By Kaleena Fraga
Dolley Madison is best known for rescuing a portrait of George Washington from the White House during the British attack on Washington D.C. in 1814. She, like Nellie Taft, was an indispensable member of her reticent husband’s presidency.
In David McCullough biography’s of Madison-foe John Adams, the nation’s fourth president is described as “a tiny, sickly-looking man who weighed little more than a hundred pounds and dressed always in black.” When Dolley Madison caught his eye and he asked for an audience with her (bonus trivia: mutual friend Aaron Burr set them up), she wrote her sister that “the great, little Madison” wanted to meet her. Great because of Madison’s political reputation; little because at 5’7, Dolley Madison was several inches taller than her future husband.
When Thomas Jefferson won the election of 1800, James & Dolley Madison moved in with the new president to the White House (James Madison was the new Secretary of State). Jefferson had been a widower for several years, and his daughters had not come to live with him in Washington. Although the Madisons eventually found a home of their own near the White House, Dolley Madison became the de facto First Lady.
Whenever Jefferson held dinners at the White House where women were invited, Dolley Madison was the hostess. To her husband, who was a prolific writer, and who had conducted much of his politicking through letters, Dolley was an immense asset–especially in a city like Washington D.C. where politics were based more on social relationships. Dolley thrived in such an environment.
As Secretary of State, Madison needed to become better at face-to-face interactions. In the James Madison biography The Three Lives of James Madison by Noah Feldman, Feldman writes that Dolley was instrumental in forming Madison’s ability to converse with diplomats and their wives. “Under Dolley’s tutelage,” Feldman writes, “Madison developed what would become a lifelong habit of telling witty stories after dinner, the ideal venue for his particular brand of dry wit.”
Dolley Madison presided over the first inaugural ball when her husband was elected in 1808. While Dolley “looked like a queen” according to an attendee, her less social husband remarked to a guest that he “would much rather be in bed.”
In the eight years of her husband’s presidency that followed, she went on to shape the role of first lady more than her predecessors. She was the first one to live full-time in the White House, and as such set out to transform the executive mansion, and to make it a social center of the nation’s capitol.
When the British invaded Washington D.C. in 1814, Dolley was alone at the White House, her husband out rallying the troops. He had sent messengers telling her to flee, but she wanted to wait for his return. According to an account by Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery at Madison’s estate of Montpelier and then working at the White House, the table had been set for dinner when a rider came charing to the mansion with the message that they must evacuate immediately. Dolley wrote her sister that she insisted on waiting until they could unscrew the portrait of George Washington from the wall.
“This process was found to be too tedious for these perilous moments. I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out.”
It was then rolled up and sent to New York, where it would be safe. Dolley Madison instructed its guardians that they should destroy the painting rather than allow it to fall into British hands. When the British troops arrived they found the table set for dinner. They ate their fill, and then burned the house to the ground.
Dolley outlived her husband by thirteen years, and continued to play a social role in politics after his death. She often told stories of the Founding Fathers and their generation, and advised other First Ladies on their role in the White House. Her last public appearance was on the arm of then-President James K. Polk.