Dolley Madison was already a superstar when James Madison was elected President in 1808.
The Early Inaugurals
The inaugurations of George Washington had been solemn affairs, both in New York City and Philadelphia. No government of the “we the people” type had ever been attempted before, and the mood was dignified, somber and, in the Biblical sense, awesome. Martha Washington didn’t arrive in New York for several weeks.
When John Adams was inaugurated in 1797, Mrs. A. was back in Massachusetts nursing John’s elderly mother, who would succumb within the month.
Thomas Jefferson, who inherited the new and unfinished White House only a month after Abigail Adams hung her laundry in the East Room, was mainly a man of the “small table,” preferring a dozen guests rather than throngs. Jefferson was a long time widower, as was his Vice President. The ranking woman of Washington, therefore, was Mrs. Madison, wife of his Secretary of State. As such, she was recruited periodically to play hostess for the President, whose Southern hospitality was always gracious, but just a tad remote. Thus, to fill a much-needed void in the fast-growing town, the outgoing Dolley Madison opened the Madisons’ doors, providing a place for meeting, greeting, and polite politicking in an informal and non-threatening setting.
The Washington Social Scene Circa 1809
In 1809, the town was little more than a village, although it would grow every year. Most congressmen, diplomats or other government officials found accommodations in local boarding houses. Where could people meet and be introduced? Where could men discuss the events of the day “off the record”? The parlors or salons of the fashionable and well-placed women of the day provided the venue, and at the top of the list, was the home of Secretary and Mrs. Madison. The movers and shakers of Washington flocked chez Madison for luncheons, receptions, teas, dinners and suppers, which Dolley was happy to host several times a week.
The socially talented Mrs. M. had a true and rare gift for inclusion and an innate diplomacy. Even those who claimed opposing political views were happy to come to Mrs. Madison’s parlor, sure of their unbiased welcome and her effortless talents for inclusion. Everyone was greeted, everyone was introduced, and she permitted no “wallflowers.” No one ever had anything but the highest praise for Dolley. She had the unusual quality of counting both men and women among her many friends and admirers. She was not a flirt. She did not gossip. And she always kept her word, including (and especially) the words of confidentiality. Even more important, the praise and the friends were sincere.
The First Inaugural Ball
By 1809, when James Madison was inaugurated, Washington had grown substantially, as had the country, which was now celebrating its 20th birthday. Always ready for a party, Mrs. Madison, still attractive at forty, decided on hosting an Inaugural Ball to commemorate the occasion. The only accommodation available to hold a large number of people was Long’s Hotel near the Capitol Building. More than four hundred invitations were issued – the largest number of guests ever seen at an event in the city before. The attendees were happy to pay the then-exhorbitant cost of $4 per ticket.
Musicians were engaged, caterers and confectioners were hired. Flowers and bunting and all sorts of decorations were hung. Hundreds of candles lit the room. Everybody who was anybody in Washington came in their finery to make merry, to dance, to dine and to enjoy. First Lady Dolley Madison was dazzling in her buff-colored gown and matching turban with feather plumes. In a short time, word of mouth spread of the affair and style, and both buff and turbans became the fashion of the day. It was the beginning of a new era.
The coup de grace, however, came at the supper. Dolley Madison, as was her custom, sat at the head of the main table. Dolley’s place had been an established custom in the Madison family, relieving her reticent husband of hosting and serving responsibilities. He could then sit mid-table, and engage in the quieter conversations he preferred. To one side of the First Lady sat the Minister of France; on the other, the Minister of England. England and France had been traditional enemies for centuries. Those countries were currently at war. Under any other circumstances, those official representatives would not have even been in the same room together, let alone the same table. But they both knew they would be on their very best diplomatic behavior, and no incident would be forthcoming. Both ministers liked and admired Mrs. Madison, and would not wish to offend her. Only Dolley could have managed that situation!
And the Inaugural Ball has become a quadrennial tradition for two centuries.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow
Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press
Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill