Thursday, May 19, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Dolley Madison

This week, May 20, we celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the birth of First Lady Dolley Madison.

Let's start at the end of this story. When Dolley Madison died on July 12, 1849, her funeral procession was one of the largest in the history of Washington. The president was there, as was every member of Congress, officers of both the army and the navy, her many friends, and a good many of the citizens of Washington. So who was this celebrated and much-loved lady?

Current opinion seems to have downsized Dolley. I've read too much about her beauty and her love of fashion. She's been cast as a party-girl, and I have to believe that that is a reflection of our own shallow culture. Dolley was beautiful, yes. And she most certainly had a flair for fashion. But this was a woman who had a clear vision of her role as first lady. Dolley knew how to set priorities and hold to them. Think Hillary, not Paris.

Dolley opened the President's House, as it was known then, to everyone. She greeted everyone warmly, as a close friend, and took care to pay special attention to anyone who was alone. She saw her role as one of peacemaker. She knew that politics made for strong opinions, and she sought to soothe ruffled feathers and build consensus wherever possible. In her low-necked gowns and her feathered turbans, Dolley played diplomat.

Her shining moment came when Washington was under attack during the War of 1812. With her husband, President James Madison, away, Dolley stayed at the President's House, packing for an evacuation. The content of those trunks is telling: important government papers, books, a clock, and other furnishings from the White House. With cannons booming, and British troops approaching, she could not be persuaded to leave until these imporatnt items were safe. At the last moment, with servants imploring her to leave, she had the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington removed from its frame, and she packed that, too. She would not let it fall into British hands. Only then did she consent to leave. Later that night, British troops invaded and set fire to the President's House. She watched the flames from a distance.

Those lovely gowns? They burned.

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