Friday, May 21, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Dolley Madison

This week (May 20) is the 242nd birthday of First Lady Dolley Madison.

If it weren't for the War of 1812, I wouldn't give Dolley another thought. Sure she was a highly popular first lady in her time. But, at least to my mind, for all the wrong reasons. She was pretty, she was lively, and she gave great parties. Ugh! I'm used to writing about strong women, women of wit and intellect. Give me an Abigail Adams or a Hillary Clinton any day. Those are the women I want to write about. Not someone who comes across as the Paris Hilton of her day.

And then...she went and proved me wrong. Dolley was the first lady during the War of 1812. In August of that year, British soldiers invaded Washington DC and laid siege to the city. President Madison left to join his generals, leaving Dolley behind. Through a "spyglass" she watched the activities of the soldiers. She listened to the booming of the cannons as they got closer. At last she was forced to abandon the White House--but not before she had made sure that important Cabinet papers were safely secured in her carriage. Then, she famously made a pest of herself. She insisted on saving--not her own precious possessions--but the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. With others urging her to hurry and getting "in a very bad humor with me" at her stubbornness, she had the portrait's frame broken and the canvas removed. Only when it was safe would she agree to leave. When she was a safe distance away, British soldiers arrived and burned the White House.

Dolley's story is well-known and in fact has come to define her. Her actions ensured that history remembers her for her bravery and patriotism, not just her stylish parties. Attagirl, Dolley, you showed me!

Some people's lives have only one story worth telling. But what a story!

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