For Women’s History Month today, I watched a beautiful and moving documentary about Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady of the United States. It was part of PBS’s American Experience series.
I’ll get to Dolley Madison in a moment, but, first, I want to share some funny Thomas Jefferson stories that were in the documentary. There was a debate in the new nation of America about how much royal fanfare should surround the American Presidency. George Washington didn’t desire to be America’s king, but he supported a limited amount of formality and ceremony to give the Presidency a dignified aura. Thomas Jefferson, however, went the opposite direction! He didn’t want the Presidency to resemble a royal monarchy in any sense of the word! Consequently, when the British ambassador visited the White House, Thomas Jefferson greeted him in his bathrobe! And, when Thomas Jefferson was supposed to escort the wife of the British ambassador and lead her to her seat at a White House function, Jefferson walked right past her and escorted Dolley Madison instead (even though Dolley was whispering to him the proper protocol). Yeah, there’s my Aspergian brother! I think it was Cokey Roberts who said that some believe that led to the War of 1812, but she doubts it.
The announcer at the beginning of the movie said that Dolley Madison was the first wife of a President to define the role of First Lady. She beautified the White House and started social functions there, making it a welcoming place where politicians of different parties and ideologies could come, socialize, and enjoy Mrs. Madison’s famous ice-cream! As a result, she was able to advance her husband’s agenda, while creating a kinder, gentler political climate in Washington. (We need her now!) After the War of 1812, she made the assistance of orphans from that war her cause. Since her, many First Ladies have sought to advance causes that are important to them.
On the issue of slavery, Dolley was rather ambivalent, as were many of the Founding Fathers. Many of them didn’t care for the institution, but they felt that they couldn’t live without it. Dolley herself had an experience that shaped her approach to the issue. Her Quaker father freed all of the family’s slaves, and the result was the impoverishment of the family. Consequently, when she grew up and left home, Dolley lived a life with slaves. Yet, she tried to be a humanitarian. When she was old and had to sell her slaves to pay off her profligate son’s debts, she sold them to neighbors to keep together the slaves’ families. And, although she renigged from her promise to free a mulatto slave, he still had a lot of affection for her, and he visited her regularly after he purchased his freedom from his new master.
Dolley Madison was charismatic throughout her life. In her younger years, she was so beautiful that men would wait for her outside of her home—sometimes ten at a time—to see her and to wave at her. She dazzled people at White House functions. In her older years, in the 1840’s, she was viewed as a remnant of America’s founding, and she would entertain people with her stories about George and Martha Washington. And, as an old lady, she was the only private citizen who was granted an honorary seat in the U.S. Congress!
Although she was attractive and charismatic, she married the shy, short, un-charismatic James Madison (who could still be charming and tell dirty jokes in small settings). She was introduced to Madison by Aaron Burr, whom many of us know as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton. There’s a chance that Dolley was initially unenthused by her marriage to James, for she signed a letter, “Dolley Madison, Alas.” But he turned out to be the love of her life, even though she had a husband before him, who had passed away. They enjoyed each other’s company. James tried to shield his wife from the details of her son Payne’s misdeeds, and he asked Payne why his mother hadn’t heard from him for such a long time. And, years after Madison’s death, Dolley said that she needed her counselor, and that she missed her little Madison.
She was a strong woman. During her first marriage, when most of her family was dying of a fever, she managed to survive, even though she also suffered the fever. During the War of 1812, when the British were about to invade Washington, D.C., she said that she was staying in the White House, and that, even though she was a Quaker, she still kept her Tunisian revolver close at hand! As the British approached, and she and a few slaves were alone in the White House, she stuck around long enough to save a large portrait of George Washington, for she didn’t want the British to parade it through the streets. And, even though she fled, she resolved to come back to Washington to show the British that they hadn’t shattered the iron will of the United States.
Her blind spot was her son from her first marriage, Payne, who didn’t know what to do with his life and behaved irresponsibly (and being treated as a prince in Europe didn’t help matters!). She still loved her son and hoped that a nice lady would settle him down. She also liked to hear from him, but he often did not write to her. She gave him money, and that ended up impoverishing her. She finally put her foot down later in life, when Payne was trying to get his hands on money that Abigail earned when the U.S. Government bought her husband’s writings, out of sympathy for Mrs. Madison. Dolley didn’t like Payne alienating her friends by threatening to sue them!
As a First Lady, Mrs. Madison had a sense of style and a willingness to show-off her physical beauty. Her dresses showed a little more cleavage than was common at the time. (It’s sort of like the flack that Michelle Obama gets for her bare arms.) I liked what one old lady wrote to her: she should hide her breasts from the eyes of the vulgar!
I enjoyed the documentary for a variety of reasons. Like many good American Experience documentaries, it was narrated by David Ogden Stiers, whom I appreciate from The Dead Zone (but whom many people like from MASH). I enjoyed what Cokey Roberts had to say, and Richard Norton Smith was another familiar face—from other American Experience episodes. I also liked the actors, who portrayed Dolley, James, the mulatto slave, Dolley’s niece, etc., using the very words of these figures from their letters.
In previous posts (see Oleson Vs. Oleson and Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Proverbs 31 Woman), I’ve asked what Betty Friedan would think about certain things. She’d probably frown at some of the volunteer work that Dolley did—not because it was bad, but because she wasn’t paid. Perhaps she’d say that Dolley was too much of a homemaker, preoccupied with interior decoration, or that her identity was subsumed into that of her husband, James Madison. There may be a place for Betty Friedan’s critiques of the Feminine Mystique and how women have been regarded in America, but, in this case, I ask: Who cares? Dolley Madison did a lot of good for the people and the society around her, and she received honor and recognition as a result. And she deserves the praise that she received.