There is at least one custom common among those who’ve lived in the White House and all who have not. Friends, family and colleagues of everyday folk gather for christenings, graduations, weddings and, yes, funerals. Presidents and First Ladies gather for Inaugurations, Presidential Library and Museum dedications and, yes, funerals.
At today’s memorial service for former First Lady Nancy Reagan, in attendance were her peers, the former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama and former President George W. Bush. Their presence followed an unbroken tradition in place for over a half-century and one that first began more than a century and a half ago.
Carping that President Obama dishonored Mrs. Reagan by not attending her funeral, is the result of historical ignorance. The last time an incumbent President attended the funeral of a former First Lady was the 1962 one of Eleanor Roosevelt, as much due to her power within the Democratic Party as her being the widow of a past president. The only other three occasions where an incumbent President did so were Theodore Roosevelt’s attendance at those of Ida McKinley in 1907 and Julia Grant in 1902, and Zachary Taylor’s attendance at that of Dolley Madison in 1849.
July 16, 1849, Washington, D.C.
Attendees: incumbent President Zachary Taylor, former First Lady Louisa Adams, possibly incumbent First Lady Peggy Taylor
Surprisingly the funerals of the “Founding Fathers and Mothers,” the earliest Presidents and First Ladies were treated as public occasions that called for honoring them by the presence of their peers. Thus the funerals and burials of George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were noted in the national press but were not attended by the incumbent in the White House.
This was due in part to the fact that travel from the capital cities of Philadelphia in 1799, when George Washington died, and then Washington, D.C. down into rural Virginia or up to New England was an arduous effort. The only means of transportation were by water or stagecoach. Add to this the fact that news did not travel fast in those days, and a former President might well be buried before the news of their death had reached the White House.
Not so for former First Lady Dolley Madison. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it was convenient. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Madison returned to live in Washington, D.C. and became something analogous to an American version of “Queen Mother,” in attendance at White House events under Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor.
Perhaps of more importance, however, is the fact that Dolley Madison reminded Americans of their founding era. She knew Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. She had also earned her own place as a national legend by her act of bravery during the War of 1812 when she saved the iconic portrait of George Washington, preventing it from falling into the hands of invading British troops who ransacked the Presidential Mansion before burning it.
Mrs. Madison was thus considered an important national figure, and her official mourning party was led by the incumbent President of the United States Zachary Taylor, a fact borne out by newspaper coverage of the event. Unfortunately his eulogy of her was not recorded in the press, but it has been passed down as anecdotal legend that it was during his speech that he referred to her as “first lady,” making it the first known printed reference to that unofficial title. Certainly the title is first seen in print just four years later, in 1853, in reference to a one of the most obscure of presidential spouses, Jane Pierce, so the tale is likely true.
Hers was the largest state funeral held in Washington, D.C. to that date.
Also in attendance was Louisa Adams, a former First Lady who had settled in Washington, D.C. with her husband, John Quincy Adams, the only former president elected to Congress. In fact, they lived right next door to Dolley Madison in a row house on the east side of Lafayette Square across from the White House. The two old ladies liked to play cards, attend lectures and go to concerts together.
It is also highly likely that the incumbent First Lady Peggy Taylor was in attendance but may not have arrived with her husband. Mrs. Taylor, who assumed the role of hostess at only private events in the White House while her daughter Betty took on the public role, also refused to have her image distributed publicly, remained a virtual phantom, enabling her to live with the peace of relative anonymity in the capital. Adding to the credibility of her attendance was the fact that the one place she went daily was to St. John’s Church, across Lafayette Square.
President Taylor also led the official entourage from St. John’s Church to the Congressional Cemetery, where Mrs. Madison laid to rest for several years before being buried beside her husband in his native Orange County, Virginia.
December 21, 1902, New York, New York
Attendees: President Theodore Roosevelt
For the half-century that followed the funeral of Dolley Madison, no First Lady’s funeral was attended by former or incumbent Presidents and First Ladies.
During that interim, there was one notable and ironic form of recognition of a First Lady upon news of her death. When President Chester Arthur received word that Mary Lincoln had died on July 16, 1882, he ordered all flags flown at half-staff. An overview of public reaction suggests, however, that this was more out of respect for her martyred and legendary husband President Abraham Lincoln than it was for the intelligent but sharp-tongued abolitionist herself.
Upon the death of Julia Grant, a woman many considered to have been a rival of Mrs. Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt revived the custom set by Taylor for Mrs. Madison by paying respects at her funeral and burial ceremony at the famous tomb in New York City built as her husband’s resting place. Roosevelt was a longtime friend of one of her sons and had also come to know Mrs. Grant well when they both lived in New York. Edith Roosevelt did not accompany him.
May 29, 1907, Canton, Ohio
Attendees: President Theodore Roosevelt
The only incumbent President to attend the funeral of two First Ladies, Theodore Roosevelt owed his being chosen as the vice presidential candidate on the 1900 Republican ticket with incumbent President William McKinley to First Lady Ida McKinley’s trust of him when he was a colonel during the Spanish-American War. Since McKinley’s 1901 assassination, President Roosevelt had continued to be in touch with Ida McKinley to check on her fragile recovery. In addition, President Roosevelt was joined at the former First Lady’s funeral by Vice President Charles Fairbanks, the only such woman who was honored by having a president and vice president attend her funeral. The funeral was private, held in the McKinley home, and her coffin was conveyed to a holding vault in Westlawn Cemetery, beside her husband. That September the large McKinley Monument would be completed and the couple was re-interred there.
There was then a stretch of over half a century during which no Presidents or First Ladies, incumbent or former, attended the next nine funerals of First Ladies: Ellen Wilson (1914), Lucretia Garfield (1918), Florence Harding (1924), Lou Hoover (1944) Nellie Taft (1944), Frances Cleveland (1948), Edith Roosevelt (1948), Grace Coolidge (1957), Edith Wilson (1961).
November 10, 1962, Hyde Park, New York
Attendees: Incumbent President John F. Kennedy, former President Harry Truman, former President Dwight Eisenhower, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, former First Lady Bess Truman, (future President Lyndon Johnson and future First Lady Lady Bird Johnson)
In proportion to her importance as not just as a former First Lady of the United States but as “First Lady of the World,” the nickname she was dubbed with by Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral commanded the presence not only of the incumbent President but two former ones (it is unclear whether her former nemesis, Herbert Hoover was invited or chose not to attend due to frail health, dying two years later). While Bess Truman came with her husband, Mamie Eisenhower did not come with hers.
November 3, 1979, Abilene, Kansas
Attendees: former President Richard Nixon, former First Lady Pat Nixon, incumbent First Lady Rosalynn Carter
Mamie Eisenhower’s funeral and burial was held at the Place of Meditation, part of the complex forming the Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum. Among those attending were Rosalynn Carter, who thus became the first incumbent First Lady to attend such a funeral and burial without the President. The event was also one of the few public appearances ever made by former First Lady Pat Nixon, following the 1974 resignation of her husband from the presidency. Former President Richard Nixon accompanied her. The presence of both Nixons was not merely out of official duty but also familial loyalty, their daughter being married to Mamie Eisenhower’s grandson David.
October 21, 1982, Independence, Missouri
Attendees: Incumbent First Lady Nancy Reagan, former First Lady Betty Ford, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter
Bess Truman’s funeral was held in the same church where she had married Harry Truman, Trinity Episcopal Church. Her only child Margaret Truman assumed control of the event and invited four First Ladies, the incumbent Nancy Reagan, and formers Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford. As it turned out, Mrs. Onassis was in China and Mrs. Johnson was at the Mayo Clinic for an annual session of health tests and were unable to attend. For whatever reason, Margaret Truman had a hostile resentment towards former President and Mrs. Carter and rudely left the latter off the invitation list. Honoring the tradition established by Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower funerals, Mrs. Carter upheld the tradition and joined the two others.
June 26, 1993, Yorba Linda, California
Attendees: former President Richard Nixon, former President Gerald Ford, former President Ronald Reagan, former First Lady Betty Ford, former First Lady Nancy Reagan
Richard Nixon was the first former president who survived his wife since Herbert Hoover’s wife Lou had died in 1944. It was at Mrs. Nixon’s funeral that the famously stoic Nixon broke down in public and wept openly. He would die ten months to the day. Two former presidential couples who lived in southern California appeared at the service and burial at the Nixon Library in Orange County, the Reagans and the Fords attended, coming from their homes in Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
May 23, 1994, New York, New York
Attendees: incumbent President Bill Clinton, incumbent First Lady Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis insisted that, at least from her perspective, she had long since ceased being a bona fide public figure. It was thus by specific invitation that two women she had become close with, former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and the incumbent First Lady Hillary Clinton, were in attendance at her funeral mass at St. Ignatius Loyola, in New York City, the same Catholic church where the late First Lady had been baptized and attended Sunday mass as Jackie Bouvier. At her burial service in Arlington National Cemetery, incumbent President Bill Clinton joined her friends and family.
Lady Bird Johnson
July 14, 2007, Austin, Texas
Attendees: former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush
A record number of her colleagues attended the funeral of the woman who had been the senior member for so many years. The funeral service took place at the Riverbend Church, in Austin, Texas. Between 2001 and Mrs. Johnson’s death in 2007, there were also a record number of eight living First Ladies. It was also the second time that two former presidents attended a First Lady’s funeral. By then, Betty Ford was too frail to attend the final goodbye to her friend and her daughter Susan attended as her representative.
July 12, 2011, Palm Desert, California and Grand Rapids, Michigan
Attendees: (1) incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush, former First Ladies Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, and Rosalynn Carter; (2) former President Bill Clinton, former First Ladies Laura Bush and Barbara Bush
A First Lady who had developed particularly strong friendships among her fellow First Ladies, Mrs. Ford’s farewell was marked by more of them, five former and one incumbent for a total of six First Ladies, in addition to two former presidents. What also made her funeral and burial unique was that it took place in two separate places. The funeral was held at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, in Palm Desert, California and then the burial took place was held at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids where Mrs. Ford was laid beside her husband.
Also at the desert funeral were the daughters of LBJ and Nixon, the niece of JFK – and the author of this article.
Especially unique was the fact that Betty Ford had requested that her friend and fellow former First Lady Rosalynn Carter deliver her eulogy.
Categories: First Ladies