Today, first ladies play a prominent role in the American political landscape: They make speeches, lead campaigns, and even go on book tours. For over 100 years, the First Lady has always been the wife of the president, leading many people to believe that the two designations are one and the same. However, the title of “First Lady” simply refers to the official hostess of the White House. It could be the president’s sister, daughter, or niece, and by no means has to be the president’s wife. And, in the event that the president is unmarried, it can’t be.
Throughout the history of the American presidency, there has only been one Commander-in-Chief who never married. Shortly before the Civil War, in 1856, Americans elected single Democrat James Buchanan to the office. The bachelorhood of the 15th president actually came about under sad, puzzling circumstances. When Buchanan was 28, he was engaged to a woman named Anne Coleman, but he broke off the engagement. Coleman died suddenly less than a year later, and Buchanan remained unmarried for the remainder of his life.
As for his First Lady, his niece Harriet Lane took on the hostess responsibilities. Despite Buchanan’s overwhelming unpopularity as a president, Lane was actually one of the best-liked first ladies of pre-Civil War America, according to History.com. Here are some more facts you never knew about America’s first ladies.
Buchanan was not, however, the only president whose First Lady during his term was not his wife—nor was he even the only bachelor elected to the presidency. A few presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren, took office as widowers. Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and Van Buren’s daughter-in-law, Angelica Singleton Van Buren, acted as the primary White House hostesses. Seventh president Andrew Jackson’s wife passed away after his election, but before his swearing-in. Emily Donelson, the niece of his late wife, stepped up to take on the role.
As for the only other bachelor to become president, he was also the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, Grover Cleveland. Though he was single when he took office in 1885, Cleveland married during his presidency, his new wife Frances Folsom taking over First Lady duties from his sister, Rose.
So the precedent has been set in the event that the Commander-in-Chief is a bachelor. Now, it seems like well past time to learn what changes will befall the First Lady title in the event that a woman becomes president! Will her husband be the “First Gentleman”? Will there still be an acting first lady, perhaps a family member or friend of the president? While these are questions for future presidents, read on for these fascinating facts you never knew about past U.S. presidents.