt, mentioned above; of Andrew and Rachel Jackson, taunted about their early bigamous marriage (her first husband having lied about getting the divorce) to the point that she died between the election and her husband’s inauguration; Franklin and Jane Pierce, who saw their only child smashed to bits in front of them in a railway accident just before his inauguration in 1853; Abigail Fillmore, repeating the experience of William Henry Harrison and catching pneumonia during Pierce’s inauguration, so that she died a few weeks later; and all the others who married expecting to have decades with their partner of choice, but found that fate decreed otherwise. If you have read this, and you have someone special in your life, go and give them a hug, and tell them I said so (if you like).

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