Dol­ley Madi­son: A vi­va­cious first lady who be­came an Amer­i­can icon

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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.”

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