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Lucretia Garfield - First Lady

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Lucretia "Crete" Rudolph Garfield was well educated and shared her love of learning with others. She graduated from the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio, as did her husband. She also taught school and was a member of a Washington, D.C., literary club. She loved translating Greek and Latin, exposed her children to the classics, and was an intellectual partner to her husband. A devoted wife and mother, Crete was equally comfortable in a literary salon and at home; nevertheless, she avoided the Washington social circuit during the twenty years her husband served as a congressman. Thus, when James A. Garfield became President in 1880, Lucretia was an inexperienced and anxious hostess who viewed both her husband's new duties and her own as a "terrible responsibility."Although ignorant about matters of protocol and social niceties, Lucretia Garfield was well aware of their importance in her new role. As a result, she tapped Mrs. James Blaine, a popular society matron and wife of Garfield's secretary of state, for tips on surviving the social whirl of Washington -- both in the reception line and outside of it. Indeed, Crete soon discovered that the social scene could be highly political as temperance organizations lobbied her to ban spirits from White House events. Teetotalers had found a sympathetic ear in former First Lady Lucy Hayes and encouraged Lucretia Garfield to follow her predecessor's lead. But Crete did not like the fanaticism of the temperance devotees and was concerned that foreign officials would view a dry Garfield administration as provincial. After careful consideration, risking the loss of some Republican supporters, spirits were reinstated at White House entertainments.

Though she recognized the importance of being a social leader, Lucretia was more comfortable being a political wife. Highly attuned to the issues of the day, she quietly supported women's equality, believing such treatment to be a right, not a privilege. She was well aware of the frustrations that motherhood imposed on women with professional interests; a few years before becoming First Lady, she noted how "horrible" it was "to be a man, but the grinding misery of being a woman between the upper and nether millstone of household cares and training children is almost as bad." Crete realized that if a woman was "half civilized with some aspirations for enlightenment and obliged to spend the largest part of the time the victim of young barbarians," she would be in a state of "perpetual ferment." She therefore strove for symmetry in her own life. Crete balanced her domestic responsibilities as wife, mother, and First Lady with intellectual challenges as the President's political partner. She spoke with the press and frequently engaged her husband in political discussions. She even took on the historical refurbishment of the presidential mansion.

By the time the Garfields occupied the White House, the executive residence was in a state of deplorable disrepair. But Lucretia wanted to do more than just turn it into a comfortable home for her family, she wanted to refurbish the White House in a way that reflected the building's rich history. As a result, she not only lobbied Congress for funds to fix the mansion's structural problems but also spent hours in the Congressional Library researching White House rooms, ensuring that work done on the building would be historically accurate. She then used her new home to draw attention to the arts, inviting authors, artists, poets, and sculptors to the White House to entertain and to enlighten invited guests.

As First Lady, Lucretia was gracious but tough. She refused to be intimidated by snobbish social matrons or by groups seeking her patronage. It was a stance her husband praised: "Crete grows up to every new emergency with fine tact and faultless taste." Although tough-minded, Lucretia was often weak physically, pursuing her projects between illnesses. She nearly died in May 1881, owing to a bout of malaria; during this time, the President canceled appointments and personally nursed the First Lady through her sickness. By mid-June, Lucretia was well enough to travel to the New Jersey shore. Within two weeks of her departure, however -- ignoring the demands of her own convalescence -- she rushed back to Washington via a special train to be with her husband. It was he who now faced probable death. On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau, a lunatic often simply described as a "disappointed office-seeker," shot James Garfield. Crete was at her husband's side constantly, exhibiting a calm courage for both the President and the nation. It is not clear whether she forestalled talk of Vice President Chester Arthur assuming the duties of the wounded Garfield. But such a discussion seems not to have taken place, and Garfield -- at least on paper -- continued to run the government. Although at times the President seemed to rally, he lost his struggle and died on September 19, 1881. Because her husband's presidency was cut short, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield will be remembered mostly for her loving devotion to her dying husband. Yet Crete was much more than simply a helpmate and a nurse; she was also a scholar and an intellectual, a fitting role model for future First Ladies who wanted to be more than just their husbands' wives and their nation's social hostesses.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Justus Doenecke

Professor Doenecke is a professor emeritus of history at the New College of Florida. His writings include:

The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (University Press of Kansas, 1981)

Debating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Foreign Policies, 1933–1945 (With Mark S. Stoler, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005)