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Angelica Van Buren

Angelica Van Buren

Stories about Angelica Van Buren

    Among the most revealing of documents from Angelica Van Buren’s personal library, now part of the University of South Carolina library’s collections is a bound volume that served as a yearbook for 1831 of sorts, during her time at the Grelaud Seminary. Selected by her classmates as that year’s “Queen of May” suggests she was personally popular. There is a lengthy “Address spoken by Miss A.L. Person to the Queen of May Miss Sarah Angelica Singleton, May 1 [18]31.”

    The “Reply” to this was composed not by Angelica but rather her English teacher, Edward Clayson. It wittily acknowledges not only her physical beauty and the trademark curls which she would always wear, hanging alongside her cheeks down to her chin line, but also her family wealth – and how wise she was to the fact that it made her vulnerable to potential exploitation by male fortune-hunters:"Queen Angelique…Is not so weak… As some folks please to think….Men don't wed girls…For eyes or curls…But court them for their Cash."

    Some of the books which she retained throughout her life were those she obtained and used while at the Grelaud Seminary, including anthologies. Some of these included biographies of the likes of Englishmen Milton, Pope, Swift, and others reflected popular British authors like Mary Shelley, Sir Walter Scott and Byron. In congregate, they suggest an early love of literature and poetry, with a preference for British works over those by Americans. The rigorous education at the Grelaud Seminary also included natural sciences and biology. Among the other books which Angelica retained was one given her in 1835 by her brother-in-law on the study of phrenology, a theoretical science which claimed that physical and mental health might be determined by the study of a person’s skull.

    A book from Angelica Van Buren’s extensive library. (University of South Carolina Library)

    Angelica Van Buren’s education at the Grelaud Seminary and life in Philadelphia, however, influenced her life beyond the learning of subjects. Many families of the wealthy, Southern plantation class strongly gravitated to Philadelphia, which was becoming a base for conservative and more traditional political sensibilities, in reaction to the power of the movement to empower the working-class. The social, business and cultural interactions of elite southern families and those of Philadelphia helped forge an emerging “upper-class” American culture for the first time, which was less defined by regionalism or ancestry than by wealth and inter-marriage into other elite families. Part of this emerging “upper-class” identity was the “French-centered” education, a status symbol restricted to all but the wealthy. Those seeking to establish access to education for all classes of women charged that Grelaud seminary, and others like it were introducing an anti-democratic element into the national culture and that the emphasis on European culture diminished the new nation’s perception among its own emerging generations of wealthy and educated leaders.

    Angelica Van Buren was also taught the traditional arts of music, dancing and sewing. Her letters from this period show that she developed a deeper interest in the composition, design and execution of luxurious clothing than was typical of her contemporaries. It is uncertain if she created much of her own clothing but, following the completion of her Grelaud Seminary studies, she began an active social life which would have traditionally required a large trousseau.

    One of Angelica Van Buren's gowns. (Van Buren Historical Site

    With her sister Marion, Angelica Singleton spent the 1836-1837 “social season,” (which ran from late November through spring) in Richmond, living with her mother’s sister [Sarah] Sally Coles Stevenson, at which time she underwent her formal social debut in that city. While there, Angelica was first introduced to the role women were increasingly beginning to play in organizing and managing public charities. Although she resented Sally Stevenson’s effort to involve her support for the aunt’s work in helping to fund and provide support for a Richmond orphanage, it was due more to the fact that she felt forced to purchase items used for the fundraising, rather than the idea of private support for institutions or the cause itself.

    With Marion, Angelica Singleton spent the 1837-1838 social season in the nation's capital with another first cousin of their mother, U.S. Senator William Campbell Preston. It was another first cousin of their mother, former First Lady Dolley Madison, then living in Washington across the street from the White House, who introduced the Singleton sisters to Washington society. The high point was an invitation to accompany Mrs. Madison to a private White House dinner in March 1838 with President Martin Van Buren and the three sons then living there with him, Abraham, Martin and Smith. Marion Singleton found the President’s sons to be “pleasant, unpretentious, unpretending, civil amiable young men.” An immediate and genuine attraction developed between Abraham Van Buren and Angelica Singleton and despite knowing each other briefly, he asked her to marry him and she readily accepted.


    22 years old, on 27 November 1838, to Abraham Van Buren (born 27 November 1807, died 15 March 1873) at the Singleton estate Home Place.

    Angelica Singleton at the time of her marriage. (Library of Congress)

    Married by the Reverend Augustus L. Converse on the groom’s 31st birthday, his father the President was unable to attend the ceremony. Abraham Van Buren, an 1827 graduate of West Point where his fellow classmates included the future Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee. A career military officer, he rose in rank from second lieutenant to captain over a period of seven years. While his father was running for President in 1836, Abraham served in the Seminole Indian War.

    The President reportedly approved of the marriage and the ties it brought between the White House and the powerful Southern aristocracy. As a northern Democrat, he was finding himself in an increasingly politically tenuous situation between the abolitionist sentiments of the New York machine that had supported and elected him and the rising hostility of southern Democrats who resolved to strengthen states rights as the way to ensure that slavery continued to support their agrarian economic system.

    First Lady:

    Days after her wedding ceremony in South Carolina, Angelica Van Buren proceeded to Washington with her husband, and moved into his suite at the White House where he worked with his brothers Martin and Smith as one of their father’s private secretaries. Settling into the presidential household just as the 1838-1839 social season began, the beginning her tenure as First Lady for more than half of the Van Buren Administration. The President’s new daughter-in-law was escorted by him into formal dinners and seated with the place of honor as the woman of highest-ranking, a status that would have been accorded a wife. She received the general public at the 1839 New Year’s Day Reception, receiving people in the oval state room (not yet decorated in blue or so designated by that color). A _Boston Post _reporter observing her behavior at the event noted that she was “free and vivacious in her conversation” and believed she was “universally admired” by the public crowds which met her. He assessed her as being “a lady of rare accomplishments.”

    The Oval Room on the state floor some 16 years after Angelica Van Buren received guests there. (Gleason's Illustrated Newspaper)

    Winning praise during her initial period as First Lady in 1838-1839, Angelica Van Buren modeled her public conduct and followed the societal regulations established by Dolley Madison, evidence that she consciously sought this advice from her mother’s cousin being a rather breathless March 8, 1839 note which she sent by messenger to the former First Lady, writing “I am very anxious to see you for a few minutes top consult with you on a very important matter.”

    While completing her schedule of spring 1839 public appearances as First Lady, Angelica Van Buren was also preparing for her delayed honeymoon, a lengthy tour of Europe, purchasing clothing as well as reading materials for what to anticipate. Among the books she bought was one of American author James Fenimore Cooper’s five travelogue works, written as a series of fictional letters from European countries to friends back in the states, _Gleanings in Europe _(1837). It is unclear if her impending trip is what inspired her purchase of the autobiography of King Henri IV’s primary advisor and a volume of the lives of French nobility in the era of Louis XIV but the books became part of her permanent library. Once in Europe, Angelica also gave especial focus to the French and English court life and customs she witnessed in London and Paris when presented to the monarchies. As many southerners began to stir with a sense of indignant outrage at the federal government’s control over what they believed were states’ rights, Angelica Van Buren may have also found particular affinity for the nationalism expressed by Scottish poet Robert Burns against the British, purchasing several volumes of his work.

    At the time of Abraham and Angelica Van Buren’s trip to Europe, another son of the President, John Van Buren, was already living in London and his extravagant lifestyle and friendship with members of the nobility had led to his becoming a point of attack as “Prince John” by Van Buren’s political critics in the U.S. Since the President was a widower, by default Angelica Van Buren was perceived as the “President’s Lady” by the royal houses and although she had no technically official status, she was invited to make her formal presentation to the new British monarch Queen Victoria. Angelica Van Buren was received in a formal white satin gown which she had especially designed for her in London, and Victoria expressed an immense liking of her, though there is no record of them having further contact at that time. Giddy with her social success in London, Angelica Van Buren next went to Paris with both Abraham and John Van Buren, trailed by the press. At the court of St. Cloud, she was received as if she were American royalty by Louis Philippe.

    While in London, Abraham and Angelica Van Buren lived with her aunt Sally Stevenson, who was then serving as the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Her uncle Andrew Stevenson had been appointed Ambassador by President Jackson but engendered tremendous controversy in the British Isles after Daniel O’Connell, a political leader in Ireland, publicly denounced Stevenson as a “slave breeder,” rather than a mere “slave owner.” Insulted, Stevenson challenged O’Connell to a duel, which the Irish statesman refused to accept. It was almost certainly the fact that Stevenson was the uncle of the American First Lady which led President Van Buren not to recall the controversial Ambassador, whose continued presence in London only further deepened the British government’s criticism of the American institution of slavery. The Stevenson controversy also prompted negative association to Angelica Van Buren among those abolitionist leaders in the U.S. Whig Party which sought to defeat Van Buren’s 1840 re-election bid.

    In light of the criticism she would soon receive, upon returning to the U.S. and assuming the role of White House hostess, she may not have read _Gleanings in Europe _closely enough to catch the subtext, Cooper warning in the volume of the inevitable pitfalls Americans would encounter when they attempted to copy European manners. Although there were apparently no critical editorials in American newspapers about Angelica Van Buren’s behavior in London and Paris, she was inspired to create a similar court life in the White House upon her return. Sally Stevenson grew alarmed by her niece’s sudden display of pretensions to nobility, reporting in a private letter that she pitied “the unfortunate being whose duty or necessity it may be to give the rousing shake…to awaken” Angelica Van Buren from “such dreams.”

    Angelica Van Buren's aunt Sally Stevenson, US Minister to England's wife. (Social Life in the Early Republic, 1902)

    After spending the summer with her family in South Carolina, Angelica Van Buren returned to live in the White House in the fall of 1839 with her husband in time to preside over the start of the 1839-1840 social season. At the 1840 New Year’s Day Reception, however, she employed a more formal manner of receiving guests from the previous year, emulating the “tableaux” technique she had seen in the British and French palaces. While neither seated on a specially-designated “throne” type of chair nor wearing a jeweled head-dress, she did pose while seated, holding a flower bouquet and set back from the public which expected the more traditionally democratic greeting of a handshake. It won her the praise of French Minister Adolphe Fourier de Bacourt, who was generally critical of Americans, he remarking that "in any country" Angelica Van Buren would "pass for an amiable woman of graceful and distinguished manners and appearance."

    Her tableaux form of receiving at the 1840 New Year’s Reception, however, was almost certainly her last public appearance for the year since she was then five months pregnant and social convention dictated that pregnant women be “confined” in private. Her child, a daughter named Rebecca, was born in the White House on 27 March 1840, but only survived for five days. Little is known about Angelica Van Buren’s pregnancy except that the last trimester was concurrent with the start of the President’s bitter 1840 re-election campaign. In June, she returned to make her annual summer visit to her family in South Carolina. Although she returned to the White House that fall, she became pregnant a second time in October of 1840 and it seems unlikely that she made any but the briefest and most perfunctory public appearances during the coming social season from December 1840 to March 1841. She nevertheless figured tangentially in the campaign.

    The United States was then suffering an economic depression. Angelica Van Buren's receiving style of forming a tableaux, as well as the anecdotal claim that she hoped to have the White House grounds improved to replicate those she had seen at the royal houses of Europe were fodder for a famous political attack on her father-in-law by a Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle. Ogle referred obliquely to Angelica Van Buren as a member of the president's household in his famous "Gold Spoon" speech. The attack was delivered in Congress and the general depiction of the President as being monarchial in his lifestyle contributed to his failure to achieve re-election during the 1840 campaign.

    Dressed in her court presentation gown, Angelica Van Buren’s portrait by Henry Inman, while White House hostess for her father-in-law, whose bust is seen in the background. (White House)

    After the White House:

    **Children:**one daughter, four sons; Rebecca Van Buren (1840-1840); Singleton Van Buren (1841-1879); unnamed son (1843-1843); Martin Van Buren III (1844-1889); Travis Cole Van Buren (1848-1889). None of Angelica Van Buren’s sons married, thus there are no direct descendants of Abraham and Angelica Van Buren

    When the Van Buren Administration ended on 4 March 1841, Angelica and Abram Van Buren first proceeded to spend several months with her family in Sumter, South Carolina. There, on 22 June 1841 she gave birth to the first of three sons who lived to adulthood, Singleton. That fall the family moved into “Lindenwald,” the country estate of the former President, located in the Hudson River Valley village of Kinderhook.

    Contrary to the perception of it as a retirement home, however, Lindenwald was used by Van Buren as the headquarters of his own political base with a considerably strong following, intending to again launch a run for the presidency. As the only adult woman in the family, Angelica Van Buren assumed the responsibilities of managing the largely Irish immigrant household staff and arranging the dining and overnight plans of political figures that came to confer with her father-in-law. Although Van Buren had avoided the impression of being rabidly anti-slavery, as his political philosophy evolved along with the schisms in the Democratic Party, eventually a leader of what became the Free Soil Party. Angelica Van Buren, never vociferously political, likely harbored some frustration in the household, her family’s wealth and success basely entirely on slave labor.

    The Lindenwald dining room where Angelica Van Buren presided over efforts to return her father-in-law to the presidency and her niece Mary McDuffie’s portrait hangs. (National Park Service)

    Angelica Van Buren’s first years at Lindenwald were enlivened by the presence of her teenage niece Mary McDuffie (born 1830). She was the daughter of Angelica’s late half-sister and the former Governor of South Carolina (1834-1842, who went on to serve as U.S. Senator (1842-1846). Although Angelica did not formally adopt the girl, Mary came to live with her in Kinderhook, becoming particularly close to the former President.

    Despite his father’s opposition to the Mexican War, Abram Van Buren returned to active military duty, accepting the position of paymaster. Although he and Angelica would continue returning to Kinderhook, where they eventually maintained their own property near that of the former President, in 1848, they moved into their permanently home at 46 East 21st Street in New York City.

    In the autumn of 1854, several months after Abraham Van Buren retired from the military, he and Angelica took their sons Travis and Martin, and her niece Mary on a tour of Europe. Including long stays in England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Spain, it lasted well into 1856. While in England, she maintained a subscription from at least May to December of 1855, to the weekly British journal_Household Words_, edited by Charles Dickens. In each issue, Dickens made repeated reference to stories about those neglected members of the working-class who were suffering in poverty or with physical debility, and the moral duty of the wealthy to more justly and fully care for them. That she carried the journals with her to Switzerland and then back to the United States, rather than dispose of the pile may suggest that during this period, Angelica Van Buren became more fully aware and interested in the various types of reform movements then becoming established in Industrial Age Europe. Others of her books from this period include the memoirs of the Reverend Sydney Smith, a founder of the _Edinburgh Review, _who openly questioned the values of conventional religious and political institutions. Another was the 1858 novel _Alton Locke, _written by Charles Kingsley, a clergyman known as the “Christian Socialist.” As TK of the University of South Carolina described Kingsley’s book, it used “the form of a workingman's autobiography to address issues of religious and moral development, political reform, the effects of imprisonment, and the proper kind of poetry a moral poet should write.”

    The apparent shift of focus in Angelica Van Buren’s life would seem to correlate not only with the work she soon undertook in New York City with private charities for the less fortunate but a sudden and horrifying grasp of the legal subjugation of women which arose prior to her European trip, involving her confidante and sister Marion.

    Following the death of her first husband but in defiance of the objections of her own family members, Marion Singleton married Augustus L. Converse, the minister who had presided over her first wedding as well as that of Angelica. Marion initially secured a guarantee of continued ownership of her enormous property and investments rather than permitting the automatic transfer of it all to a husband as South Carolina law required. In 1853, however, she revoked this; once Converse had control of her wealth, he “went on a rampage” of spousal abuse, brutally beating Marion who then sought escape, living in a cotton field until taken in by a neighbor. A lower state court denied her plea to regain ownership of her properties. A higher state court appeal was also denied and she was granted only half of the annual income generated by her holdings. Angelica Van Buren offered Marion refuge in New York for a time. Outraged by the South Carolina court decisions, however, the former First Lady was unable to help secure justice for her sister, her network of nationally powerful political figures unable to intrude on a matter of states’ rights.

    Angelica Van Buren's sister Marion. (Sumter County Historical Society)

    With the outbreak of the Civil War, Angelica Van Buren would likely have had to balance allegiance to the South through her birth family, and the North through her married family. The only tangential support she gave to the Confederacy was to gather donations of much-needed blankets which she sent to prisoners-of-war confined to deplorable conditions in a Union Army prison located in Elmira, New York. Yet this was also in line with her charitable efforts on behalf of prisoners in general. She seems to have been cautious in leaving little to no written record of where her genuine loyalties were during the Civil War. The South Carolina court denials of her sister Marion’s requests and her work on charities for the poor may have altered Angelica Van Buren’s view of slavery and states’ rights by this time. After the death of all of her brothers, Angelica Van Buren drew closer to her first cousin John White Stevenson, a U.S. Congressman from Virginia who, like her father-in-law supported every possible compromise effort to avert South Carolina’s secession and the ensuing war. She may have been influenced to perceive the conflict similarly, as well as by Stevenson’s protection of freed slaves during Reconstruction when he became governor of Kentucky.

    Upon retiring from his military career, Abraham Van Buren worked on the editing and publication of the letters and documents from the Administration of his father, who died in 1862. Angelica’s husband died on March 15, 1873. A year later, her niece Mary died. By this time, her parents, many of her nephews and all five of her siblings had died. Although Angelica Van Buren inherited her family’s Home Place plantation in the post-Civil War era, and benefitted from what cotton and peanut production continued there, she made no further trips to South Carolina in the last years of her life.

    Angelica Van Buren in her post-White House years. (Library of Congress)


    29 December, 1878, New York City. Despite her strong identity as a South Carolinian, Mrs. Van Buren had lived more than half of her life in New York. It is unclear what caused her death at age 61 years old but she chose to be buried alongside her husband in the fashionable Woodlawn Cemetery located in the New York City borough of the Bronx, rather than the Singleton family cemetery in South Carolina.

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