Presidential lockets

Despite power and opportunity, two stayed true to their vows

Issue: "Foster or faster?," June 6, 1998

Love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage. Ask the local gentry, they'll all say it's elementary."

Often elementary, perhaps, when Frank Sinatra sang those words in decades past; certainly not child's play now. Elementary, when husband and wife see themselves as "one flesh"; complicated when we see ourselves as autonomous individuals. Elementary, when husbands love wives and wives submit to husbands (Ephesians 5); complicated when men are not kind and women respond in kind.

During this most popular month for weddings, those about to be married should ask couples wed for many decades how they've preserved both love and marriage. Since I like to approach things historically, I've studied how two of my favorite presidents, George Washington and Andrew Jackson, worked to preserve their marriages for 41 and 37 years, respectively, until death sundered earthly bonds.

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The Washington marriage wasn't based on equality of size or temperament. George was 6'2" tall and muscular, with size 13 shoes; Martha was five feet tall and plump. He was very much an outdoors guy; she enjoyed sitting in the parlor. He liked being hospitable but was not particularly convivial; her warm femininity compensated for his rough spots.

George and Martha had their first extended conversation on March 16, 1758; he proposed to her nine days later; they married 10 months after that. Their one sadness was that they had no children together, but in God's providence childlessness made George Washington the perfect father to a republican country rather than a hereditary monarchy.

The Washington marriage still could have become shaky in 1775 when the Revolutionary War began and General Washington, then 43, went north to lead the patriotic forces outside Boston. The top commander could have had his pick of what today we call interns-but George reassured Martha by frequently sending home messages such as, "I retain an unalterable affection for you which neither time nor distance can change."

George Washington also steered clear of the usual British practice of taking mistresses whenever middle-aged wives sagged in places and grew plumper in others. He made sure that Martha was aware that he always wore around his neck a locket containing a miniature portrait of her. He made it possible for her to join him for each winter encampment, and she became a hostess for officers and a mother to lonely soldiers.

The Washingtons, united in obedience and love, continued in marriage until George Washington died in December, 1799. Their success was based on an understanding that pop psychologists today have rediscovered and packaged for bestseller purposes: Men want respect; women want love. She was careful to respect and obey; he constantly assured her of his love.

That obedience does not mean mindlessness is evident in the Jackson marriage. Rachel Jackson influenced her husband to read the Bible nightly with her and encouraged him to get his anger under control and submit to God's will. Andrew Jackson, like Washington, wore a miniature portrait of his wife in a locket over his heart and constantly assured her of his love. He taught her of the need to be bold and courageous in applying Christian faith to political and military life, and she taught him about the need for regular Scripture reading and prayer.

Andrew's deep love for Rachel persisted even after her death in 1828, shortly after he was elected to the presidency. Some men, not seeing God's sovereignty over ballots as well as bodies, might have crowed about their political success at men's hands and raged about their loss at God's. But President Jackson, noting that "whomever He chasteneth He loveth," turned aside offers of consolation from young ladies and continued his pattern of Bible reading and prayer in a way that remembered Rachel as well as God.

One night in the White House, a Jackson private secretary, Nicholas Trist, needed guidance for a letter. Mr. Trist knocked at the door of the president's bedroom, was admitted, and found Mr. Jackson partly undressed and sitting at a table, reading his nightly chapters from Scripture. He had the locket with Rachel's portrait propped up next to the Bible.

May all the marriages commenced this month be so loving.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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