dolley madison was america's "queen mother" -- 11/08/16

Today's selection -- from Worst. President. Ever. by Robert Strauss. In its earliest days, Washington D.C. did not have much of a social scene. Elected officials from the South generally left their families at home, and elected officials from the North, since better roads and trains allowed them to get in and out of the city more easily, did much the same. Dolley Madison's parties stood in welcome relief to this.

"[After] the death of Dolley Todd Madison [in 1849], there [was] no focus for those who wanted to supplement Washington's dull government work and dubious living conditions with the lavish and fun times expected in a national capital. Even after her son by her first marriage, James Payne Todd, had run through her money with his mounting debts and legal dustups, Dol­ley Madison was, essentially, America's Princess or maybe even Queen Mother. She had endeared herself to the masses for saving whatever she could, especially Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington, as the British burned the White House during the War of 1812, when her husband, James, was president. In fact, her popularity extended further back, to the Founding Father era in Philadelphia, when -- with her first husband dying young during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic­ -- James Madison, seventeen years older and by that time perhaps the most well-respected legal mind in the new nation, married her the next year.

A daguerreotype of Dolley in 1848,
by Mathew Brady

"With the capital moving from Philadelphia to Washington, Presi­dent Jefferson, by then a widower and having appointed James Madison the secretary of state, asked Dolley to become what came to be termed First Lady -- essentially the social chair of the government. Dolley's touch was perfect: a bit of the old world and a good dollop of the new. When it came to White House functions under Dolley Madison, everyone got a chance at the head table, political stances be damned. America's politics of the time generated what was called the 'Era of Good Feelings,' and it is hard not to give Dolley Madison's creation of a positive social atmo­sphere some credit for that.

"After her husband's own presidential term, the couple retired to their country estate in Virginia, appropriately named Montpelier for the Francophile Madisons, and entertained dignitaries and local politicians alike for the next nineteen years, until James Madison's death. Dolley sold Montpelier, paid off James Payne Todd's debts, and returned to Wash­ington, mostly serving as the doyenne to everyone else's parties, since she was, on her own, practically penniless."


Robert Strauss


Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents


Lyons Press an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield


Copyright 2016 by Robert Strauss


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