Dolley Madison at 250

At 250 years old, Dolley Madison has consistently “worn well.”

Happy Birthday to Dolley!

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

Dolley Madison, by Gilbert Stuart.

From the time Dolley Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768-1849) was in her mid-twenties, she was arguably the most famous woman in the United States. Two centuries later, according to the copious amount of written evidence, everybody had nice words for Dolley Madison!

Her good looks and ready smile attracted everyone in Philadelphia, where she lived as a teenaged girl-to-recently-widowed woman. Helping her mother run a boarding house in the new country’s temporary capital gave her proximity and won her the admiration of congressmen and other notables, including President and Mrs. George Washington.

So well known was the Widow Todd, that Congressman James Madison, seventeen years her senior, specifically wanted to meet her. He was immediately enchanted by her delightful personality, and within six months, they were married. As Mrs. Madison, wife of a very important figure in the new nation, she soon dominated the political-social scene as a quintessential hostess.

Wearing Well in the 19th Century.

Being blessed with good looks and a winsome smile are always helpful. Effortless and gracious entertaining and hosting abilities certainly help earn a popular reputation. But Dolley Madison also had some deeper, more substantive qualities that endeared her.

Dolley Madison was not a flirt.

James Madison and Dolley had a particularly happy marriage.

Despite her better-than-somewhat good looks, and marriage to a man several years her senior, half a head shorter, and with a reticent personality, the Madison marriage was a particularly happy one. Nevertheless, she enjoyed the friendship of many men. And their wives. And their mothers or sisters or daughters. Nobody was uneasy in Mrs. Madison’s company.

Dolley Madison did not pry.

She admitted on more than one occasion, and in her own hand, that her “happiest” blessing was a lack of curiosity about other people’s business. If you did not volunteer the information, she would not intrude on your privacy.

Dolley Madison was discreet.

Another image of Dolley – not as good as the Stuart!

She did not spread rumors, gossip or denigrate others, nor did she permit others to do so in her presence. In more than twenty years at the top of the socio-political pecking order, everyone knew that an invitation to one of Mrs. Madison’s soirees (whether in her own home, or in the White House) demanded good manners. This included people with a wide range of political opinions, regional biases, monetary advantages – or disadvantages – and experiences. No invitations were ever issued. Everyone was welcome. Everyone came. And everyone was indeed on their best behavior. No one wished to offend their charming hostess.

Dolley Madison never betrayed a confidence.

As the wife of the Secretary of State and later as the wife of the President, Mrs. Madison was privy to all sorts of knowledge: political, personal, and occasionally private. She knew everyone’s worst nightmares, secret ambitions and hidden doubts. She seldom solicited information, but if or when it was shared in confidence, it remained in confidence.

Politics by People

If Mrs. Madison were alive today, she would continue to insist that she believed in “politics by people.” Those are her words.

The White House of the early nineteenth century.

She genuinely liked people. Her great gift was her effortlessness in bringing them together from all walks of life: highbrows and lowbrows and those in between. For sixteen years in Washington, her Wednesday evening soirees, sometimes called “squeezes” or “crushes,” attracted upwards of 300 guests – every Wednesday. Judges met with clergymen, shopkeepers with generals, and farmers with Senators or editors. And rustics in calico and hobnail boots were welcome to mingle with ladies and gentlemen in velvets and silk.

Blessed with the politician’s gift of remembering names and faces, where they were from, and those little tidbits about their children’s ages or their elderly mother’s health, she greeted every guest personally. She stood at the door and made sure that every stranger to town was introduced to someone with a common interest. She was always sensitive to shyer dispositions, and could not bear wallflowers. Everyone must be made welcome.

She intuitively understood the difference between “private” and “public” personal information. For instance, if someone confided an illness in his family, it was public. It was information that could (and frequently was) shared with her husband. Thus appropriate acknowledgements could be sent and more than likely, be graciously remembered.

Wearing Well in the 21st Century

Even in her elder years, Mrs. Madison was considered a good looking lady!

Some modern historians love nothing better than to totally debunk, discredit and dismiss people who lived long ago. Some notables who were prominent during their lifetimes have disappeared into the dustbins. Some rightly so; some unjustly so. Some historians focus on personal biases or single flaws, forgetting that we all have biases, and are all flawed.

With the huge changes during the past half-century or more in what is expected of a First Lady, many people tend to dismiss Mrs. M. as “a good hostess,” and that is all; not particularly remarkable. Big deal. Throwing a party.

James Madison, astute and insightful, understood both the nature and the substance of his wife’s gifts, and how much they enhanced his political life as well as his personal happiness. He could rely on her discretion to refrain from offering political opinions, save those of her brilliant husband. He could also rely on his wife to keep him apprised of everyone’s pertinent welfare, the births and deaths, the sickness and health and those non-confidential details that transcend politics and bind people together. Dolley was immensely popular and her popularity was his joy.  Some even suggested it was the key to his re-election to a second term. Many consider them to be the first Washington Power Couple.

Even twenty years after her heyday in the eighteen-teens, when an elderly Widow Dolley returned to Washington, which had grown exponentially, she was still the most popular First Lady of all times.

The same qualities that held her in high esteem more than two hundred years ago, still do her huge credit today! Happy Birthday!

Sources:

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011

https://www.biography.com/people/james-madison-9394965

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-dolley-madison-saved-the-day-7465218/

 

 

 

 

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to Dolley Madison at 250

  1. M.B. Henry says:

    “Just a good hostess!” Did everyone forget that she saved the priceless Washington painting from the White House just before it went up in flames? Great write up on a great woman 🙂

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