Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dolley Madison - Self-Rescuing Princess of the Week

I was stuck on who to feature in today's blog. I wanted to find a SRP from the Civil War, but my brief research showed me that I would need to do some more extensive research. Although there are plenty of stories of women serving as nurses and spies, and even soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, the stories I was able to find online weren't in-depth enough for my liking.

When I found myself becoming far too frustrated (and hungry) to continue my research, I decided to stop and have lunch and catch up on my TiVo queue. And, lo and behold, my TiVo saved me, because it still had last week's American Experience's documentary about Dolley Madison for me to watch.

Before watching this documentary, my only real knowledge about Dolley Madison is that she was beloved by the public at the time she was First Lady, she served ice cream, and she saved the portrait of George Washington when the British attacked the White House. I didn't know how she become Mrs. Madison, what she did to become so beloved (I guess I assumed it was for her charm and beauty), or what happened to her after the fire.

Now I do know all those fact, and more. And I firmly believe she deserves a place among the ranks of Self-Rescuing Princesses.

Did you know she was a Quaker? She was raised in a Quaker family in rural Virginia, who freed their slaves in response to the degree given by their religious leaders, and moved to Philadelphia to start over.

Did you know that she had already been married before she met James Madison? Yes, she married a man her father knew, and had two sons. During a Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia, both her husband and youngest son died, and she was very ill.

Did you know that James Madison was already very famous and in his 40s when he saw her, and was smitten. It is not clear that she married him because she loved him or because he was famous. Or, more likely, a combination of both.

Did you know that when she traveled to Washington, D.C., with her husband, who had been named the Secretary of State for President Jefferson, the nation's capital was effectively a rural city built on a swamp. As compared to national capitals of Europe, it was a shocking wilderness.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson, in his attempt to establish a different etiquette from the monarchies in Europe, went so far as to alienate most international diplomats? Seeing this, Dolley Madison, became a kind of behind-the-scenes social diplomat, smoothing matters between different parties.

Did you know that it is likely through her efforts that her husband was elected president. Through her behind-the-scenes diplomacy, she had developed a rather extensive network of friends and political allies, which she then lobbied for her husband's campaign.

Did you know that when she was attacked by Federalist politicians, she laughed off the terrible things they suggested about her. In one case, after a lengthy diatribe, she responded with, "It was as good as a play!" How's that for a response to a troll? I think I may add that to my repertoire.

Did you know she was the one to set the role for the future First Ladies for the next 200 years? She made herself the public face of her husband's administration. She considered her role as First Lady as a full time job. She wrote to women around the country, asking them for recipes to use in the White House. Her fashion sense was copied by women around the country. Everything she did was to further her husband's agenda. In fact, it was her idea to open the inaugural ball to the public -- anyone who could afford the ticket could enter.

Did you know that she was instrumental in helping calm the ferocious nature of politics of the time? When she was in the White House, the republic was precariously close to failure. Federalist and Republicans were in constant battle, figuratively and literally. Duals were so common that there was a park that was regularly used by Representatives. Boy, and you thought modern politics was brutal! She was the first to open up the White House for informal parties that brought together the different politicians, and even the public, to help them socialize and create relationships across the aisles.

Did you know she was the first to decorate the White House? Previously, President Jefferson had brought his own furniture to Washington, D.C. Dolley decided that it was an important statement about the future of the nation that the White House have its own decor, designed with an eye to the future. She commissioned appointments and furniture that was specifically made in America, and of a design style that was distinctly American.

Did you know that after the British burned Washington, D.C., it was likely her efforts to lobby to keep the national capital there, rather than move it back to Philadelphia, as so many were suggesting.

Did you know that when she died in 1849, she was afforded a state funeral? The entire government stopped for her funeral, which was attended by the president and his cabinet, diplomats, members of the senate and congress, and thousands of citizens turned out to honor her legacy.

Sure, she had more than her fair share of hardships. Her father lost his fortunes and suffered from alcoholism. Her son failed her, squandered what little income she had later in life, and broke her heart repeatedly. And although she often mentioned her desire to free her slaves, she never did. Instead, she had to sell them off, one by one, to pay her debts. It wasn't until near the end of her life that she was able to stand up to her son, and demand better behavior from him.

But what Self-Rescuing Princess doesn't have challenges? The fact that she was able to overcome her father's failure and her first husband's death, to rise to such a high level in the national esteem is truly inspirational.

"There is a secret in life, better than anything a fortune teller can reveal: We all have a great hand in the forming of our own destiny." - Dolley Madison


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