Last week I watched a documentary on the PBS program American Experience about Dolley Madison. Previous to that moment, I knew nothing about Dolley except that she had carried the painting of George Washington out of the White House when it was on fire in the war of 1812. If you get a chance to watch the documentary do it. See if you can get it at your local library.
Dolley was the wife of our fourth president James Madison. The documentary has: historians, actors portraying key figures in Dolley’s life, her letters and even actual photographs of Dolley late in life. Becoming first lady was only one of many fascinating aspects of her life. She was raised as a Quaker with strict parents who monitored her social life, behaviors and even strongly encouraged, if not forced, her to marry her first husband John Payne Todd.
As a young married woman she had 2 boys and did the best to be happy and love her husband. By all reports she was beautiful and vivacious. However, just 3 years after marriage, in 1793, her husband and baby boy died from a yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia. With another son to support Dolley knew that her only choice was to marry again. Luckily she was charming enough to be highly courted and the government was still being mostly run out of Philadelphia bringing Congressman and other dignitaries calling on Dolley. One of the men was James Madison. A shy founding father who was 17 years older than Dolley. Despite his non-quaker status (which meant Dolley was removed from the religious group) the two fell in love, married and rarely spent a day apart for the rest of their lives. (It was interesting to see that Dolley and James have few letters because they were always together unlike their popular contemporaries John and Abigail Adams).
Unlike almost all women (and certainly all proceeding first ladies including Abigail Adams) Dolley became involved in the politics at hand and she did so in a very savvy way. Instead of pounding the street corners or giving speeches, she held dinner parties, introduced friends, and forced sparring debaters to enjoy an evening together. I admire how she used whatever power she had to make a difference- to make her stamp on the world. One of the scholars in the documentary claims that Dolley was the first true grass roots campaigner. This is significant coming from a woman with no formal education, in a time where a woman with political know-how was considered a scandalous notion. One biography describes her as:
“Once Dolley Madison became first lady in 1809, her status as the central figure of Washington society was confirmed. The vivacious Dolley’s expansive memory for names and ability to make everyone at home in the White House attracted guests by the many. Her lavish dinner parties were noted for the surprise delicacies served. She began holding Wednesday evening “drawing rooms” (receptions) that became immensely popular with politicians, diplomats, and the citizenry. Not only was Dolley renowned for her charm, but her knowledge of politics and current events was significant as well. She proved an asset to James’s political career in two ways: her outgoing demeanor complimented his reserved and stonefaced disposition and her political insight influenced his decision-making. Undoubtedly, Dolley was one of the reasons James won reelection in 1812.”
Then there is the famous incident that I mentioned above- removing the artifacts and paintings from the White House before it was burnt. The interesting thing I didn’t know is that the reason she was at the White House (most of Washington being deserted at that time)was due to her refusal to leave until her husband had returned from a meeting with his generals. With the British coming closer she realized that nothing would give greater glee to the invading troops than to lord over the documents of our founding and the painting of George Washington. Deciding that such disgrace was not going to happen on her watch, she loaded a wagon full of such items and when her husband raced back they sneaked into hiding until the invasion was over.
I am sure I will learn much more about Dolley as I read her biography, but what I have know so far gives me much respect and admiration for her spirit, spunk and determination. All of the women in America owe a debt of gratitude to founding women like Dolley Madison, Abigail Adams and more. Their husbands sometimes get all the glory, but we all know where most men end up without a strong woman to guide them (and vice versa- especially back then). I highly encourage you all to find the documentary and learn something about a fascinating woman who made America great! (Shouldn’t they make a movie about her? Why does it seem like they only make movies about the scoundrels?)