On the cusp of both Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day, I dug deep into our presidential past to uncover love letters from the first seven presidents. As different as the men who wrote them, these excerpts represent a wide range of American romance that is equal parts tender, titillating, and terrifying.
#1 George Washington
Out of the thousands of letters from Washington that exist today, only four between him and his wife Martha survive. (And none of those are worth sharing.) This is because Martha burned all their correspondence after his death to preserve his privacy and annoy historians for centuries to come.
For the closest thing we have to a love letter from Washington, we have to look at his first love – Sally Fairfax. Sally was literally the girl next door, through hundreds of acres of Virginia woods. She taught young George how to mix with high society and even how to dance. (Late in life he called those times “the happiest of his life.”) But no matter how rich or respected he became – or how good of a dancer – he would never be “high-born” enough for her.
Before marrying Martha, George confessed his feelings to Sally:
“You have drawn me my dear Madam, or rather have I drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple fact—misconstrue not my meaning—’tis obvious—doubt it not, nor expose it,—the world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to—you when I want to conceal it.”
He may have led America’s first spy ring, but he failed to keep this secret “don’t tell anyone I love you” missive under wraps.
For what it is worth, Sally seemed to regret the way things went later in life. She wrote to a family member, “I know now that the worthy man is to be preferred to the high-born.” That is a hard-learned lesson if it took losing George Washington to learn it.
#2 John Adams
Unlike those inconsiderately private Washingtons, John Adams wanted his letters with Abigail preserved for all eternity. From the treasure trove of over 1000 letters between them, we get gems like this early courtship letter where John listed Abigail’s faults:
“…you very often hang your head like a bulrush. You do not sit, erected as you ought, by which means, it happens that you appear too short for a beauty, and the company loses the sweet smiles of that countenance and the bright sparkles of those eyes. — This fault is the effect and consequence of another, still more inexcusable in a lady. I mean an habit of reading, writing and thinking. But both the cause and the effect ought to be repented and amended as soon as possible.”
Somehow John Adams’s eloquent playfulness overcomes the not yet tired and sexist clichés “you’d be prettier if you smiled” and “you’re not like other girls.”
Adams came to depend on her gifts for “reading, writing, and thinking” when they were forced to spend much of their relationship apart. That longing is palpable, especially in this letter from 1776:
“Is there no way for two friendly souls, to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off? —Yes by Letter. — But I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts.
The conclusion of your letter makes my heart throb, more than a cannonade would. You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.”
She was his “Miss Adorable” and he was her “Dearest Friend” and the world is better off because he did not let her burn those letters.
#3 Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was another member in that exclusive club Presidents From Virginia Whose Every Correspondence With Their Wife Martha Was Burned so there is no telling what steamy declarations of romance we are missing out on.
Jefferson did intentionally preserve one particular love letter, but it was not to Martha. Years after losing the love of his life, he became enamored with artist Maria Cosway in France, calling her “the most superb thing on earth.” The feeling was mutual.
It is unclear how far they took their relationship, especially with her pesky husband hanging about. What is clear is that at some point during their tryst, Jefferson broke his right wrist doing something “by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may.”
When Cosway left Paris, a heartbroken Jefferson used his left hand to “slowly and awkwardly” write her a 12-page 5000-word love letter – an impassioned dialogue between his head and his heart that is more of a love letter to America and his own wit than it is to Maria Cosway.
“Seated by my fireside, solitary and sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head and my Heart:
Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fiber of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.”
And it only gets more melodramatic as it goes on.
Like the poetry I wrote in high school, most of the letter is a celebration and condemnation of how she made him feel rather than an acknowledgment of her positive personal qualities. The tenderest moment comes later in the letter when Jefferson’s heart celebrates how “the sun shone brightly” when they toured France together.
“How gay did the face of nature appear! Hills, valleys, chateaux, gardens, rivers, every object wore its liveliest hue! Whence did they borrow it? From the presence of our charming companion. They were pleasing, because she seemed pleased. Alone, the scene would have been dull and insipid: the participation of it with her gave it relish.”
We have no record of what Jefferson’s head and heart felt the following summer in Paris, when he turned his lascivious attention to his daughter’s new maid, 14-year-old slave Sally Hemings.
#4 James Madison
43-year-old James Madison’s attraction to 26-year-old widow Dolley Payne Todd was so strong he could barely control himself. Instead of telling her his feelings directly, he dictated them to her cousin as he stood over her shoulder like a creepy stalker.
“Now for Madison,” her cousin wrote:
“He told me I might say what I pleased to you about him to begin. He thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue. At night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep a calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed and he hopes that your heart will be callous to every other swain but himself. He has consented to everything that I have wrote about him with sparkling eyes.”
It’s like an eighteenth century version of “Do you like me? Check one: YES NO” except it is more like “Do you accept responsibility for arousing me and agree to satisfy my needs exclusively?”
She checked yes, it seems, and saving James Madison’s hot and bothered 100-pound body from flames was just a warm up for saving something much more substantial and beloved from burning – George Washington’s portrait.
#5 James Monroe
The Era of Good Feelings could describe James Monroe’s household better than it could ever describe the United States.
That is because unlike his contemporaries, James Monroe actually enjoyed spending time with his wife and family. When he traveled to Europe to negotiate with the likes of Napoleon, he almost always took Elizabeth with him. The French adored her and called her “la belle Americaine” but Americans found her snobbish and too European as First Lady. James didn’t care; she would always be his “dear Eliza.”
Monroe was by all accounts a loving husband and doting father. When he was apart from his wife and newborn, he wrote to her,
“My dear Eliza….I hope to hear from you by the post this evening. I have the utmost anxiety to know that yourself and our little Eliza are well…Has she grown any, and is there any perceptible alteration in her?…I was sorry you had not with you one article you mention’d as necessary for the little monkey.”
Like a true family man, Monroe’s prose straddled the line between loving husband, tender father, and curious zookeeper.
#6 John Quincy Adams
As the son of John Adams, John Quincy Adams grew up with a tremendous amount of pressure to achieve greatness. He always wished he could do that through poetry, but politics kept getting in the way. Judging by his poetry, that was probably for the best.
Adams once sent his wife Louisa an odd little poem about having eyes for no one else:
“And what are to the Lover’s eye,
The beauties other damsels boast?
Trust me, they pass unheeded by;
Or raise a transient glance at most.
But thine are grappled to my soul;
They beat in every throbbing vein;
Warm with the tide of life they roll
They tune my nerves, inspire my brain.”
That might have carried more weight if he had never written to Louisa about other women’s beauty. But the man simply could not help himself. Once, after seeing a scantily-clad woman at a party, he sent Louisa a doozy of a poem he had written “To Miss, In full Un-dress at a Ball” with stanzas like:
“When first in Eden’s flowery dell
Our Grandam Eve was framed,
She was, as holy legends tell,
Though naked, not ashamed.
But when the Serpent’s subtle head
Had brought her to disgrace;
When innocence and bliss were fled-
The fig-leaf took their place.
Already Sally now reveals
To view, Neck, Arms and Breast;
While a spider’s web conceals,
And scarce conceals the rest.
Dear Sally! let thy heart be kind-
Discover all thy charms-
Fling the last fig leaf to the wind,
And snatch me to thy arms!”
It says something about their relationship that he could write the equivalent of, “I got aroused looking at another woman; please enjoy this poem I wrote about her.”
It’s no wonder Louisa once wrote to him, “I can neither live with or without you.” Like the romantic soul he was, he replied, “I will not say I can neither live with nor without you; but in this cold weather I should be very glad to live with you.”
#7 Andrew Jackson
Few historical figures are as divisive as Andrew Jackson, but everyone can agree that he was fiercely devoted to his wife, Rachel. Unfortunately, the love of his life never made it to the White House.
Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack just days after her husband won the election of 1828. He buried her in the dress she bought for his Inaugural. Not one to grieve – or do much of anything – without carefully directed rage, Jackson blamed her death on the vicious campaign attacks against their marriage. At her funeral he declared, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers. I never can.” A huge piece of Andrew Jackson died with his wife.
In fact, he had been giving pieces of himself to Rachel for years. In 1814, a year after a gunfight left him with a bullet lodged in his arm, he wrote to her:
“My Love – I have the pleasure to inform you, that since the bone came out of my arm which I sent you, it is healing and strengthening very fast, I hope all the loose pieces of bone is out, and I will no longer be pained with it.”
Jackson sent his own tiny bone fragments to his wife in the mail like they were souvenirs.
He may not have had the way with words that other presidents had, but it is safe to say Andrew Jackson put more of himself into his letters than they ever did.