Dolley Madison: A vivacious first lady who became an American icon
Legend gives us at least one clear image of the disastrous War of 1812: the gallant Dolley Madison in the White House heroically saving a portrait of George Washington. That story even more firmly affixed Dolley in the American imagination, adding to her popular acclaim at the time of the Madison administration.
Dolley was a young widow when she met and married the aging bachelor and political leader, James Madison. He was quiet, scholarly, diffident, while she was a pretty, shapely, vivacious Southern lady.
Originally she was of more austere Quaker stock, but she was not satisfied with basic black. She was a perfect companion to James Madison in so many ways. As Catherine Allgor shows, Dolley Madison wasa “republican queen,” the first president’s wife to be seen as the “First Lady.”
Ms. Allgor, a history professor at the University of California at Riverside, has given the reader not just a biography of an eminent woman, but a history of American manners in the late 18th and early 19th century. The central dilemma she faced was how to respect republican simplicity, and yet put forth a social pose that would be respected by the diplomats from Europe. Washington and John Adams went more toward an aristocratic tone; Jefferson was at times genuinely rude to diplomats to show his republican temper.
Dolley Madison created a style that was elegant, especially in her social levees, but which was also personally gracious, warm and genuine. She refused to segregate her hospitality by party affiliation, and used those occasions to bridge the gap between and among factions and political foes.
Repeatedly, she and James would use this sociability to smooth over political enmities, and few in the process ever criticized her efforts. One niece said, “You like yourself more when you are with her.”
A Prussian born woman called Dolley “fat, forty, and not fit,” but that observation was very surely from a small minority. One cannot help but be impressed by how on one occasion she smoothed over the anxieties of a so-called frontiersman who blundered at a social gathering when he dropped a cup of coffee on the White House floor and broke a saucer in the process.
Dolley’s loyalties were clearly the life, career and reputation of her husband. She seemed effervescent, but had to cover up at times her critical spirit and even cynicism. Still, one could not see that darker side or even sense it, unless one had access to her most personal letters.
For Ms. Allgor, Dolley’s feminine style was important in muting the rough-and-ready male version of political conflicts. The “petticoat democracy,” so criticized by Thomas Jefferson, was in fact an important development in building coalitions in the new nation. It is obvious that both Madisons were smarter than Jefferson in exploiting that sentiment.
At times, Dolley was even more astute than her experienced husband in understanding the political realities that became increasingly intense as the War of 1812 approached. Both, though, were less than admirable in their support of slavery, living well off the captive labor of others.
Madison’s tenure resulted in a very mixed record, but his contemporaries generally praised his two terms as those of a model executive. History has been less generous in judging his presidency, but fully respectful of his contributions to the drafting of the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights.
But Dolley became immediately a beloved figure in her own right, and after his death in 1836 she was an American icon in the middle years of the young republic. Ms. Allgor has given us a biography interwoven with a full and rich history of the politics of the time.
Dolley was more than an attractive fashion plate for a dull diminutive mate. She was a genuine American celebrity, one who dedicated her talents to joining elegance and republican values in a fine mix. Not until Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House would the nation have such an accomplished First Lady, and not until Jacqueline Kennedy would the nation have a womanwho used the position to promote a sense of style and class.
But beyond the feathers and the fine gowns was a woman who was highly attuned to public affairs and the strange ways of women and men who call politics a profession.
Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”