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Turning Triumph into Tragedy: Dolley Madison, War of 1812, and the Creation of a National Identity


Dolley Madison Portrait

The First Lady is arguably one of the most visible figures of the White House. From Michelle Obama, widely known and respected for her “Let’s Move!” campaign, to Melania Trump, who was widely criticized for her choice of high heels to inspect wreckage from a natural disaster, the First Lady can greatly impact the public perception of an administration. But who was the first First Lady? Though she was not numerically the first, Dolley Payne Madison, wife of James Madison and acting First Lady for Thomas Jefferson, coined the term when she was called this in the press. In an era when it was unacceptable for women to be involved in the political sphere, her indispensable nature in rallying the nation after the War of 1812 created a new type of American First Lady. Though best known for her heroics during the tragic 1814 burning of the White House, her involvement in the events as a partner to James Madison allowed her to work closely with him as the war unfolded and in its immediate aftermath. During the war she continued her Wednesday night salons and efforts towards fostering bipartisanship. These actions created an icon who was universally loved and respected. Against all odds, Dolley Madison triumphed with the establishment of a national identity as an outgrowth of the tragedy of the Madison presidency.


When the War of 1812 was declared by Congress, led by the War Hawks, both Madisons were painfully aware of the precarious situation into which they had been placed. As a young nation which had just won its independence, the United States did not have the resources to fight the world’s largest superpower for the second time in less than forty years.[1] Despite this, Dolley contributed to the war effort by using each Wednesday night to bring together people of all political parties, social standing, or support of the war and the President to talk about politics in a civilized, controlled area. The room in which she conducted this, the Oval Drawing Room, was central to her effectiveness. In 1809, Congress appropriated $20,000 to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect and designer, to redecorate the President’s Mansion.[2] Dolley worked closely with him, using American symbols to project a sense of power and confidence for the fledgling nation. She only purchased American made furniture and integrated Greco-Roman themes, harkening back to the power and dominance of these two empires. The crown jewel of her décor was the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. It was one of the first true important pieces of American artwork and as such acted as one of the first true artifacts of the United States. Dolley recognized not only the essential nature of her work of establishing national identity, but also that she was under intense scrutiny. It was imperative that she produce meaningful and effective work. To reflect this on her own person, she chose to wear pearls instead of diamonds, breaking with aristocratic tradition and underscoring democratic values.[3] In totality, the work that Dolley did in decorating the President’s Mansion was essential and created a new identity for the newly established nation.


Gilbert Stuart Portrait of George Washington

In 1814, however, her hard work was turned to ash. The British marched on Washington, D.C., in August, and burnt down many government buildings, including the President’s Mansion. Dolley was there until she could hear the British marching, watching Washington burn while she collected only her silver and velvet curtains, and in perhaps her most famous act, instructing Madison’s personal slave, Paul Jennings, to remove the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame on the wall. She had him roll it up and place it in their wagon, hoping to preserve this budding American national identity. She wrote of the British that day, “… I wish we had 10,000 such men as were passing to sink our enemy to the bottomless pit,”[4] referencing the men running to escape Washington as it burned.


Rebuilding after the war was not easy. After the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, there was widespread celebration throughout the United States. However, it came months after the rebuilding efforts had begun. At Octagon House, the Madison’s temporary residence, Dolley resumed her Wednesday night salons, hosting a variety of guests that spanned the political spectrum (most importantly, those who wanted the capital to be moved, something Dolley strongly opposed). They could not argue in front of a woman as violently and loudly as they could on the Congressional floor, and so she weaponized her gender to advance her own political goals, as women could not lobby on the Congressional floor. In early 1815, after a Congressional Vote, Washington, D.C. was made the permanent capital of the United States. After Madison’s death, Congress gave Dolley a special seat in the Senate viewing gallery, a nod to her lobbying work and reflective of how widely respected she was. Outside of her political work, Dolley also became the first First Lady to adopt a social cause. She established an orphanage for young girls, donating $20 to open it and sat on its board until her death in 1849, on which occasion the entire government was shut down, the only First Lady to be honored this way.[5]


It is her legacy of philanthropy and political involvement that can be seen in the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, with her Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Michelle Obama, with the “Global Girls Alliance” and “Let’s Move!” campaign. It is through her that we have our understanding of what it means to be an American First Lady. Despite being a woman at a time when it was unacceptable for women to be involved in politics, she used her gender to her advantage, advancing her own political efforts while also making her home a social hub in Washington. Not only did she use her decorating skills to establish a unique sense of national identity, but she also kept the capital where it is today, changing the American political landscape and fundraising for the Washington Monument, which continues to dominate the D.C. skyline today. In doing so, she made the First Ladyship a position of power and importance.



Bibliography


Allgor, Catherine. A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation.

New York, Henry Colt, 2006.

Fleming, Thomas. "When Dolley Madison Took Command of the White House." Smithsonian,

Mar. 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-dolley-madison-saved-the-day-7465218/. Accessed 1 February 2022.

“First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image.” American History Illustrated, vol. 27, no. 3, July

1992, p. 16.

Holland, Jessica. “First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley

Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role.” Library Journal, vol. 143, no. 4, Mar. 2018, p. 88.

Scofield, Merry Ellen. “Yea or Nay to Removing the Seat of Government: Dolley Madison and the Realities of 1814 Politics.” Historian, vol. 74, no. 3, Fall 2012, pp. 449–466. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2012.00324.x.




[1] Allgor, Catherine. A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. New York, Henry Colt, 2006.

[2] Scofield, Merry Ellen. “Yea or Nay to Removing the Seat of Government: Dolley Madison and the Realities of 1814 Politics.” Historian, vol. 74, no. 3, Fall 2012, pp. 449–466. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2012.00324.x.

[3] Holland, Jessica. “First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley

Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role.” Library Journal, vol. 143, no. 4, Mar. 2018, p. 88.

[4] “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image.” American History Illustrated, vol. 27, no. 3, July 1992, p. 16.

[5] Fleming, Thomas. "When Dolley Madison Took Command of the White House." Smithsonian,

Mar. 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-dolley-madison-saved-the-day-7465218/. Accessed 1 February 2022.


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