First Lady Frances Cleveland: Biography, Marriage & Quotes

Instructor: Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer is a third year PhD student in women's studies and has a a Master's degree in History.

This lesson will explore the life of Frances Folsom Cleveland. This first lady was the youngest ever and the only one to be married in the White House.

Frances Folsom Cleveland

Chased by paparazzi, staked out at her own wedding, her every move scrutinized and copied. Her face put on advertisements and products. Princess Diana? Nope. These occurrences sound like something that could happen to one of many famous women we know today, but they describe the life of Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

Early Life

Frances Folsom was born July 21, 1864, in Buffalo, New York, the only child of Oscar and Emma Folsom. As one of Buffalo's upper-class families, the Folsoms' wealth allowed Frances to be educated at the best private schools. However, this comfortable life came to an end when Oscar was killed in a carriage accident in 1874.

A lawyer by trade, one of Oscar's partners was Grover Cleveland, who was also a close friend of the family. So close, he even bought Frances's first baby carriage. As such, he was named the executor of Oscar's estate.

Frances and her mother were financially secure, and she continued her education, entering Wells College in 1882. This was one of the few colleges at the time offering an academic program for women. There, she studied many subjects but took a particular interest in political science.

Becoming First Lady

While Frances was busy pursuing her education, Grover was busy getting elected president in 1884 at the age of 47. Frances graduated from Wells less than a year later. It was around this time that she and her mother visited the White House at his invitation. Frances and Grover had been corresponding ever since her father's death, and they had become very close, despite their age difference.

The White House visit prompted speculation that Grover, a bachelor, was going to propose to Emma, Frances's mother. However, he had already proposed to Frances. She accepted the proposal, but before the marriage embarked on a nine-month European tour with her mother to gain some worldly experience.

Frances Folsom, ca.1886
frances 2886

On June 2, 1886, Frances and Grover were married in the Blue Room of the White House when she was 21 and he was 49. They are the only president and first lady to ever be married in the White House. She became an instant celebrity - her image was used in advertisements, babies were named after her and her style was even copied.

An advertising card from a fabric store featuring Frances Cleveland, ca.1886
Cleveland advertising card

So great was her popularity, that a false rumor that Cleveland abused her was disseminated by his political enemies. Frances wouldn't stand for this kind of attack on her husband, and so she wrote an open letter, published in papers across the country, in which she said that all American women should have husbands ''as kind, attentive and considerate, and affectionate as mine.''

Drawing of the marriage of Frances and Grover Cleveland, from Harpers Weekly, 1886
wedding

Life in the White House

In 1887, Francis joined her husband on a train tour where she was greeted by cheering crowds of people at every stop. However, her popularity caused problems, too. She and her husband had to stop shaking hands after they were overwhelmed in Atlanta; this prompted threats from people desperate to greet them. In Chicago, the crowds surged around them, prompting police to start beating the crowds and the cavalry to charge them on their horses.

Frank, as she was called by her family, was keenly interested in politics and followed what was happening in Congress, sometimes watching from the gallery as legislation was debated. In fact, her image began appearing on election posters in the hopes that her popularity would rub off. However, her husband was defeated in the presidential election of 1888 by Benjamin Harrison. This prompted Frances's most famous quote. When they left the White House, she told the staff to take care of the place because ''We are coming back just four years from today.''

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