Smithsonian Q & A: Presidential Families: The Ultimate Question & Answer Book


Smithsonian Q & A: Presidential Families looks at the role of the first ladies, the children's struggles and accomplishments, and the influence of extended families on the office of the U.S. presidency. Find out the answers to: Which first lady said "I know what's best for the president, I put him in the White House"? and Who did not have an inaugural ceremony?

  • Draws the reader behind the doors of the White House with true stories about ...
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Smithsonian Q & A: Presidential Families looks at the role of the first ladies, the children's struggles and accomplishments, and the influence of extended families on the office of the U.S. presidency. Find out the answers to: Which first lady said "I know what's best for the president, I put him in the White House"? and Who did not have an inaugural ceremony?

  • Draws the reader behind the doors of the White House with true stories about those who held the highest leadership position in the United States
  • More than 250 full-color photographs and illustrations, with unique artifacts from the archives of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Ready Reference section with at-a-glance details on important people and events in White House history
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060891176
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/17/2006
  • Series: Smithsonian Q & A Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 7.37 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Edith P. Mayo is curator emerita in political history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her books include First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image and The Smithsonian's Book of First Ladies.

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Read an Excerpt

Smithsonian Q & A: Presidential Families

The Ultimate Question & Answer Book
By Edith Mayo

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Edith Mayo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060891173

Chapter One

The Founders and Their Families

The fires of revolution, the hard-fought struggle for independence, and the creation of a new nation forged unbreakable bonds among the men and women of the Revolutionary War generation. Each of the first four presidents of the United States of America, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, shared an intimate connection to the revolutionary movement and to the birth of the new republic.

And their wives and families fully shared in the risks, responsibilities, and sacrifices necessary to achieve the goal of independence.

Despite often bitter political rivalries and personal philosophical differences with one another, the founders shared an unshakable commitment to sustaining the new nation. This coherence of vision throughout the earliest years of its existence laid the foundation for its strength and the development of a stable democracy. The founders had pledged "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" to this vision, which would guarantee the survival of the young nation.

George and Martha Washington

Q: What important benefits did Martha Dandridge Custis bring to her marriage to George Washington?

A: When Martha met George in 1758, she was a wealthy widow, living on a largeestate left by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. She brought to the marriage two valuable assets that George lacked: great wealth and superior social position. Both were invaluable in advancing her husband's career. George Washington, as did many presidents after him, "married up."

Q: Where did George and Martha Washington live during his presidential administrations (1789-97)?

A: The Washingtons never lived in Washington, or in the building now known as the White House. The new nation's capital in Washington, D.C., was under construction during Washington's presidential terms. The first capital of the United States of America was New York City, where George and Martha moved into a large rented house on Cherry Street in 1789. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Washingtons rented an elegant mansion on High Street until the end of the administration. Later, John and Abigail Adams lived in the High Street mansion for most of Adams's presidential term as well, and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800.

Q: Why was it important for George and Martha Washington to set a new style for the new nation of the United States of America?

A: After the Americans had won the Revolution and thrown off royalty, most citizens did not want a chief executive who resembled a king. The Washingtons were keenly aware that they were setting precedents and realized that the style of the first president would profoundly shape the nation. They and their advisers debated how the president and his wife should comport themselves in public, how to convey dignity, command respect, project authority, and govern a nation without relying on the trappings of royalty. The Washingtons chose a dignified and formal style for entertaining and public events, yet welcomed ordinary citizens to mingle with them at the President's House. This public access to the chief executive marked a critical difference between American democracy and European royalty.

Q: What was Martha Washington's role in her husband's presidential administration?

A: As were many privileged, upper-class women of the eighteenth century, Martha had been brought up to administer a large household, oversee its production, and entertain to advance her future husband's career. Hosting social events for the leaders of the new nation and for foreign diplomats was an essential part of politics and diplomacy. Martha's social skills, warmth, and graciousness softened the president's stiff formality at public events.

The Washingtons' decision to host public entertainments and state events jointly established the president's wife as his social and ceremonial partner and hostess for the nation. This role has been played by every first lady (a term not used until the mid-1800s) from Martha Washington's time to the present.

Q: How did the Washingtons entertain during the president's term of office?

A: In the early days of the republic, entertaining was an essential part of politics and diplomacy. Anyone wishing to pay respects to the president had to call at a specified time on designated days of the week. The president held events each week for men only; Martha held afternoon receptions for women on Tuesdays and Fridays, while official dinners were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays at four o'clock. Martha hosted a formal reception, known as a drawing room, each Friday evening that both men and women attended. She received her guests while seated.

Q: What was the practice of "fostering"?

A: Fostering was the common practice, in the colonial and early republican era, of taking in children of relatives who could not care for their offspring, or children who had been left orphans. Because of the unusually high birth and death rates of the period, many children were left with a single parent--or no parents at all. In such cases, relatives took in some of the children and raised them as their own, but without a formal adoption process. This custom can be seen in both the Washington and Adams families.

Q: Who were the children who lived with President and Mrs. Washington in the executive mansions?

A: George and Martha Washington had no children together, but Martha's two grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis, called "Nelly," and George Washington Parke Custis, known as "Little Wash" or "Tub," lived with their grandparents.

Martha Washington had four children by her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis: Daniel and Francis, who both died in childhood; Martha, nicknamed "Patsy"; and John, called "Jacky." Patsy died of epilepsy at the age of seventeen. Jacky, Martha's only surviving child, married Eleanor Calvert of Maryland, with whom he had four children. He had been assigned as an aide to General Washington during the Revolutionary War but, soon after the battle of Yorktown, was struck ill. Jacky Custis died of "camp fever" (probably typhus) at the age of twenty-seven. He left his wife, Eleanor, with four young children.

Martha was bereft at the loss of Jacky, and Eleanor Calvert Custis, as a widow, found it difficult to bring up her family. The Washingtons reached an agreement with her to take in and rear as their own Eleanor's two youngest children, Nelly and Wash. At Mount Vernon, Nelly and Wash enjoyed privileged lives. Both children received extensive educations from tutors. When the family moved to Philadelphia, Nelly, a teenager during Washington's presidency, eagerly participated in the elegant social whirl in the capital. Although treated as a republican "princess," Nelly reserved her deepest feelings for her grandparents, especially her grandmother. She wrote of Martha, "she has been more than a Mother to me. It is impossible to love any one more than I love her."


Excerpted from Smithsonian Q & A: Presidential Families by Edith Mayo Copyright © 2006 by Edith Mayo. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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