For over a century, the greatest compliment you could pay a First Lady was to compare her favorably to Dolley Madison. She presided over the White House for 16 years, (serving as official White House hostess for widower Thomas Jefferson for eight years before her own eight years as First Lady), longer than any other First Lady, and continued to be a social leader in Washington until her death in 1849.
Dolley was born in Guilford County, North Carolina. She was the third child of a Quaker shopkeeper, and was brought up in the Society of Friends in Scotchtown, Virginia. It was her childhood among the “plain people” that probably led to the importance she placed on what she wore and on having a good time. From a childhood where extravagance had no place, she grew into a lady who ordered her clothes from Paris and was known to lose money at cards with a gracious smile.
Dolley married a Quaker Lawyer named John Todd, Jr. in 1790, and they had two sons together. John Todd and one of their sons died in 1793, leaving Dolley a widow with a son to support. She returned to her mother’s boarding house, which she helped to run. Shortly after her return, Aaron Burr introduced her to James Madison. Within a year, they were married. Because she married someone outside the Society of Friends, she was expelled from the Quaker society.
Their long marriage was a great success, both personally and professionally. James complained if they had to be separated for even a short time. Dolley, referring to James short size but large intellect and stature, called him “the great little Madison.”
Where as James could be witty and appealing in private, he was shy, reserved and disinterested in public. He declined to sit at the head of the table, preferring a less conspicuous seat where he could avoid playing the host. His guests frequently left believing that James had not even noticed them.
Dolley, on the other hand, was able to charm even her husband’s opponents. She gave her lavish attention to all guests, friends and foes alike, making many friends and allies for her husband in the process. Presidential candidates were then nominated by Congressional caucuses rather than by national conventions as they are today. It was important not to slight a Congressman or his family in order to avoid losing their support, or incurring their revenge.
To cultivate political support for her husband, Dolley made a point of visiting all new Congressmen and their aides. Even though these formal social calls were often perfunctory, with Dolley leaving her carriage just long enough to drop her calling card on the silver tray in the front hall, they still took up entire days on most of the days of the week. With the unpaved road of Washington and the great area to be covered, it made for very long and tiring days.
Congressional wives not only expected Dolley to call, but also to invite them to the White House. This created a tremendous burden of entertaining. Dolley was known for her entertaining, which she enjoyed, but this was too much even for her. “We have members in abundance with their wives and daughters,” Dolley wrote to a friend, “and I have never felt the entertainment of company oppressive until now.”
Historians generally agree that Dolley was extremely valuable to her husband’s administration. She managed to be all things to all people. One woman approvingly described how the Madisons maintained a royal setting at their parties, where women curtsied to the President before going to their seats. A Senator from New England described the same scene as egalitarian because the Madisons always mixed different classes of people “from the Minister from Russia to under clerks of the post office and the printer of a paper—greasy boots and silk stockings.” Reviewing the vastly different evaluations of Dolley Madison, one historian concluded that she was “brilliant in the things she did not say or do.”
Dolley was already a great success, one who would definitely be remembered, when she performed her most famous act. It was August 1814, the last year of the War of 1812, and British troops were approaching Washington, D.C. President Madison was out of town conferring with his military advisors. Dolley had been told to “be ready at a moment’s warning to enter my carriage and leave the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had at first been reported, and it might happen that they would reach the city with the intention of destroying it.” But Dolley insisted that she would not leave “until I see Mr. Madison safe so that he can accompany me.” When a friend arrived to warn her to leave immediately, she agreed to leave “as soon as the large picture of General Washington is secured. I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out.”
That was the last time Dolley lived in the White House. The British burned it later that night. After the war, she and the President lived and entertained elsewhere. After James’ term was over, the Madisons returned to their Montpelier estate in Virginia, but Dolley always kept in touch with the social life in the capital. After James died in 1836, she returned to Washington and again became a major social and political force.
Her last years were plagued by financial worries, however. Her only surviving son from her first marriage went through the family fortune and left her almost bankrupt. Only the purchase by Congress of her husband’s papers allowed her to continue her social activities. Washington hostesses continued to seek her advice and approval, and politicians and their wives continued to call upon her right up until her death. The last First Lady to seek her help was Sarah Polk, who claimed to be a distant relative.
Dolley is probably the best remembered First Lady, although many don’t know the story behind her popularity. She carved out a new role for the First Lady, and made the position an important part of the Presidency.