White House Weddings: And which Adams brother will marry their first cousin?

Published 3:43 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023

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By Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

The first installment about White House weddings was about the only President oto be wed in the White House.

The wedding of 49-year-old President Grove Cleveland and 21-year-old, Frances Folsom occurred on June 2, 1886.

To this day, Cleveland is the only a president to have been married in the White House, but that wedding was not the first or the only wedding in that beautiful building.

The first White House wedding was on March 29, 1812. The bride was Lucy Payne Washington, the sister of Dolley Madison and the widow of George Steptoe Washington, the nephew of Gen. George Washington.

Steptoe Washington died when he was 37, leaving his young wife and four children.  Lucy lived at the White House with her sister, Dolley Madison, after the death of her husband. That is where she met Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd. That meeting resulted in the first White House wedding, which was held in the Blue Room.

No one loved to entertain more than Dolley Madison so she was really in her element when her sister agreed that her wedding could be held in her home, the White House.

The Blue Room was decorated beyond compare, and the reception fwas perfect in every way.  The day after, the newlyweds left for Harewood,  Shenandoah Valley plantation, which had been the home of Lucy’s first husband.

During the War of 1812, the British troops marched to the nation’s capital and set the White House on fire. Dolley Madison, who the troops had hoped to capture, fled just in time. The year was 1814 and all that was left of the White House when the fire was extinguished by a thunderstorm was the blackened outside walls. The Madisons were never able to return to the White House to live. They lived for the rest of President Madison’s term in the Octagon House which is not too far from the White House.  Mrs. Madison was able to continue entertaining just as she had done in the White House.

There was not another wedding there until March 9, 1820, when Maria Hester Monroe, the daughter of President James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortwright Monroe, married her first cousin, Samuel L. Gouverneur.  The restoration of the White House had been completed in 1817 so the building was in good condition when Maria Monroe decided to have her wedding.  The wedding of the president’s daughter caused a bit of feud with the Diplomatic Corp because the Monroes did not follow the protocols which the previous First Ladies had established.  The Diplomatic Corp was not invited to the Monroe/Gouverneur wedding which was considered an insult. The diplomats and their wives were not even invited to a reception to congratulate the newlyweds.  Such treatment did not help the relationship between the Diplomatic Corp and the Monroe administration.

All of that did not have any effect on the wedding itself which is believed to have been held in the Blue Room though some writers believe that the wedding was held in the unfinished East Room. The Blue Room was decorated in the French style furniture with which the Monroes had come so enambured when he served as envoy to France.  President Monroe ordered great quantities of French furniture for the White House.

The following is a description of the furnishings of the Blue Room from the book, “White House Brides” by Marie Smith and Louise Durbin:  “The furniture was upholstered in light crimson satin. Matching taffeta curtains were draped over a gilt arch centered by a gilded eagle holding an olive branch in one claw and a sheaf of arrows in the other.  The room was heighted by a magnificent crystal and gilt bronze chandelier with 50 candles and entwined with crimson cloth.  Sconces in the shape of gilded eagles were on the walls.”

After the ceremony there was a dinner to which 42 family friends were invited.  When President Monroe completed his second term, Maria and her husband moved with her parents to Oak Hill, the Monroe Plantation in Loudoun County, Va., and later moved with her parents to New York, where Gouverneur served as postmaster.

The next White House wedding did not occur until 1828 when John Adams II married Mary Catherine Hellen in the Blue Room. John Adams II is the only son of a president to be wed in the White House.

The story of their marriage is tumultuous. John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine, had three sons, George, John and Charles Francis, and all three fell in love with the flirtatious Mary Catherine Hellen, their first cousin.  Mary Catherine was the orphaned daughter of Louisa Adams’ sister, Nancy Johnson Hellen. Louisa Catherine, the wife of John Quincy Adams, cared for Mary Catherine and her siblings.  The Hellen children lived at the White House throughout John Quincy Adams’ term.

George, the oldest Adams son, graduated from Harvard and was living in Boston and reading law in Daniel Webster’s office.   Mary Catherine was fascinated by the handsome older man who was taken with her delightful ways.  In the summer of 1923, George asked his father’s consent to become engaged. Mr. Adams asked some questions and then agreed.

Even after Mary Catherine was engaged to his older brother, Charles Francis could not shake off his infatuation for his cousin.  Mary Catherine seemed to enjoy her power over Charles Francis when he came home from Harvard, even though she was engaged to his brother.

To complicated matters, John, the second son who was living at the White House and studying law under the guidance of his father because he had been expelled from Harvard when he participated during a student rebellion in 1823, became infatuated with Mary Catherine.  As the romance between John II and Mary Catherine was going on in Washington, the two brothers who lived in Boston often got together, but Charles Francis could not bring himself to tell George what he thought was going on between John and Mary Catherine.

Mrs. Adams was aware of all that was going on, and she told the former president that John and Mary Catherine should get married right away. Mr. Adams couldn’t bring himself to approve such a marriage. The engagement was on-again, off again, and, then, Mrs. Adams announced the news of the wedding date, Feb. 25, 1828. On that date, John and Mary Catherine were married in the oval drawing room.

When the wedding was over, according to his brother, Charles Francis, “John looked like he had all the cares of the world on his shoulders.” Charles Francis then added, “My heart tells me that there is much to fear.” A little over a year later a baby girl, Mary Louisa, was born to the young couple, which made the grandparents proud.

Mrs. Adams had hoped there would be a family reconciliation after the wedding but that did not happen. George, to whom Mary Catherine was first engaged, was lonely.  He became rundown physically and mentally and became an alcoholic. While traveling via ship to visit his parents, he became deranged and either fell or jumped overboard and drowned.  His death left the family totally distraught.

To add  to the family’s trials, John Quincy Adams, and his son, John II, took over a mill which had belonged to a relative.  John II became the manager. The business was a failure and John’s health also failed.  The handsome John Adams II died when he was 31. Before John’s death, another daughter, who was named Georgianna Frances, had been born to the young couple. Mary Catherine and the two girls lived with their grandparents after John II’s death.

To add to the family’s tragedies, Georgiana Frances died when she was9.  Mary Louisa and her mother continued to live with the grandparents, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. They found some happiness from having their granddaughter with them.  John II, who was not allowed to return to Harvard to finish his education after his participation in the student rebellion, was given his Harvard degree posthumously by the Harvard Corporation.

That probably did not help the Adams family much after all the problems with which they had had to deal.