Lindy Boggs has spent a half-century in Washington as a congressional wife, widow, member of Congress and chairwoman of the House Bicentenary Commission commemorating the 200th annniversary of Congress -- not to mention 13 years on the Appropriations Committee funding the Library of Congress. So who better to speak recently at a breakfast opening an exhibit of letters from members of Congress to their consorts.
"My Dear Wife," manuscripts dating from 1791 to 1944, are an unparalleled history, not only of the thoughts behind great events, but also of sex scandals, a duel, a threat to murder the president, flirtatious remarks and lewd comments about passing ladies, said John McDonough, curator of the exhibit and head of the manuscript division. The show is on view through Jan. 15 in the Library of Congress's Madison Building. "The loneliness expressed in the early letters" is poignant, Boggs noted. Not many wives came to the earlier Congresses in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, explained Marvin W. Kranz, American historian in the manuscript division, because the sessions were shorter and accommodations for families scarce.
About 1839, Judith Rives, yielding to the entreaties of her husband, Sen. William C. Rives, came to Washington from Albemarle County, Va., by stage and steamboat. She wrote back to her son that they had "all the usual advantages of a Washington boarding house -- being about as warm as a barn without a stove, as convenient as a barracks, and as cheap as a hotel in Bond Street London... ."
When she packed up and went back to enlarge her brick mansion, her husband kept her apace with the gossip. In 1841, Rives wrote his wife about the "non-chalante" manners of President John Tyler's daughter-in-law. When Rives paid a call at the White House, young Mrs. Tyler amused herself by whirling around in a swivel chair, called by Tyler a "political chair" since it could quickly change its position.
Washington was widely held to be an unhealthy spot. In 1867, Rep. Benjamin F. Butler (R-Mass.) wrote, "typhoid is epidemic here now" and called July "the sickly season." The former Union generalwho captured New Orleans was called "Beast Butler" in the South. In the July 4, 1867, letter, his growl was appropriate to his nickname, writing of President Andrew Johnson: "We should take him by the throat and bring him out of his place... . I will get leave as soon as the impeachment question is settled."
If more wives had known what went on in the congressional boardinghouses, they might have pitched tents to save their susceptible husbands from temptation. In 1834, Rep. Job Pierson (D-N.Y.) wrote his wife, Clarissa, of the goings-on in the Polkses' boardinghouse -- though he stayed in a quieter place:
"The Misses Polks to make their house more attractive knowing very well that their charms would never entice boarders, had employed a very handsome chamber-maid." Another senator "seduced her during the first week & cohabited with her during the whole Session -- The other boarders were angry at this monopoly -- They enticed some 4 or 5 girls from a house of ill-fame nearly opposite who came there every night. ... I never would have done such an act & certainly not without giving the two old maids the first offer -- Courtesy even decency required it. ..."
Reading the letters, the Chronicler wonders if all the allusions to enticing women, were efforts to make absent wives jealous and lure them to Washington. For instance, the publicly staid Sen. George W. Norris (R-Neb.) in 1909 wrote his wife, "Senator Stone and Rep. Wood were talking on Penn. Ave. when a beautiful woman in a sheath gown passed by & then Stone turned to Wood & Wood turned to Stone & then both turned to rubber."
Sen. Levi Woodbury (R-N.H.) in 1831 wrote his wife a full report on fashions: "The Crowninshields last evening wore pink satin -- perfectly plain at the bottom and only deep blond lace at the top."
Living in Washington didn't solve all the stresses on Washington. Another Union general and congressman, Daniel Sickles (R-N.Y.), was acquitted (temporary insanity) in 1859 of killing his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key, in Lafayette Square. Shortly after, he was reconciled with his wife, writing her at Christmas that he couldn't afford to "make you as nice a present as I would desire this year" but he sent $20 to buygifts for their daughters.
Gradually, after life settled down following the War Between the States, more families joined their husbands.
Lindy Boggs said that the change was all for the good, that women who came to Washington at the "insistence of their husbands' ambitions" became the sustainers of the city and "better counselors to husbands, oftentimes the source of needed social legislation and international understanding."
After women's suffrage began, a few women became members of Congress themselves, writing home to husbands. The letters of both men and women senators and representatives offer important footnotes as to their private opinions on both politics and legislation.
In 1944, Rep. Clare Boothe Luce (R-Conn.) wrote to her husband, Henry, the publisher of Time and Life "... the votes I am trying to get are the working man's and woman's... . I have got all the educated votes... . "
In 1941, Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), wrote his wife, Martha, of his opposition to the building of the Pentagon. "We were beaten 27 to 20 on our fight against the 35 million dollar building," he wrote. The Pentagon eventually cost $83 million. He complained that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill's Atlantic Charter was "a dud, but of course more may have been promised than appears ... in the meantime it will get us into a lot of trouble, & indicates R's intention to pursue steadily the gradually interventionist policy ..."
With the coming of wives and telephones to Washington, epistolary records waned, and we will never know what intimate history is lost.