The fifth year of Concerning History has come to a close, and in our longstanding tradition, our indomitable staff reflected on the noteworthy anniversaries that have come and will come this year, with one twist: as this past Saturday, April 16, saw the long-awaited marriage of staff members Bryan and Heather, we have decided to highlight notable romantic and relationship-based historical milestones! As always, we can only expose the tip of the iceberg here, so if there are any commemorations we couldn’t discuss, feel free to add your own in the comments below!
March 29, 1812: Lucy Payne-Washington marries Thomas Todd in Washington, D.C.
Less than two months before the outbreak of the War of 1812, a war which would see the White House burned by British soldiers two years later, Lucy Payne-Washington, the sister of First Lady Dolley Madison, married Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd within its halls. It was the first wedding the White House hosted, with seventeen more to follow in the 210 years since. Both had recently lost their first spouses. Todd’s first wife, Elizabeth Harris, had died two years earlier; Payne’s first husband, George Steptoe Washington, a nephew of George Washington and cousin of another Justice, Bushrod Washington, had been dead for three. While Americans, then as now, prided themselves as a country without an aristocracy, the marriage of these well-connected scions of Virginia was not an uncommon one– especially in the early days of the national capitol, where social and political circles were almost indistinguishable. The bride’s sister, Dolley Madison, no doubt approved of both the match and marital ceremony, as she was legendary as a social hostess through both her husband’s presidency and the decades following, bringing life to the otherwise sleepy, backwater capital city. Although few details of Todd and Payne’s wedding have survived, the two remained married until Todd’s death in 1826, at the age of 61, and together produced three children, including two named for the Madisons. Their wedding is perhaps the couple’s most lasting legacy today–as despite his high office, Todd only authored fourteen opinions in his nearly two decades on the bench. Though largely having faded from memory, the pair are nevertheless the first in an exclusive club of presidential children, siblings, advisors, and presidents themselves who have married in the White House since 1812, political royalty coming together upon a stage set by Washington’s first social queen.
Further Reading: A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, by Catherine Allgor
May 1917: Michael Collins Meets Kitty Kiernan in Granard, County Longford, Ireland
Best known as a renowned military leader in the struggle for Irish independence, Michael Collins first met Catherine “Kitty” Kiernan in 1917. The two quickly became smitten. After competing with a friend for Kitty’s heart, Collins officially won her affections in 1921 and they were soon engaged to be married. Unfortunately, the turbulence of the Irish Civil War forced Collins and Kiernan to reschedule their wedding several times. In the end, they settled on a date in 1922, but the war had one last dirty trick up its sleeve. Shortly after assuming command of the army, Collins led his troops in a series of victories against the British. As a result, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. The treaty established the Irish Free State but, crucially, it required an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. For this, Collins earned the disdain of many Irish republicans. Mere weeks after taking command in the ensuing Irish Civil War, Collins was shot and killed on August 22, 1922 by anti-Treaty fighters in west Cork. Kitty Kiernan attended Collins’s funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery; it was attended by 500,000 others. She would go on to marry a quartermaster in the Free State Army in 1925. The couple had two children. The second, a son, Kiernan named in honor of her lost love, Michael Collins. Historians today can learn much of Collins, Kiernan, their relationship, and the conflict of their times by reading the more than 300 letters Kiernan kept of their correspondence right up to her death from chronic kidney disease in 1945. Kitty Kiernan was buried according to her wishes: in Glasnevin Cemetery, as close as possible to Michael Collins.
For more: Check out the 11-part podcast My Dearest Kitty, which explores the surviving letters sent between the two during their relationship.
May 1, 1967: Elvis Presley Marries Priscilla Beaulieu in Las Vegas
This year marks the 55th anniversary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s wedding to a young woman he met while in Europe serving in the United States Army. When I first began to research this event, I thought I was writing what was essentially an amusing puff piece, the origins of a classic bit of Americana. How wrong I was. When they first met, Elvis was 24 and at the height of his fame; Priscilla was only 14, living with her father while he was stationed in West Germany. Somehow Elvis convinced Priscilla’s parents to allow him to court their daughter and, after his discharge and return to America, even to allow her to move to Memphis and finish high school there while living with Elvis at his Graceland mansion. Elvis supposedly remarked to a friend that Priscilla was “young enough that I can train her any way I want.” Indeed, Priscilla remarked that she felt like his doll as he instituted near-total control over her wardrobe, makeup, and behavior. Through all this, the two were supposedly celibate, but this changed after Elvis’s manager forced him to finally marry Priscilla in 1967 (she was aged 22), fearing a public relations nightmare. Priscilla became pregnant with their daughter Lisa Marie shortly after, at which point their relationship returned to celibacy; Elvis allegedly told her that he “had never been able to make love to a woman who’d had a child.” They would divorce six years later, in 1973, as Elvis grew more distant and Priscilla wanted to live with more freedom. Some of that freedom came with an affair, for which Elvis initially wanted to hire a hitman to murder Priscilla’s lover. After all this, however, Priscilla still considered Elvis the love of her life and was devastated upon learning of his death in 1977. Any number of lessons can be gleaned from this disturbing grooming of a young woman, none more so than a reminder that we worship historical figures (especially pop icons) as heroes at our own peril.
Further Reading: Elvis and Me, by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley
December 9, 1967: LBJ’s daughter gets married in first White House wedding since 1914
In 1967, the first White House wedding in the age of television took place, featuring Lyndon Johnson’s eldest daughter Lynda Byrd, future chair of the largest children’s literacy organization in the U.S. The groom was Marine Captain Charles S. Robb, a future Virginia governor, U.S. senator, and co-chair of the Iraq Intelligence Commission investigating debunked allegations of weapons of mass destruction. White House weddings have been in the public discourse recently since Naomi Biden announced her reception would take place at the White House on November 19. Given the public scrutiny of such events, the administration was quick to clarify that in keeping with tradition, expenses would be paid by the Biden administration and not taxpayers. While Americans are enthralled by royal weddings abroad, presidential family weddings are low-key by comparison. Even when given the pomp and circumstance of the White House background, First Family weddings are not a state event. And yet, as the Johnson-Robb marriage suggested, these events are powerful representations of political dynasties at the pinnacle of America–just as true now as it was in 1967 or 1812.
Watch the ceremony: Lynda Johnson White House Wedding | C-SPAN.org