"The capacity of the female mind...can not be doubted..." – James Madison, 1821
In September 1821, Albert Picket Sr., Albert Picket Jr., and John W. Picket wrote James Madison requesting his opinion of female education, particularly in light of a planned female college in Maryland. The Pickets asserted, “If it be worthy of national concern, to educate young men well, in all that pertains to their morals & intellect, it is no less necessary to educate females in an equally solid, if not splendid degree.”1 While Madison’s reply was brief due to demands on his time, he responded favorably to the proposed institution: “The capacity of the female mind for studies of the highest order can not be doubted; having been sufficiently illustrated by its works of genius, of erudition and of Science.”2 Madison clearly considered the mind of the fairer sex able and competent. Earlier that same year, he wrote to Reynolds Chapman that the study of geography and history was as valuable and “becoming” to women as to men.3
The fourth president of the United States surrounded himself with strong women who undoubtedly influenced his political and social life. The most notable of these females was undeniably Dolley Madison, his partner in life and love. As First Lady and official White House hostess, Dolley was renowned for celebratory galas and weekly levees. However, her influence in the political arena extended beyond ice cream and punch. Dolley received hundreds of letters requesting her patronage and advocacy for political and military appointments, mercy on imprisoned family members, money, and good favor. Dolley was often implored by citizen-strangers to “use your amiable influence with his Excellency the President” to encourage an appointment or pardon.4 In this manner, Dolley held one of the most powerful roles in early American politics.
The influence of great female minds on Madison is further demonstrated by his collegial relationship with social reformer and abolitionist, Frances “Fanny” Wright. Wright visited Montpelier with her sister following Madison’s retirement from public office; in person and through correspondence, she challenged Madison’s views on slavery. While the two failed to resolve their differences of opinion on slavery and abolition, Fanny wrote with the “highest respect” for Madison while he reciprocated “with great respect” for her.5 Madison assured her that although his opinions of abolition may “not co-incide with yours…I hope you will not question, either my admiration of the generous philanthropy which dictated it, or my sense of the special regard it evinces for the honor & welfare of our expanding, & I trust rising Republic.”6
March serves as a time to reflect on the accomplishments of women and their influential roles in shaping this nation. Both Dolley Madison and Fanny Wright, among others, influenced James Madison as he made his way through the political sphere and upon retirement, struggled with contentious social issues.
1. Albert Picket and others to James Madison, September 10, 1821, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
2. James Madison to Albert Picket and others, September 23, 1821, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
3. James Madison to Reynolds Chapman, January 25, 1821, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
4. Dimmis Taft to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, July 8, 1815, Dolley P. Madison Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.
5. It is no secret that Madison struggled with his feelings on the topic of slavery throughout his life. Frances Wright Darusmont to James Madison, June 28, 1820, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; James Madison to Frances Wright Darusmont, November 20, 1820, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
6. James Madison to Frances Wright Darusmont, September 1, 1825, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.