US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Last July, President Warren G. Harding’s salacious love letters were released, detailing the intimate relations of Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Journalists delighted in the letters, which had been embargoed by the Library of Congress for fifty years in an agreement with the Harding family. Upon the letters’ release, media outlets rushed to publish passages that Newsweek described as “indecent, explicit and astoundingly erotic.” (One example: “I love your poise / Of perfect thighs / When they hold me / In paradise.”)

Harding may have penned the most sexually frank presidential prose, but he was not the only White House occupant to leave behind a trove of love letters. With Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day just around the corner, here’s a look at some of the rest.

John and Abigail Adams represent the gold standard in presidential love letters — so much so that in 2001 the U.S. Postal Service used one of the couple’s courtship letters for its “Love Letters” stamp. Tender, elegant and passionate, the letters the two exchanged over their courtship and marriage covered every aspect of the life — and the nation — the two built together.

But their exchanges were also steeped in romance. Writing his “Miss Adorable” in 1762, John begged for kisses, reasoning, “I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least.” The couple married two years later, and spent the next fifty-four years together until Abigail’s death in 1818.

Nearly rivaling those letters in terms of romance were the notes exchanged between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. As Alzheimer’s began limiting Reagan’s ability to write and remember, Nancy collected the letters in the book "I Love You, Ronnie," explaining, “His letters were keepsakes in the past and have become my guardians of memory today.”

Corny and sweet, the notes offered plenty of fodder for partisans who felt acrimonious toward the former president, most notably his nicknames for his wife: Mommie Poo Pants, Nancy Pants. Yet they also painted a portrait of a man as in love thirty years into his marriage as he was at the start. “I more than love you,” he wrote in 1983, “I’m not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I’m waiting for you to return so I can start living again.”

Not all presidents maintained the level of ardor shared by the Adamses and the Reagans. The love letters Lyndon Johnson sent Lady Bird in their ten-week courtship were more anxious than amorous. No sooner had Johnson, a congressional aide in 1934, met Bird than he pronounced his love and proposed marriage. Though she hesitated — “All I can say, in absolute honesty, is — I love you, I don’t know how everlastingly I love you — so I can’t answer you yet” — two married less than three months after meeting.

Richard Nixon wooed his “Irish gypsy” Pat through love letters as well, which went on display at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in 2012. The letters, sweet and earnest, showed a softer Nixon rarely on display to the public. “Every day and every night I want to see you and be with you. Yet I have no feeling of selfish ownership or jealousy,” he wrote, before spooling out a vision of their future. “Let’s go for a long ride Sunday; let’s go to the mountains weekends; let's read books in front of fires; most of all, let’s really grow together and find the happiness we know is ours.”

Journalists have long been drawn to presidential love letters, which offer a behind-the-scenes peek at figures whose inner lives are often hidden from public view. But the appetite for these billets-doux sometimes gets the better of even the most serious publications. In 1928, The Atlantic Monthly began publishing a three-part series on a romance between Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, drawn from the pair’s love letters. The magazine offered the author, Wilma Frances Minor, thousands of dollars for the articles and subsequent book.

Only the letters were forgeries. The story quickly unraveled, and Minor eventually admitted that her mother, not the 16th president, had written the letters (though she maintained that her mother, a clairvoyant, had dictated the letters during a séance). That the Atlantic was so easily taken in shows the enduring appeal of presidential love letters and the partnerships behind them.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report