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Angelica Van Buren - First Lady

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When Martin Van Buren moved into the executive mansion in 1837, he had been a widower for nearly two decades. No first lady, then, took up residence in the White House with the new president. But during Van Buren’s tenure, his eldest son Abraham met, and eventually married, Angelica Singleton. Angelica moved into the White House in 1839 with her husband and fulfilled many of the first lady’s duties during the second half of the Van Buren presidency.

During his first two years in office, Van Buren played the role of White House host, which traditionally had been assumed by the first lady. During the previous decade Van Buren had earned a reputation among Washington socialites as a gentleman who enjoyed entertaining. In his first year in office, however, Van Buren was so consumed with work, and especially the economic panic, that he hosted his first major social event in January 1838, nine months after assuming the presidency. Thereafter, Van Buren began to host more events. And even though he did not hold grand parties at the White House early in his presidency, Van Buren very much enjoyed smaller private affairs, both at his home and as a guest, with a variety of political friends as well as rivals, such as John Quincy Adams.

In November 1838, the marriage of Angelica Singleton to Abraham Van Buren changed the social scene at the White House. The couple met through the good efforts of former first lady Dolley Madison. Madison, who had moved back to the capital city after her husband’s death in 1836, lived in a Lafayette Square home across from the White House and quickly became the grande dame of Washington society. She was also a distant relative of Angelica Singleton, whom she brought to the White House in March 1838 for a private dinner with the Van Buren men. The President’s eldest son, Abraham Van Buren, was captivated by the beautiful South Carolinian and soon proposed marriage; the two wed within a matter of months. Martin Van Buren approved of the match. After a honeymoon in England, Abraham and Angelica Van Buren moved into the White House. Angelica subsequently became the White House hostess, a role she both enjoyed and handled with much success. Her teas and balls were popular with the ladies of Washington and her personality and appearance charmed even the famously prickly French minister Adolphe Fourier de Bacourt, who lavished praise on her. Most historians believe that President Van Buren truly appreciated both Angelica’s company and her assistance with social duties of the presidency.

Angelica’s time at the White House was also marked by personal tragedy, however. In 1839, she became pregnant, giving birth in March of the following year to a little girl, Rebecca. But both mother and daughter were ill for several months following the birth, and Rebecca passed away at the White House in the fall of 1840. Angelica and Abraham had three sons after they left the White House. During those years, they maintained close relations with former President Van Buren. Angelica Singleton Van Buren died in 1878.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Joel Silbey

Professor Silbey is the President White Professor of History, Emeritus at Cornell University. His writings include:

The American Political Nation, 1838–1893 (Stanford University Press, 1991)

Respectable Minority: the Democratic Party in the Civil War Era 1860–1868 (W. W. Norton & Co (Sd), 1977)