The Politics of Love

Article excerpt

Dolley Madison gained influence through kindness

The light rain that fell early in the morning of July 4, 1848, lasted only long enough to settle the dust on the roads of Washington City and give the summer day "a delicious freshness." The sun shone well in time for the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Lured by the spectacle, and by stagecoach and railroad fares reduced for the occasion, people streamed into the capita!. Eventually, a crowd of almost twenty-thousand women, men, and children gathered to watch the parade and speeches. Official men, from legislators to firemen, marched toward an arch of "colored cotton, suitably embellished." But every eye was on a single woman "in a conspicuous position," dressed in black clothes from an earlier age. This was eighty-year-old Dolley Payne Todd Madison, widow of the late president, James Madison, and "the Queen" of Washington City.

Another venerable widow flanked Dolley, ninety-year-old Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, widowed since the duel that killed Alexander Hamilton forty-four years earlier. John Quincy Adams's widow, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, had also been invited but was too sick to attend. Years before, the Monument Society had appointed the three women to direct a committee of ladies from all across the country to raise funds for the monument through fairs, fundraisers, and other solicitations.

The organizers' desire to showcase Dolley and the other ladies was more than an acknowledgment of their hard work and participation, however.

They occupied a place of honor because, for the organizers and spectators, Dolley and her friends were living history, representatives of revolutionary days. Indeed, the women were the only public figures left from the first years of the new nation.

In her heyday, Dolley had been the public face of her husband, James Madison, and his administration, and she continued to personify him on that sunny July day. Indeed, to the event's featured speaker, Robert C. Winthrop, it almost seemed that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Quincy Adams were actually "present, visably present, in the venerated persons of those nearest and dearest to them in life." In the vernacular of the day, as a widow, Dolley was the "relict" of James Madison. But on this day, and on many others, Dolley was more than that: She was a relict of the founding of the republic itself.

While for Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, the cornerstone ceremony was a rare moment of public visibility, for Dolley Madison, this was but one moment in a life lived in the public eye. For decades, she had been the most famous woman - the most famous person - in the new United States. Back when she was the president's wife, Dolley had been an object of public scrutiny and discussion by Washingtonians, American tourists, European visitors, and foreign diplomats. Much of this attention was approving, some of it was not. Yet even the sometimes-vicious negative attention Dolley garnered shows how famous she was.

In an era when few men and no women received such international renown, Dolley 's stature has puzzled historians and modern Americans (who associate her name with ice cream and a line of packaged pastries). In our time, reality stars can become "fame-ish" overnight; but the people of the nineteenth century bestowed fame on individuals - mostly male-who it was felt had made significant contributions to history. Why did the residents of Washington City, the members of government and their families, and, indeed, all of America declare Dolley the nation's "Queen"? What did they understand about Dolley Madison that we don't?

Dolley and James Madison had come to Washington City in 1801, in order for James to serve as secretary of state for President Thomas Jefferson. Upon their arrival, Dolley set about making their house on F Street a social and political center, a task made easy (and necessary) by Jefferson's refusal to open the executive mansion to the public or even other members of the government. …