Women’s History Month: Dolley Madison

4. Statues of James and Dolley Madison at Montopelier

FORT WORTH, Texas March 11, 2014 — Author Catherine Allgor states in her book, “A Perfect Union” that several groups had a stake in the brand-new Washington City. The local gentry and official families were permanent residents and worked toward building up the capital. Foreign visitors and observers had the ears of their prospective governments that watched the young country. They could become powerful friends or dangerous enemies. Mrs. Madison had her work cut out for her.

Allgon says of Dolley’s mission,

In her quest to create an ideal capital society, Dolley had to find ways not only to teach each group individually, but to blend and connect all three.”

The White House site continues:

“Dolley’s social graces made her famous. Her political acumen, prized by her husband, is less renowned, though her gracious tact smoothed many a quarrel. Hostile statesmen, difficult envoys from Spain or Tunisia, warrior chiefs from the West, flustered youngsters — she always welcomed everyone”

In this she strove to serve not only her husband but also the good of the country. She was a trailblazer and a passionate patriot who knew that the warring political factions of the time had to get along in order for the United States to flourish. Yet she made her way through Washington society and the politics of the young Republic. She did this by balancing her natural charm and beauty with unmatched political finesse.

Dolley and James Madison were the golden couple of their era, but they were not without detractors. They had no children of their own, although Dolley had given birth during her first marriage. Enemies used this information to question James’ virility, indicating that he was impotent and was too feeble to lead the country.

Medical thought at the time also believed that excessive sexual desire belonged to the realm of men and Dolley exuded a

Dolley Madison Gold Coin
Dolley Madison Gold Coin

sexuality that set some tongues wagging. The very thought of a woman having desires like that was almost beyond belief.

Catherine Allgor explains in her book, “A Perfect Union”:

Too much female lust and sex would lose its procreative capacity.”

One rumor even had Thomas Jefferson pimping Dolley and her sister Anna to foreign visitors. There was also an “advertisement” in the Georgetown Federal Republican for a publication about moral and political law.

One chapter called “Love and Smoke Cannot Be Hidden” dealt with the sex lives of a thinly disguised Washington couple — the oversexed and unfaithful wife of an impotent man.

The Madisons dismissed the ugliness of the gossip and for the most part ignored it. They believed, as did Thomas Jefferson, that to address the accusations would only encourage more of the same and make it worse.

After the Madison presidency, James and Dolley retired to Montpelier in 1817. Dolley continued to entertain and helped her husband to organize and prepare the papers he used in drafting the Constitution.

President Madison died in 1836 at age 85. In a letter to her best friend Eliza Collins Lee Dolley confessed,

“Indeed I have been as one in a troubled dream since my irreparable loss of him, for whom my affection was perfect, as was his character and conduct thro’ life.”

Dolley stayed on at Montpelier until she had to sell it and other holdings to pay off debts incurred by her son, Payne, leaving her near poverty.

The sale to Congress of some of her husband’s papers and the sale of Montpelier in 1844 helped, but she still relied on the charity of friends.

Dolley made the permanent move to Washington City that year to a townhouse across the street from the presidential mansion. It was there she died on July 12, 1849 at age 81.

She was given a state funeral where incumbent president Zachary Taylor declared about Dolley, “….the first lady of the land for a century.”

Dolley leadOther interesting facts about Dolley Madison:

National First Ladies Library reports that Dolley helped to found a home for orphaned girls in Washington D.C. There she raised funds, gave support and served as board member. The First Lady also became close to the nuns from a local Catholic school and began a lifelong association with the organization

* Incumbent First Ladies often sought her advice on how to best serve their role including Julia Tyler and Sarah Polk.

* Awarded an honorary seat in Congress where she could watch congressional debates on the floor.

* Samuel F. B. Morse selected her to be the first private citizen to send a telegraph. It read, “Message from Mrs. Madison. She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered,” a cousin in Baltimore.

* Dolley Madison worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to furnish the White House after Jefferson left it partially unfinished on the inside. The beautiful result came in under budget as well.

* Raised as a Quaker, the Society expelled Dolley when she married non-Quaker Madison. She later joined the Episcopal Church.

*Known for her expensive and stylish clothes including her trademark turban.

Future First Ladies since that time have had awfully big shoes to fill. Dolley Madison not only created the role of President’s wife and laid the foundation for society in Washington City, but in doing so, she also left a wonderful legacy that continues to serve the People to this day.

In 1838 Dolley hosted a New Year’s party. It was at this soiree that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay made his famous statement, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison.” To this, Dolley replied, “Mr. Clay, I love everybody.”



Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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