Catherine Allgor, professor, Dolley Madison biographer

Who she is: Historian and professor Catherine Allgor is the author of several books on Dolley Madison, including A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. It was called “a delightful and discerning biography” by The New York Times.

What she does: A professor of history at the University of California with a PhD from Yale University, her account of Dolley Madison was a finalist for the George Washington Prize in 2007. Allgor’s book was then turned into the script for an episode of the PBS history series, “American Experience,” entitled, Dolley Madison: America’s First Lady. Most recently, she was appointed to the post of director of Education at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. She was also awarded a University of California Presidential Chair.

Why she does it: “When the roar of the American Revolution had finally died down, a new generation of politicians was summoned to the Potomac to assemble the nation’s capital,” Allgor explains. “Into that unsteady atmosphere—which would soon enough erupt into another conflict with Britain—Dolley Madison arrived, alongside her husband, James. Within a few years, she had mastered both the social and political intricacies of the city, and by her death in 1849 was the most celebrated person in Washington.”

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A PERFECT UNION: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation
By Catherine Allgor
Reprinted with permission by Holt Paperbacks

On Wednesday, August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison stood at the window of the White House and watched thousands of Washingtonians, rich and poor, white and black, pouring down Pennsylvania Avenue. News and rumors of the approach of British troops had thrown the city into confusion, and the population had been evacuating for days. Vehicles were at a premium, and any conveyance with wheels was pressed into service by the fleeing throngs. It had not rained for three weeks, and the clouds of dust raised by the people, horses, carriages, and carts lingered ominously on the horizon.

With chaos at her door, Dolley sat down at her desk to continue a letter to her sister Lucy, which she had begun the previous day. “My husband left me yesterday morng to join General Winder,” Dolley had written on Tuesday. “He enquired anxiously whether I had courage, or firmness to remain in the President’s house until his return, on the morrow, or succeeding day, and on my assurance that I had no fear but for him and the success of our army, he left me, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the cabinet papers, public and private.”

James had gone to review the troops stationed in nearby Maryland, hoping to discern, if he could, the intentions of a small force of British soldiers who had landed on the banks of the Patuxent River in June. He had sent Dolley two messages, framing the confusion as comfort: “The reports as to the enemy have varied every hour. The last & probably truest information is that they are not very strong, and are without cavilry and artillery, and of course that they are not in a condition to strike at Washington.” But, James had to admit, “it is possible, however they may have a greater force or expect one, than has been represented or that their timerity may be greater than their strength.” His second letter was “alarming,” Dolley admitted, “because he desires I should be ready at a moment’s warning to enter my carriage and leave the city.”

By midday on Wednesday, Dolley had packed, “press[ing] as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed,” but she was also determined to wait for her husband. From time to time, she went onto the roof of the executive mansion, anxiously casting her spyglass in every direction. By this point, 90 percent of the populace had fled, even the men guarding the city. The mayor of Washington, James H. Blake, came twice to plead with her to evacuate, but Dolley would not leave until James returned.

This disastrous state of affairs—the capital city under threat and the president in physical jeopardy—had taken Americans by surprise. Though there certainly had been signs that the British were targeting Washington, the country had for the most part denied the danger.

As recently as early August, Dolley had assured her own son that “the British on our shore’s are stealing & destroying private property, rarely comeing to battle but when they do, are allways beaten,” yet the truth was far less rosy. Over the course of the two-year war with Great Britain, victories on the American side had been few, and the losses significant and frustrating. American troops had repeatedly tried to invade Canada, across the Niagara frontier, from Lake Champlain toward Montreal, and from Detroit into upper Canada.

Though American forces had won two decisive battles in 1813—led by Oliver Hazard Perry at the battle of Lake Erie, and under William Henry Harrison’s command at the battle of the Thames—Canada remained under British control. And despite several widely heralded victories by the American ships Constitution and United States, the powerful British navy blockaded the East Coast, leaving coastal towns from the Penobscot River in Maine to the Chesapeake Bay vulnerable to hit-and-run raids. Now the papers and commanders could deny it no longer: The British had landed at Benedict, Maryland, and were heading, 4,000 men strong, for the capital of the United States.

Dolley feared not only marauding British soldiers but also nearer enemies. “Mr. Madison’s War,” as his detractors dubbed it, had divided the country, inflaming an already combustible political climate. Treachery filled the air, and on the eve of invasion Dolley had American foes in mind when she darkly hinted to her sister: “Disaffection stalks around us.” Indeed, she wanted to leave the city with James as much for his safety as her own: “I hear of much hostility towards him.”

Even as she was deciding whether she should wait for the president, Dolley was overseeing the preparations for that day’s dinner party, supervising the table setting for 40 guests, ordering the wines, ale, and cider to be brought from the cellar. This occasion was one of many she had hosted in the past months, designed to reassure government officials and local gentry alike that all was well. By 3 o’clock, however, she received word of a devastating rout near Bladensburg, Maryland, during which the Americans turned tail and ran so quickly that the episode would come to be known as the Bladensburg Races.

Now “within sound of the cannon,” Dolley “lived a lifetime,” waiting for her husband to return, but “Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him!” She was in an “agony” of fear that the British would take James prisoner. Urged on by friends, she organized herself and her slaves to leave the house. Charles Carroll, a wealthy Maryland landowner and Madison supporter “has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured.”

The full-length portrait of the beloved Washington hung in the presidential portrait gallery in the state dining room. Unfortunately, there was no time to unscrew the frame from the wall. “I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out,” Dolley related to Lucy, “it is done.” She entrusted the precious painting to “two gentlemen of New York” for safe passage.

Dolley’s departure could not be much longer delayed. James Smith, a free black man who had accompanied the president to Bladensburg, came galloping down the street, warning Dolley and the remaining capital residents to flee, as the American forces were in retreat. Clearly, James would not come now; if Dolley lingered any longer, she risked capture as a political prisoner or death as a casualty of war. It was time to end her missive. “And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!”

That day the British did indeed invade Washington City. They looted and burned only the public buildings, taking particular relish in consigning the “president’s palace” to the flames. Before they did so, however, they sat down and enjoyed the elegant meal that had been set out. Given the effort Dolley Madison had put into establishing her White House as the capital’s social and political center, it seems fitting that a dinner party, even one attended by uninvited guests, occupied the last moments of the executive mansion.

This is how most Americans know Dolley Madison, as the heroine who saved the portrait of George Washington. In fact, next to the tale of Fort McHenry and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the story of Dolley and the White House is the only one Americans typically associate with the ill-fated War of 1812. To be sure, very few have the story right—for instance, many believe Dolley saved the Declaration of Independence. This is not true, though she did save crucial government documents. One version of the legend holds that Dolley herself cut the portrait out of its frame with a butcher knife; some later illustrations even depict Dolley fleeing the burning White House, the canvas flapping behind her as she runs through the street.

The truth is more sobering, more complicated, and more interesting. Black hands tried to unscrew the picture, and when that failed, enslaved Americans wrestled the “Father of Liberty” out of his frame. The portrait, a copy of the famous Gilbert Stuart painting, was not even particularly valuable. But this event is remembered as pivotal for precisely the reason that Dolley intended.

She knew the picture was only a copy, nonetheless, she insisted: “Save that picture! Save that picture, if possible; if not possible, destroy it.” She recognized that it would have been disastrous for any image of the venerated Washington to fall into British hands, to be burned with the house, or even worse, to be paraded through London streets as a prize of war. Dolley understood how fragile the country’s sense of identity was. Even her famous letter to her sister stands as testament to her political savvy: producing the document decades later, she may well have edited or sharpened the text to present a more overtly patriotic account.

However, Dolley Madison’s fame is not restricted to this single incident—nor to the packaged pastries and ice cream that bear her (misspelled) name—and did not take hold until years after her death. In an age before the modern cult of celebrity, when people nonetheless lionized the living, Dolley Madison was famous. During her tenure as the president’s wife and for decades after, she was one of the best-known people in the United States.

Travelers, diplomats, private citizens, and government officials alike raved about her charismatic charm and gracious presence, her legendary parties, and her impressive wardrobe. Even the occasional criticism centered on the excess of these qualities—she was too charming, too regal, too popular. In a time when no respectable woman ever had her name in the newspapers, stories about Dolley, both laudatory and slanderous, periodically appeared in the press.

After her husband’s death in 1836, when she returned to Washington on her own, Washingtonians official and unofficial lined up to pay homage. The House of Representatives granted her free lifetime postal franking, a perquisite of congressmen during their terms and a privilege previously granted only to former presidents and the widow of the revered Washington.

They also presented her with her own seat on the floor of the House (along with appointed escorts), an honor unprecedented for a man, let alone a woman. And when she died in 1849, at age 81, Washington City honored her with a state funeral, the largest one the capital had yet seen. Along with President Zachary Taylor and his cabinet, both houses of Congress adjourned to march in the procession, escorting, one last time, the woman who had come to be known as “America’s Queen.”

Why was Dolley Madison so famous?

In a culture that had no place for a woman in the political spotlight, and in which the only “public women” were prostitutes, Dolley was undeniably a public woman. She became a national figure when the United States was barely a nation, and only men such as George Washington occupied a place in the pantheon above party politics.

And, most inexplicably of all, Dolley proved herself a powerful political player in an age when women were excluded from politics. Married women had no independent legal identities; they were legally “covered” by their husbands, lacking the right to vote, make contracts, or own property, even the clothes on their backs. Dolley’s fame derived from sources other than her association with James Madison; how else to explain her position as Washington City’s social leader and political consultant in the years after James’s death in 1836?

And while one might assume her influence to be greatest during her time as the president’s wife, how then to explain the many honors bestowed on her, and favors beseeched, decades after she had been the “Presidentess”? Such public attention and acknowledgments of respect are hard to reconcile with a woman who, in our time, is almost exclusively associated with Raspberry Zingers and Gem Donuts.

Dolley Payne Todd Madison was famous for precisely the same reason as her male counterparts: power. She possessed considerable political capital, which, under the veil of her culturally appointed roles of wife and hostess, she used to further her own and her family’s political aims. Paradoxically, while her sex prevented her from openly playing politics, those very bonds of womanhood allowed her the scope in which she accomplished her greatest political successes—granting political favors, constructing a modern ruling style that emphasized cooperation over coercion, and achieving her husband’s political aims.

Within the conventional bounds of “ladyhood,” Dolley legitimized her husband’s administration to the nation and the world and went a long way to establishing Washington City as a capital (and to retaining it after the British burned it in 1814).

Using parties, social calls, and correspondence, she built the structures of government that the new United States needed, and she presented political models of bipartisan cooperation—building bridges instead of bunkers—that would prove crucial to democratic rule. Perhaps most important, she used the persona of a lady motivated solely by feminine love and patriotism to create a sense of nationality and unity for the new Americans. In spite of a disastrous war and domestic unrest, her husband’s presidency was universally acclaimed; after the smoke cleared in 1817, former president John Adams noted that, “notwithstand[ing] a thousand Faults and blunders,” James Madison’s administration “has acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all his three Predecessors … put together.”

Other political observers, no doubt giddy with relief, concurred. Their judgment reflected the triumph of Dolley’s efforts at least as much as—perhaps even more than—her husband’s.

Had she lived a century earlier, Dolley would probably have passed her life in contented obscurity as a Virginia gentry woman. However, the American Revolution changed her destiny as surely as it did the country’s. The challenge of the generation after the founders lay in creating a working republic. The enterprise needed not only great leaders and great thinkers but also skilled politicians able to translate revolutionary ideas and ideals into living, breathing reality. Dolley brought considerable personal gifts—including unsurpassed conciliatory skills—to the political arena.

As is true of all good politicians, the public and private sides of Dolley did not quite match up. The popular image of a sunny, gracious, serene hostess who gained fame and prominence with apparent ease obscures the real woman, a person as driven by passion for country and by demons as any Founding Father. She worked hard at constructing a persona that masked her darker side.

Ironically, the public Dolley won the admiration of the world by seeming natural and unaffected.

In cultivating this image, Dolley did indeed draw on genuine parts of herself, including her capacity to cultivate love and her authentic generosity of spirit. She had been a cheerful, charming child and a captivating young woman; these qualities she carried into adulthood and into politics. From earliest childhood, however, her character and her view of the world had been shaped by adversity and difficulties.

Like many extraordinary people, Dolley cannot entirely be explained by her origins. If leaders are born as well as made, Dolley seems to have been born a leader, full of ambition and the desire to be the center of attention and activity. But she was also born a girl, and so was taught from the first the cardinal virtues of meekness and femininity; her early life experiences only underscored her sense of helplessness.

And she was raised in Quaker culture, which prized passivity and retirement from the world. Yet even as the Quakers themselves used their passivity as a catalyst for radical action, Dolley turned compliance into an art, transforming female submissiveness into a political tool. She employed conciliation to disarm and defuse a violent political culture, while winning friends and supporters for her husband. And, in repudiation of her Quaker upbringing, she did so while becoming the most famous, most visible woman in the United States.

It was no accident that Americans seized upon the image of the heroic Dolley saving the George Washington portrait as their predominant memory of the first invasion of American soil. August 1814 was a fragile moment in the country’s history.

In the 1780s, the former colonists, flush with their victory over what was then the world’s greatest superpower, and with the ratification of a brand-new constitution, had watched with dismay as vicious partisan bickering threatened the untried political system, reaching its peak (or depth) with the first real presidential contest, the election of 1796. In the wake of a campaign filled with gossip, slander, backroom “tampering,” and accusations of treachery all around, John Adams won narrowly, and the nation remained polarized.

From the new Americans’ point of view, it boded ill that the infighting disintegrated into the establishment of two proto-parties—the Federalists, represented by John Adams, and the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Republicans had their revenge, however, when John Adams proved a one-term president, and the election that Jefferson would call “the revolution of 1800” swept them into power.

The establishment of a new capital in the southern wilderness, holding as much risk as promise, added to the national sense of uncertainty. The only official guide that the founders had was the untried Constitution and the discouraging history of past short-lived republics. It was one thing to plan a new order founded on liberty, quite another to realize it. To Americans and to outsiders, it was not clear at all that the republican experiment was going to last, let alone thrive.

Into this atmosphere of uncertainty entered Dolley Madison. Her unofficial status as a “Lady” of a political family allowed her to supply the informal politicking sorely needed by the official men who were trying to build a government.

In an era in which overtly monarchical behavior was to be avoided at all costs, Dolley’s institutionalized, ritualized social events compensated for the lack of bureaucratic and governing structures, which were deliberately neglected by the Constitution. Her person and personality—feminine, attractive, charming—fostered collaboration, and she brought together the government, the capital city, and the nation. She was quick to grasp the lessons of the political world in which she found herself, acting in ways that neither James nor any man could.

And although in many ways a conventional 18th-century woman, Dolley was an innovator as a politician. With her emphasis on civility, she offered Americans an alternative to older, coercive models of governing, a modern form of politics, one that would prove crucial to the developing government in ordinary times and would hold the capital city and nation together in a time of crisis.

These models helped to create the first modern democracy and young nation-state; the recognition of the inevitability of bipartisanship and the need for compromise and power-sharing would prove the foundation of a democratic government. Cooperation and negotiation with one’s enemy may have seemed inconceivable to most of the founding men, for whom verbal and physical violence were political tools of the trade, but not to Dolley, who built coalitions and connections every week in her drawing room.

Filling the role that would come to be known as “first lady” did not necessarily guarantee either visibility or power. Devoted wife Martha Washington approached the job doubtfully, albeit dutifully. An intellectual at heart, Abigail Adams was her husband’s partner in the realm of political theory and public policy (she co-created the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts), but she was not interested in inhabiting the role of official hostess offered by her husband’s elevation to the presidency.

Indeed, she spent much of his term at home in Braintree, Massachusetts. In contrast, Dolley took the opportunity to transform the president’s wife into a figure of national importance, expanding the role into an office. The position would remain unchanged until the 20th century; even to the present, certain key aspects of the job that she invented still stand.

When Dolley Madison died, the newspapers rightly called upon “all of our own country and thousands in other lands” to mourn her passing. While she never traveled beyond the United States’ borders, she was a figure of and, thanks to her diplomatic work, for the world. Dolley’s life unfolded within several historically significant American landscapes, including Virginia and Philadelphia.

But her proper milieu was, and always would be, the brand-new capital of the new United States, Washington City. It was her creation, her playground, the scene of her greatest triumphs and best work. Though Dolley became a politician’s wife when she married James in 1794, her own political life began in 1801, when the Madison carriage turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

Copyright © 2006 by Catherine Allgor. All rights reserved.