National Council for History Education: You enjoy writing about couples in history. How did the Madison’s marriage shape their lives and historical impact?
David Bruce Smith: At first, the President’s House– along the Potomac—did not have an aura of polish, pomp—or perceptible perfection.
Its inaugural occupants, Abigail and John Adams, tolerated four months of unfinished construction; damp drafts, leaks, and hanging their wash in the “audience’—now–East Room.
Thomas Jefferson refused “to open [it] to the public or even other members of the government… [but he gave] orders for the demolition of the outdoor wooden privy…had two water closets installed upstairs…a wine cellar just west of the house…changes to many of the fireplaces, including equipping the kitchen…[and]A call bell system was installed for summoning servants…”
(“The Politics of Love: Dolley Madison Gained Influence Through Kindness” by Catherine Allgor; Humanities Magazine; January/February 2010; and “Jefferson’s White House Upgrades” by the White House Historical Society).
But when Dolley Madison arrived, the cycle of dismal disregard ended; she engaged Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Capitol, to dispense with the drab, and doll up the décor:
“[They] replaced furniture and accessories, installed chimney pieces, and repapered the rooms. Deftly, she and Latrobe added candles and lamps along with large mirrors to reflect and magnify the light…When possible, new items were of American design and manufacture. This was, after all, the president’s home…”
(Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America” by David O. Stewart; p. 282).
Lickety-split, Dolley pulled the Mansion out of disrepair, welcomed the proud public inside, and—they baptized her–“Lady Presidentess”.
In the early 1800s, Washington DC did not—yet–have stitched-together social standards–possibly because Congress was only in session part of the year—but Dolley intended to re-configure some of the distasteful traditions.
Shortly after Madison’s inauguration, Dolley initiated her Wednesday night receptions— “squeezes” as they became known–because of their overflow attendance. Anybody who wanted to come to the Mansion and speak to her–or the president—was welcomed to an evening of food, drink, and discourse:
“The Madison’s entertaining was by no means frivolous… James would engage in bridge building and information gathering. At the Wednesday receptions, he diligently shook hands with each guest, then stood to the side for serious conversations on pressing public matters. Dolley, at the center of the swirl, served as a second set of eyes and ears. It was a platform from which James could advance his politics…” (ibid).
Their politic partnership was critical to the success of the Madison’s marriage—and–his rise; without her, James would never have ascended to the presidency. He clocked in cold with his constituents, but Dolley patched up provocations—whether they were lobbed at a plain person–or a prominent politician.
During the War of 1812, as the British incinerated the City, and rage ramped up in the country, “Dolley resumed hosting parties almost immediately, after settling in a new residence, a show of determination believed to have helped convince her friends in Congress to vote down a plan to move the capital back to Philadelphia.” (History.com, “Dolley Madison”; March 6, 2019.)
The following year, news arrived from Europe; the War was over—at last; America forgave its 64-year-old president, and he left Washington a hero—for a twenty-year retirement—of unimaginable woe.
National Council for History Education: James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution, but Dolley was also an important historical actor. How would you describe her legacy?
David Bruce Smith: Twelve years after the death of James Madison, an outpouring of onlookers gathered to observe the laying of the cornerstone at the Washington Monument; one woman—in particular- attracted some curiosity.
It was Dolley, at eighty–accompanied by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton.
Even after she returned to Washington in 1837–after a two-decade absence– Dolley had not been forgotten; the former first lady was akin to a queen, who had scored—memorably- in style, sophistication, and spunk:
“During the Madison presidency [she]…became the social leader of the nation, and the public face of the administration. Her role as the visible half of the Madison partnership intensified when the United States entered the disastrous War of 1812.” (Allgor, ibid.)
Dolley’s place in history as just a hostess/party-giver is inaccurate; she was a “Diplomat-in-Disguise”:
“Dolley availed herself of the drawing room’s opportunities…using the social circles that she had built to do practical politicking for her husband. She participated in the all-important business of diplomatic relations, intervening over and over again in confrontations between James Madison and various representatives of His Majesty’s Government. She used conversations, cake, wine, and her own brand of gracious ness to reduce the heated discussions.” (ibid.)
She also empowered government workers, families, and communities–who had no place to gather in the City—with opportunities to make use of the Mansion:
“The early republic was a time of political violence…men fought over politics, beating each other with canes and even dueling, not just in the streets, but also on the floors of Congress. In “Mrs. Madison’s drawing rooms,” …the powerful learned to work together in bipartisan ways…” (ibid.)
Dolley was astute, artful, and adept; able to unscramble the motives of anybody: from the plebeian to the prime minister; the patrician and the powerful.
When she died in 1849, Dolley was mourned like a monarch; eighteen decades later, her name lives on superficially, but her prodigious proficiencies: as a stateswoman; an ambassador; a politician; –are stubbornly stuck–in obscurity.