First Ladies: Dolley Madison II

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:03:59
Year Produced: 2009

With the British army at the gates of Washington, the president's wife refused to flee.

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Lead: With the British army at the gates of Washington, the president's wife refused to flee.

Intro: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: From the time she married James Madison, Dolley Payne Todd was a major player in the social life of the nation and an important political asset to her husband. During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, she served as unofficial hostess to the widowed chief executive, providing an elegant simplicity to White House functions consistent with Jefferson's ideas of republican equality.

When Madison defeated Charles Coatsworth Pinkney for president in 1808, the loser attributed his loss to the political popularity of Mrs. Madison. This was confirmed in the years following when Dolley transformed the White House into the social and political center of the nation. Her choice of guests was based less on rank and wealth than it was on wit, charm, and talent. An invitation to a Madison party was a coveted item.

The president's wife, however, was not simply a social hostess, although she was a very popular one. While she did not involve herself in the intricate details of state craft, she was a naturally curious sounding-board for her husband and supported him vigorously when he was in a political fight.

When the British invaded during the War of 1812, she refused to flee the District until removing from the White House many valuable artifacts and presidential papers. With her husband at the front, she commandeered a wagon and personally supervised the loading, leaving for last Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of George Washington. Ignoring her husband's instructions to stay away, when word came that the British had left Washington, she told the cheering crowds who welcomed her return that they would rebuild the city. "The enemy cannot frighten a free people."

She returned to the capital after Madison's death at Montpelier in 1836 and remained there until her own passing in 1849 as, in the words of Daniel Webster, "the only permanent power in Washington."

At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.