Dolley Madison’s decision to remain in the White House until she had secured the safety of George Washington’s portrait, even as British troops bore down upon Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, remains a staple of American legend.
By the time Dolley Payne Todd Madison had attended her husband’s inaugural in 1809, she had already served intermittently as presidential hostess during the Jefferson administration. Dolley Madison was thus aware of the perks, responsibilities, and the criticism inherent in the job and was the first presidential spouse to fully embrace the role. She enjoyed the first inaugural ball and appeared at many events both with and without her husband. She paid and received calls, held “dove parties” where congressional wives discussed current events, hosted political dinners, and gave wildly popular public receptions.
“And now, dear sister, I must leave this house or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!” ” Mrs. Madison wrote her sister Lucy, as retreating American troops passed by a few hours before the British burned the White House in 1814. – See more at: http://firstladies.c-span.org/FirstLady/5/Dolley-Madison.aspx#sthash.63koKObD.dpuf
The two-party system was brand new in those days. The Federalists, including George Washington, John Adams and other democratic “aristocrats” wanted a strong, centralized federal government. The Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, saw the federal government necessary for the military and foreign diplomacy, believing that states should take care of the rest themselves.
In response to this almost everyone in Washington City received invitations to the house on F Street. People from one side of the political spectrum to the other were there. Folks who did not have US government affiliations were welcomed as well. Foreign dignitaries were also a staple at Dolley’s functions.
According to Allgon, each group had a stake in Washington City. The local gentry and official families were permanent residents and worked toward building up the capital. Foreign visitors and observers had the ears of their prospective governments that watched the young country. They could become powerful friends or dangerous enemies. Mrs. Madison had her work cut out for her.
Allgon says of Dolley’s mission,
“In her quest to create an ideal capital society, Dolley had to find ways not only to teach each group individually, but to blend and connect all three.”
The White House site continues:
“Dolley’s social graces made her famous. Her political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia, warrior chiefs from the West, flustered youngsters — she always welcomed everyone”
In this she strove to serve not only her husband but also the good of the country. She was a trailblazer and a passionate patriot who knew that the warring political factions of the time had to get along in order for the United States to flourish. Yet she made her way through Washington society and the politics of the young Republic. She did this by balancing her natural charm and beauty with unmatched political finesse.
They had no children of their own, although Dolley had given birth during her first marriage. Enemies used this information to question James’ virility, indicating that he was impotent and was too feeble to lead the country.
Medical thought at the time also believed that excessive sexual desire belonged to the realm of men and Dolley exuded a sexuality that set some tongues wagging. The very thought of a woman having desires like that was almost beyond belief.
Catherine Allgor explains in her book, “A Perfect Union”:
“Too much female lust and sex would lose its procreative capacity.”
One rumor even had Thomas Jefferson pimping Dolley and her sister Anna to foreign visitors. There was also an “advertisement” in the Georgetown Federal Republican for a publication about moral and political law.
One chapter called “Love and Smoke Cannot Be Hidden” dealt with the sex lives of a thinly disguised Washington couple — the oversexed and unfaithful wife of an impotent man.
The Madison’s dismissed the ugliness of the gossip and for the most part ignored it. They believed, as did Thomas Jefferson, that to discuss the accusations would only encourage more of the same and make it worse.
After the Madison presidency, James and Dolley retired to Montpelier in 1817. Dolley continued to entertain and helped her husband to organize and prepare the papers he used in drafting the Constitution.
President Madison died in 1836 at age 85. In a letter to her best friend Eliza Collins Lee Dolley confessed,
“Indeed I have been as one in a troubled dream since my irreparable loss of him, for whom my affection was perfect, as was his character and conduct thro’ life.”
Dolley Madison died in poverty after selling just about everything.
The sale to Congress of some of her husband’s papers and the sale of Montpelier in 1844 helped, but she still relied on the charity of friends.
Dolley made the permanent move to Washington City that year to a townhouse across the street from the presidential mansion. It was there she died on July 12, 1849 at age 81.
She was given a state funeral where incumbent President Zachary Taylor declared about Dolley, “….the first lady of the land for a century.”
Future First Ladies since that time have had awfully big shoes to fill. Dolley Madison not only created the role of President’s wife and laid the foundation for society in Washington City, but in doing so, she also left a wonderful legacy that continues to serve the People to this day.
In 1838 Dolley hosted a New Year’s party. It was at this soiree that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay made his famous statement, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison.”
To this, Dolley replied, “Mr. Clay, I love everybody.”
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