Other First Ladies have been better looking, more intellectual or talented. But no one has ever been more popular.
Everybody Knew Dolley
Dolley Madison (1768-1849) was arguably the best known woman in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. This was no small accomplishment, since communication had only two routes: the spoken word and the written word. Two centuries later, we can only rely on the written evidence – and there was plenty of it! And everybody had nice words for Dolley Madison.
From her early days in Philadelphia, then capital of the new nation, Dolley Payne Todd, recent widow, gained prominence helping her mother run a boarding house catering to several congressmen, one senator and Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State.
Her attractive looks and winsome smile assured her recognition in town; her natural hosting charm at the boarding table won the admiration of the country’s movers and shakers. The marriage of one of her sisters to one of President George Washington’s nephews gained her “family access” to Lady Washington’s levees, where she delighted the cream of Philly.
So well known was the young Widow Todd, that Congressman James Madison wanted to meet her. He was immediately enchanted, and within six months, the two were married. Now as Mrs. Madison, wife of a very important figure in the new nation, she began to make her own mark as a quintessential hostess and political helpmeet.
The Personal Qualities of Dolley
Good looks, a winsome smile and gracious entertaining certainly help earn a reputation for popularity, but there were other deeper, substantive qualities that endeared her to both men and women.
Dolley Madison did not pry.
Dolley admitted on more than one occasion that her “happiest” blessing was a lack of curiosity about other people’s business. She intuitively knew the difference between “neighborly” (…and how is your dear mother?) and “nosy” (is your homely daughter still unmarried?) This is no mean virtue.
Dolley Madison did not gossip, badmouth or spread rumors.
She practiced the old saying: if you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing. Nor she did not allow others to demean others in her presence. Both in Philadelphia and later in Washington, when she was at the pinnacle of society, everyone knew that an invitation to Mrs. Madison’s soirees meant that they would be on their best behavior. No one ever wished to offend their lovely hostess.
Dolley Madison never betrayed a trust.
Both as the wife of the Secretary of State and later as First Lady, Dolley Madison was privy to knowledge of all kinds: political, personal and private. She seldom, if ever, solicited the information, but if it was shared with her in confidence, it remained with her, in confidence. And that “trust” included marital trust. Dolley did not flirt. The men adored her, but so did their wives, daughters and mothers.
Dolley Madison, Political Helpmeet
Dolley Madison was a product of her own times, and as such, took the customary womanly back seat to her brilliant husband. She dismissed all inference of political influence, saying that hers was only “politics by people.”
Her great gift was her ease in bringing people together from all walks of life, high brows and low, and those in between. Her Wednesday evening “squeezes” (so called by the sheer numbers of people who came) permitted Senators to mix with shopkeepers, generals and judges to mingle with farmers and tradesmen, and editors and clergymen to share conversation with hob-nailed rustics passing through town. All were welcome. All went. And all were appreciative of the “Presidentess'” hospitality.
Rather than having guests introduced to her, Dolley broke tradition by standing near the door and greeting them personally. Since she was sensitive to the shy or “wallflower” type, it was her policy and practice to make sure that all strangers to town were introduced to someone with a common interest. Since she had the politician’s gift for remembering names, faces, places and pertinent details, this was not as daunting as it may sound since country was a lot smaller!
James Madison, Proud Husband
James Madison (1751-1836), seventeen years senior and half-a-head shorter than his wife, had loved his Dolley from the start. Indications are that she many have had less enthusiasm when they married. But she always claimed that “their hearts understood each other,” and a deep love and bond grew over the years.
The “Great Little Madison” (so-called because of his size and his importance in drafting the Constitution) understood both the nature and the substance of his wife’s talents, and how much they added to his personal happiness as well as to his political life.
He was enormously proud of Dolley’s popularity, and knew he could trust her discretion. For himself, he preferred the “small table” – perhaps a dozen guests, which he felt was more conducive to serious discussion. Dolley, or course, was happiest in a crowd. So they compromised and did both.
Dolley always sat at the head of the table; Madison’s secretary at the foot. This way, President Madison could sit mid-table next to guests of his own choosing, was spared serving obligations, and could concentrate on his conversation. He relied on his tactful and uber-social wife to keep him apprised of everyone’s welfare, their comings and goings, the births and deaths, sickness and health – those personal (and non-confidential) details that everyone in town always entrusted to Mrs. M.
James Madison reveled in his Dolley and her talents, and beamed at her popularity. His own public image was always moderate at best, but Dolley… she was a star of the first magnitude!
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
Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011
Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill