Like quite a few of the early U.S. presidents, eighth president Martin Van Buren was a widower. His wife, Hannah Hoes, died at age thirty-five of tuberculosis in 1819, eighteen years before Van Buren became president. He was devoted to his wife and never remarried. Instead, his daughter-in-law, Angelica Singleton Van Buren, wife to Van Buren’s son, Abraham, became the First Lady for this presidency.
Born February 13, 1818, Sarah Angelica Singleton was raised in Wedgefield, South Carolina. Her parents were Richard Singleton and Rebecca Travis Coles, and she was the fourth of their six children. A well-educated woman for her time, Angelica went to the prestigious Columbia Female Academy in South Carolina, and at Madame Grelaud’s French School in Philadelphia. The students at Madame Grelaud’s were all from wealthy families and offered Angelica the opportunity to socialize with Roman Catholics and Sephardi Jews, two groups she would not likely have encountered in South Carolina.
It was while a student at Madame Grelaud’s that Angelica decided to start going by the French version of her middle name and asked those who knew her to call her Angelique. She was taught European art, literature, and culture there, and the classes were conducted entirely in French. Because the tuition was so high, only the most elite families could send their daughters there. Angelica was classmates with the great-great-granddaughters of Martha Washington, Maria Monroe (daughter of former U.S. president James Monroe), and the wife of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Her letters from this time period show she was interested in writing and fashion design; notably, her designs were always made with the most luxurious materials.
When it came to things that gave women a promising future in the 1800s, Angelica had it all. Wealth, beauty, a superb education, status as an heiress, and a signature look that included corkscrew curls in her long, glossy black hair. She was also well-mannered, and her family was respected and admired. She also had presidential connections through her mother’s side of the family. Her mother’s brother had served as private secretary to third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson and lived with him in the White House. But, there was another connection that was much more intimate, and that would have a profound effect on Angelica’s future.
After graduating from Madame Grelaud’s, Angelica visited Washington, D.C. with one of her sisters in 1838. It was there her mother’s first cousin, former First Lady Dolley Madison, widow of fourth president James Madison, introduced her young relatives to the Van Buren boys, both sons of Martin and Hannah Van Buren. Dolley was not subtle about the fact she was playing matchmaker, something for which she had a talent and was well-known… it was definitely a hobby of hers. And, these skills worked yet again with her Singleton cousins, as Angelica married Abraham Van Buren later that year, in November of 1838, at her parents’ home in Wedgefield, South Carolina. Angelica’s parents’ home was a thriving plantation called Home Place. The marriage gave the New York born Martin Van Buren strong ties to the south, which were important to gain the support and loyalty of that region for his new presidency.
Though Martin Van Buren was not able to attend the couple’s wedding ceremony due to being busy with his duties as President of the United States, he was delighted with the match his eldest son had made with Angelica. She was a refined lady with an excellent education and was from a wealthy and respected southern family. Angelica and Abraham honeymooned in London, and their genuine love match was a source of much romantic inspiration for the young people of the new United States.
Angelica began performing the duties of First Lady immediately following the wedding and was considered a shining success at it. The Washington elite loved her. Her charm and graciousness were renowned, as were her social accomplishments. However, following a family trip to Europe in 1839, Angelica, who had done extensive reading on European royalty and their customs, began allowing herself to be received as Queen of the United States at the homes of the royal families in England and France. There being no newspaper criticism of this, she decided to try to introduce some of the Old World royal style to the White House. She and the other notable female guests began standing on a dais at official White House gatherings to greet guests. It was a popular custom among the governments of Europe, and she liked it, as did ambassadors from overseas. Americans, however, did not care for it, and the experiment was soon abandoned.
As First Lady, Martin Van Buren always escorted Angelica on his arm to all formal private dinners at the White House and made it clear her rank and status took precedence over any other females in attendance at any White House gathering.
Angelica’s family went through some hardships, both while she was serving as First Lady, and after. Some of these difficulties tarnished the public’s previously sterling impression of her. Her father and a nephew were killed when a bridge collapsed under the train in which they were riding. One of her sisters was a victim of domestic violence so severe that those in the higher echelons of society began to talk about it, and not in a kind way.
Angelica gave birth to her first child, Rebecca, while living in the White House in 1840, but Rebecca only lived a few months. After leaving the White House the next year, Angelica gave birth to three more children, all boys. When Van Buren was defeated for re-election in 1841, Angelica and Abraham moved to the Van Buren family estate in Kinderhook, New York, and spent winters with her family in South Carolina, where the weather was more seasonable year-round. They moved their primary residence to New York City in 1848.
Angelica died December 29, 1877, at the age of 59, and was buried next to her husband at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City. Her sons had no children of their own, so she has no descendants living today. And, despite leaving this life at the relatively young age of 59, she outlived nearly everyone in her family, including her parents, husband, father-in-law, and most of her nieces and nephews. Only her sons survived her.