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Wifery in Action: Dolley Madison

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Dolley Madison by Gilbert StuartFirst Ladies of the United States are important—and usually popular—figureheads and participants in their husbands’ administrations. (Today First Lady Michelle Obama is one of the only political figures with a positive approval rating.) Dolley (sometimes spelled Dolly) Madison, wife of the fourth President of the United States, helped defined the role of First Lady as hostess to the White House and national mistress of ceremony. Her practicality, social graces, and quick-thinking make her a worthy example of Wifery in Action.


Early Tragedy

Dolley was raised on her family’s upper Virginia plantation. But after the Revolutionary War, her Quaker father chose the justice of freeing his slaves over the relatively easy life of a plantation owner. He moved his family to Philadelphia where he opened a starch business. When her husband died, Dolley’s mother and younger children moved in with younger sister and her husband in western Virginia.

Dolley stayed behind with her new husband, a Quaker lawyer named John Todd. The couple was soon blessed with two sons, John Payne and William Temple Todd. When a yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia three years after her wedding, 4,000 people died. One was her husband. And one was her three-month-old son. Dolley was left a widow at 25 with a young son to support.


A Renowned Hostess

A year later, Dolley met the elder statesman James Madison, delegate to the Continental Congress. A confirmed bachelor, Madison was immediately taken with the young widow and asked his friend the now-notorious Aaron Burr to introduce them. The two quickly married in 1794, over the objections of Dolley’s Quaker church. Madison retired from public life to family plantation in Virginia.

When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, Madison moved his family to Washington, DC to take a position in Jefferson’s cabinet as Secretary of State. Dolley insisted that the family live on the edge of their means to take a house large enough for entertaining. She knew that having an open and welcoming house would be instrumental to her husband’s political success.


A Three-Term First Lady

Jefferson was a widower by the time he became president, so Dolley became the unofficial White House hostess, and occasionally the title of First Lady for official ceremonial functions. Together, she and White House Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe furnished the presidential mansion to be a warm, elegant home.

When her husband was elected president in 1808, Dolley became the de facto and de jure First Lady of the United States. Throughout his two terms, Dolley’s legendary hospitality and famous social graces contributed to his popularity as president.

According to legend, Dolley was instrumental in saving some of the White House’s most valuable and irreplaceable artifacts from the burning of Washington, the greatest British success of the War of 1812. She and the White House slaves saved the White House silver, George Washington’s portrait, and original drafts of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Madison died in 1836, 19 years after his tenure as president. Dolley collected and copied seven volumes of Madison’s papers, including his own notes from the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Dolley herself lived another 13 years before she was buried next to her husband on the family plantation.


The Lessons of Dolley Madison

So what can the wives of today learn from Dolley?


  • Not all marriages start out as great love affairs—and that’s okay. Unlike John and Abigail Adams, James and Dolley Madison don’t have hundreds of beautiful letters documenting their decades-long love for each other. With her first husband and son dead for less than a year, it seems unlikely—though by no means impossible—that Dolley was deeply in love with Madison. Regardless of their romantic feelings for each other, their marriage was happy. Dolley and Madison made a powerful pair, supporting each other and providing for each other’s needs. If that isn’t love, what is?
  • Great wives have the skills they need to help their husbands be successful. Dolley Madison’s abilities as a hostess are still legendary. They contributed to her husband’s ascent as the political successor of Thomas Jefferson. And they helped make her husband a popular, two-term president. She insisted on hospitality big enough for Madison’s ambitions, occasionally even over his objections. Her skills helped make Madison the man he was.
  • Great wives think of their feet. No material object is more important than human life. But Dolley knew that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were important documents worth saving. With her quick thinking, she and the household slaves were able to save some of our nation’s greatest treasures without putting anyone in danger.

Do you know of any great examples of Wifery in Action? Let us know in the comments so we can honor her, too!

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