An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Dolley Madison, Famous Woman and Famous First Lady of the U.S.

Aug 23, 2018 by

Related image

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Dolley Madison was first lady to James Madison and apparently was influential in rebuilding the White House after the British burned it in the War of 1812.  Was she the first “First Lady” to assume duties and responsibilities of such magnitude?

In one sense, Dolley Madison broke no new ground when she became the “first lady” of the United States. Two other women—Martha Washington and Abigail Adams—had already served in that capacity. Moreover, Dolley Madison merely continued a number of practices that her predecessors had engaged in, including hosting official social functions.

But in a number of respects, Dolley Madison redefined the role of the first lady.

First, while she continued the practice of her predecessors to host social gatherings, she made a significant change by inviting guests from both political parties. This helped foster a bipartisan spirit in the nation’s capital for much of his presidency.

Second, from accounts of the time, it appears that she became involved in efforts to help orphans and destitute women during her husband’s first term in office gaining favorable publicity along the way. Her personality definitely aided the process; unlike the previous two first ladies, Dolley Madison had an outgoing personality and wore fashionable clothes. These attributes made the newspapers of the time want to provide press coverage of her, and the ensuing publicity helped raise awareness of the causes she had an interest in.

2. History or legend has it that she saved a picture of George Washington from flames. Is this a folk tale or is there any truth to this?

When James Madison became president of the United States, he inherited a tense national relationship with Great Britain that had grown worse with every passing year of our existence. Through the first three years of his presidency, Madison sought a diplomatic solution for the troubles with the British, but none of his efforts proved successful. For that reason, in June of 1812 he asked Congress for a declaration of war. Congress acquiesced, and a conflict known in the United States as the War of 1812 began.

In 1814, the British attempted to end the war by launching a three-pronged attack on the United States. One part of this campaign included a military operation to capture Washington DC. After landing a few miles from the capital, British forces quickly brushed aside American forces sent to stop them, and it became apparent that nothing could save the city. Virtually everyone in Washington panicked when they heard the news, and fled as quickly as they could.

Dolley Madison, on the other hand, kept her composure. Before she fled, she ordered the White House staff to remove a painting on display in the White House, and place it in her carriage. She chose that one painting to save because of its significance to the nation.

In 1796, Gilbert Stuart had painted a portrait of George Washington, then in the last year of his presidency. This had become the most famous portrait of Washington, and Dolley Madison believed that the British would regard its capture as a great coup. When the nation learned of her accomplishment, she became even more popular with the public than she had been before the war. Indeed, Congress would eventually give her an honorary seat on the floor of the House of Representatives. No other first lady, before or since, has ever received that honor.

3. What were some of her other accomplishments that may have been lost to history?

Prior to her marriage to James Madison, Dolley Madison had been wed to a man named John Todd. This marriage produced two sons, one of whom survived into adulthood. Her other son died in a smallpox epidemic, one that also took her husband’s life. Although James Madison never formally adopted Dolley Madison’s son (who suffered from alcoholism), he did help him financially throughout his life. When the former president died in 1836, she attempted to continue the financial support, but found the task impossible.

To raise funds, she painstakingly copied all of her husband’s personal paper, and then offered them for sale to Congress. After a brief negotiation, Congress agreed to pay her $55,000 for the papers. Because this collection contained an extensive set of notes that Madison had kept during the Constitutional Convention, this transaction represented a significant milestone in the preservation of our nation’s history.

4. What were her later years like?

As previously noted, Dolley Madison fell into economic distress after the death of her second husband. The sale of James Madison’s papers gave her temporary relief from her financial difficulties, and she took the opportunity to move back to Washington DC from the Madison plantation in Virginia. Unfortunately, her son ran up even greater debts, and she was forced to sell off her husband’s plantation. Here again, this provided only a temporary respite for her. Finally, in 1848 Congress agreed to buy all of her husband’s documents that remained in her possession. She died a year later.

5. What have I neglected to ask?

Dolley Madison was raised as a Quaker, and her first husband embraced that same faith. Prior to the American Revolution, the Quaker church had renounced slavery. James Madison, however, belonged to the Episcopal Church, which at the time had not taken a stance against the institution of slavery. Like many of his fellow Founding Fathers, he owned slaves, a situation that could have given his Quaker wife pause for concern.

Apparently, however, it did not, as we have no record of her ever speaking about the fact that her husband owned slaves. In fact, after her husband died, she took one of his slaves with her to Washington to serve as her butler. Eventually, that slave gained his freedom, but not through any action taken by Dolley Madison.

Rather, a senator named Daniel Webster bought the slave from her, and then gave him his freedom. Thus, the life of this famous woman illustrates an important point about American life. Many of our most famous heroes, male or female, either tolerated or embraced the institution of slavery. We need to understand them within the context of their own time period if we are to do justice to the past.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.