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Dolley Madison—A Helluva First Lady

A portrait of First Lady Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison

Dolley Madison, the former Dolley Payne, was maybe the first First Lady to be public figure on her own account.

She was smart enough to land James Madison and he was smart enough to listen to her counsel.

From her White House profile

With her charm and her laughing blue eyes, fair skin, and black curls, the young widow attracted distinguished attention. Before long Dolley was reporting to her best friend that “the great little Madison has asked…to see me this evening.”……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. Forced to flee from the White House by a British army during the War of 1812, she returned to find the mansion in ruins. Undaunted by temporary quarters, she entertained as skillfully as ever.”

From Mrs. Madison’s profile at the American President Series at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center–

After the War of 1812, Dolley devoted her energies to improving the welfare of orphaned children in Washington, D.C. She assumed leadership of the cause, donated her time and money, and encouraged other women to follow her example. Many women did, not only in support of her cause, but in attending public events such as luncheons and orations, and in conversing with men at her receptions. They viewed her as a role model, adopting her fashions and asking her for advice.

Although a social icon, Dolley Madison was also interested in contemporary political issues. Her dove parties, while social in nature, had political overtones as she used them to gain information for her husband. When President Madison was disabled from sickness in May 1813, Dolley might well have assumed some of his official responsibilities, though there is little hard evidence to support such a claim. 

The first presidential spouse to renovate the White House, Dolley Madison was revered as a hostess and fashion trendsetter. Likewise, her exploits during wartime carved out new responsibilities for presidential wives. Separately and collectively, each of these actions would help redefine the role and responsibilities expected of future First Ladies.

Dolley Madison lived 1768-1849.

June 12, 2008 - Posted by | History, Political History, Uncategorized | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. to learn more about Dolley and the other First Ladies visit this website and check out the book

    Loves, Lies and Tears, An Intimate Look At America’s First Ladies.

    Comment by Jacqueline Berger | June 20, 2008


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