Daily Archives: September 15, 2009

Remembering Angelica Singleton Van Buren (1817 – 1859) by Gregory Hilton

A beautiful 21 year old girl from South Carolina arrived at the White House in 1838, and in some respects, she is still there. The White House collection has many priceless paintings but art historians agree that the most valuable portrait is of Angelica Singleton Van Buren, who served as First Lady for her widowed father-in-law, President Martin Van Buren. He was the first President born in the United States. The painting is seen by every tourist because for over a century it has been hung above the mantle in the Red Room. The marble bust of Van Buren seen in the painting is also in the room.
Angelica’s cousin was the grande dame of Washington society, former First Lady Dolley Madison. Dolley lived in a Lafayette Square home across from the White House, which still stands. Mrs. Madison was a well known matchmaker, and finding a suitor for her attractive and intelligent cousin was not difficult. Angelica had attended school in Philadelphia where her favorite subjects were history and “deportment.” Dolley advised her cousin to read newspapers because “men here always talk about politics.”
When Angelica arrived for the 1837 social season, Dolley already had a candidate in mind. Angelica and the President’s youngest son, Smith, were the same age, and the boy was tall, handsome and had a good job. Unfortunately there was no chemistry between them and one reason was Smith’s lack of interest in politics. He gave Angelica good advice in saying his older brother Abram, 31, would be able to talk to her. Angelica and Abram were married 8 months later.
On their honeymoon, Angelica and Abram met Queen Victoria and King Louis Philippe of France. They lived in a room at the White House which is today known as the Queen’s Bedroom. Van Buren is the founder of the modern Democratic Party. His nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” but it was often shortened to “O.K.” a phrase still in common use today.
An episode of Seinfeld was named “The Van Buren Boys.” Kramer tells Jerry about “The Van Buren Boys” street gang. Jerry asks, “There’s a street gang named after President Martin Van Buren.” Kramer replies: “Oh yeah, and they’re just as mean as he was!”
You can read more about the Van Buren’s in, “ A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation.”