“Blessed Be the Union”

June 12, 1886

Thomas Nast

“Blessed Be the Union”

Civil Service Reform/Patronage; Home Life; Symbols, Cupid; Symbols, Democratic Tiger; Women, Wives;

Cleveland, Frances Folsom; Cleveland, Grover;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

More Civil Service Reform

The cover of this postdated issue of Harper's Weekly hit newsstands on June 2, 1886; the day President Grover Cleveland wed Frances Folsom.  The event was only the second wedding of a sitting president and the first and only one to occur at the White House (in 1844, John and Julia Tyler married in New York City during his term).  Frances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest first lady (21 years old), and one of the most popular, in American history.

Frances Folsom was born in Buffalo, New York, the only child of Emma and Oscar Folsom, the law partner of Grover Cleveland.  Her father died when she was 11 years old, and Cleveland became executor of the Folsom estate and acted as her guardian (without legal obligation).  She continued to live with her mother, but Cleveland doted on the girl and remained close friends with her mother.  After Frances entered Wells College, Cleveland received Mrs. Folsom's permission to court her daughter, a fact the New York governor and presidential candidate kept private.  The Folsoms did not attend Cleveland's presidential inauguration in March 1885, but after graduating that spring Frances Folsom soon accepted Cleveland's secret proposal of marriage.  

During the close presidential election of 1884, Cleveland had weathered revelations that he had previously fathered a child out of wedlock (by Maria Halpin).  Once in office, speculation arose about the marriage prospects for the nation's first bachelor president since James Buchanan (1857-1861), and quickly focused on Mrs. Folsom.  When she left for Europe with her daughter in late 1885, the press was certain that Emma Folsom was off to buy her wedding trousseau, and they besieged the ship when the Folsoms returned to New York on May 27, 1886.  The next day, the White House issued a brief statement that the president was not engaged to Mrs. Folsom, but to her daughter, Frances.

The small but elegant event saw the White House festooned in flowers, and John Philip Sousa leading the Marine Band.  The guest list was limited to family, close friends, plus cabinet officers and their wives.  Journalists were barred from the wedding (except for a last minute glimpse at the floral displays), and participants refused interviews, none of which precluded the press from covering the story from the preparations to the honeymoon.

Harper's Weekly ran this cover cartoon featuring a winking cupid ringing the "Union Bell" at the White House front door, and a short editorial praising the simplicity of the ceremony, wishing the couple congratulations, and razzing the intrusions and inventions of the press.  The editor may have had in mind the journal's top competitor, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, whose June 12 cover shows Mrs. Folsom kissing her daughter, the bride, with the president shaking hands in the background.  By contrast, Nast's cartoon for Harper's implicitly acknowledges press exclusion and respects the couple’s privacy by use of the mythical cupid and incorporation of the political sub-theme of civil service reform (the lurking Democratic Tiger is starving for spoils).  Yet, the publishers of Harper's Weekly dedicated much of the issue to illustrations and stories related to the wedding.

Despite the best efforts of the Clevelands, Frances Folsom Cleveland became an instant celebrity, affectionately called "Frankie" (a name she despised).  She was so mobbed by admirers at public events that the president feared for her safety.  She received thousands of fan letters, inspired fashion imitators, and prompted periodicals to report and illustrate her every move.  In November 1887, for instance, Harper's Weekly published an illustration of her greeting working women at the opening ceremony for an establishment providing educational, social, and practical opportunities for factory workers.  Although Frances Cleveland refused to champion any particular cause (as Lucy Hayes had with temperance), she did encourage working women to attend weekly receptions at the White House and set a personal example of temperance (while allowing wine to be served).

Businessmen quickly realized the marketing potential of the young, pretty, and vivacious first lady.  Without her permission, her "endorsement" and image appeared on an array of products, including candy, perfume, face cream, liver pills, ashtrays, and women's undergarments.  The problem became so widespread that one of the president's supporters introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit using the image of any real woman without her express written permission.  The bill's failure left the Cleveland's with no legal recourse, so they could only plead with businesses, usually to no avail, to cease and desist.

President Cleveland professed that "a woman should not bother her head about political parties and public questions," yet once used his wife in an overtly political manner.  In the presidential election year of 1888, the president called Congress into special session to enact his proposal for a lower tariff.  During House debates on the bill, Frances Cleveland sat noticeably in the visitors' gallery to lend tacit support to her husband.  Although the bill failed, her act of political symbolism was a marked departure from the normal behavior of past first ladies.

Cleveland's political enemies spread rumors about his wife in order to discredit him.  A Republican after-dinner speaker gave credence to the fiction that Frances Cleveland was having an affair with newspaper editor Henry Watterson (the two had simply attended the theater together).  Just before the 1888 Democratic National Convention, Democratic opponents of Cleveland published accusations that the president beat his wife and mother-in-law.  The first lady was forced into the unique position of issuing a formal statement denying the allegation, and praising her husband's tenderness and affection.  Her mother dismissed the charge as " a foolish campaign ploy without a shadow of foundation."

Against the Clevelands' wishes, Frances Folsom Cleveland's image appeared on numerous campaign paraphernalia, such as flags, posters, handbills, plates, ribbons, handkerchiefs, napkins, and playing cards.  One poster even placed her portrait between that of her husband and his running mate, Allen Thurman.  The pervasive merchandizing of Mrs. Cleveland was unprecedented; only in two limited cases had the likeness of a wife of a presidential candidate been used before (a medallion of Jesse Frémont in 1856 and a poster of Lucy Hayes in 1876).  In response, the Republicans placed Caroline Harrison's picture on posters.  Although they could not vote, women were very active in campaigns, and in 1888, Democratic women across the country organized themselves into Frances Cleveland Influence Clubs.

After Grover Cleveland lost in 1888, his wife reportedly told a servant to keep the White House in good repair because they would return four years later, and so they did.  Frances Folsom Cleveland was apparently not featured as much in the 1892 campaign, but she remained a very popular focus of press and public attention.  This was especially true when the couple's second and third children, Ester and Marion, were born in the White House (1893 and 1895).  Ester was the first child born in the White House, and her older sister, Ruth, was the inspiration for the Baby Ruth candy bar.  During her husband's second term, Mrs. Cleveland became the first presidential wife to pay a call on a head of state (the queen regent of Spain visiting Washington).

Being 28 years younger than her husband, Frances Folsom Cleveland outlived the former president by many years (he died in 1908).  She became the first widowed First Lady to remarry when she wed Thomas Preston, an archeology professor, in 1913.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Blessed Be the Union”
June 17, 2024

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