Dolley Madison, who would later be dubbed the first First Lady at her funeral by Zachary Taylor, served the diplomatic corps as the wife of the secretary of state and fourth president. Born into a Quaker family, Dolley seamlessly took on the role of James Madison’s wife, political partner, and official hostess. During the British invasion of Washington City in 1814 – the climax of the War of 1812 – Dolley remained resolute, ensuring that national treasures, including state papers, select furnishings, and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington were removed from the President’s House and out of reach of the British attackers. One year prior to the invasion, Dolley affirmed in a letter to Edward Coles: “I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed, tho a Quaker – I therefore keep the old Tunesian Sabre within my reach.”
The Merry Affair
Dolley first came on to the national political scene as Thomas Jefferson’s unofficial hostess during his presidency. Jefferson was a widower and never remarried after the death of his wife Martha in 1782. Dolley stepped into this supportive role while Madison served his country as Jefferson’s secretary of state. The infamous Anthony Merry Affair solidified Dolley’s significance in Washington society.The event, which Jefferson used as an opportunity to make Dolley Madison a pawn in his game of diplomatic snubbery, further affirmed America’s independence from British tendencies in favor of republican ideals. Anthony Merry, the British minister to the United States between 1803 and 1806, made an official visit to Washington with his wife, Elizabeth. The Merrys arrived at the President’s House on October 1, 1803 for a social event; it was Mr. Merry’s second official visit (first meeting with Jefferson three days prior when the President greeted Merry wearing a most casual outfit with slippers) and Mrs. Merry’s first. In attendance were several political figures including the Madisons, Louis Andre Pichon, the French charge de’ affaires, the Gallatins, and the Yrujos. When dinner was announced, Thomas Jefferson acted defiantly against established diplomatic protocol and took the arm of Dolley Madison, not the visiting Elizabeth Merry. In escorting Dolley to dinner instead of Mrs. Merry, Jefferson effectively snubbed the visiting British diplomat and his wife. Just days later, the Madisons invited the Merrys to dine and like Jefferson, Secretary of State Madison snubbed the visiting diplomats by escorting Hannah Gallatin instead of Mrs. Merry. Doubly offended, the Merrys refused all future invitations. Months later, Madison described Jeffersons logic as such: “the President has discontinued the handing first to the table the wife of a head of depment [sic] applying the general rule of pele mele to that as to other cases.” Jefferson favored seating guests in the pell-mell, random order as opposed to seating by rank. Regardless, the Merry Affair was said to have “made a huge uproar - as much as if a treaty had been broken.”
Official Hostess & First Lady
One of Dolley’s first tasks as national hostess was redecorating the President’s House. With the help of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who oversaw the President’s Furnishing Fund for the Madison administration, Dolley worked to ensure that the President’s House was elegant without it smacking of royalty. She helped to create a space that was cultured, but never courtly. Together, Latrobe and Dolley made sure that nearly all of the standing pieces of furniture used to furnish the President’s House were produced by American cabinetmakers, including William Worthington Jr. of Washington.
As first lady, Dolley Madison was a style-setter, popularizing the empire-waist dress, and making the turban her signature accessory. Dolley’s interests in fashion and American-made products coincided when John Jacob Astor, fur trader and financier, sent her a silver fox muff with the request that she “wear it from Motives of Patriotism, and to give encouragement to the Manufactures of our Country, by introducing and giving example, which I know your goodness will incline you to do.”
As Washington’s official hostess, Dolley was renowned for celebratory galas and weekly levees or drawing room parties, held every Wednesday evening. Often described as squeezes due to their heavy attendance, the weekly parties were frequented by Washington politicos of all ideological persuasions, diplomats, socialites, and Washington locals. Alexander Dick, an attendee of one of Dolley’s first levees as the president’s wife, described the scene as such: “We went this Evening & found a Crowd of Ladies & Genltmen Walking thro the Apartments which were all thrown open & a band of Military Music Playing.” The Madisons served “tea, Coffee, Ice Creams, Cakes & refreshments.” A visitor to one of Dolley’s squeezes wrote home to Philadelphia that “I have been to the city of Washington, and spent an evening at Mrs. Madison’s drawing room, which was crowded and very brilliant.”
However, Dolley’s influence in the political arena extended far beyond sharing pleasantries at parties and serving punch. She received hundreds of letters requesting her patronage and advocacy for political appointments, money, and general good favor; private citizens even wrote her asking for mercy on imprisoned family members. Furthermore, Dolley was often implored by citizen-strangers to “use your amiable influence with his Excellency the President” to encourage an appointment or pardon. In this manner, Dolley held one of the most powerful roles in early American politics.
Permanent Return to Washington
Even after her tenure as “lady presidentess” ended, Dolley continued to receive honors for her role in national politics. After Madison’s death, Congress unanimously voted to grant Dolley with franking privileges, allowing her to send mail, avoiding postage fees on sent and received mail, by simply writing her name on the upper right hand corner of the envelope. Upon her permanent return to Washington in 1844, Dolley was given her own honorary seat on the floor of the House of Representatives. Further evidence of Dolley’s political clout came at her death in 1849. Dolley was honored with a state funeral, the largest at the time. All government offices closed to allow mourners the opportunity to grieve the passing of the last surviving member of the founding generation.
Dolley Madison established a set of precedents by which we evaluate all First Ladies. She was first and foremost her husband’s chief supporter, confidant, and helpmate. A definite political asset, she was a partisan without being overbearing. Dolley realized the ways in which entertaining could aid a political agenda, she understood the power of nuanced relationship-building to ease political rivalry, and she practiced these skills wee and often to her husband’s admiration and appreciation. The Madisons were in every sense a political and social team.