The spirit of Dolley Madison is everywhere in the blocks surrounding the White House. She lived at 1333 F Street, in the White House, in the Octagon House, and in a former row house in the 2000 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. But nowhere in Washington do visitors better imagine Dolley than at her residence across from Saint John’s Church.
A few months ago, I made my first (and only) visit to Washington DC. I hardly saw what I wanted too but I did see what was most important. One was the Library of Congress and the Madison Library. I have a particular interest in wives of our Presidents and have written on some of them.
History classes left out much and focused on the more interesting facets of lore. Most all heard the story of Dolley fleeing the presential residence with the portrait of George Washington. As with most stories of Dolley, this one was elaborated into the books. She did assure it was removed with other valuables, but the full story is much more detailed. The image of a brave Mrs. Madison fleeing the White House, the George Washington portrait secure in her arms, was too delightful to die. Firsthand accounts notwithstanding, the myth has persisted into the twenty-first century.
James Madison Library Statue.
In 1790, Dolley Payne wed a good-looking, successful young Quaker lawyer named John Todd. Three years later, a yellow-fever epidemic devastated Philadelphia, taking with it the lives of both her husband and one of her two young sons. Eleven months a widow, Dolley Payne Todd remarried, this time to the distinguished Virginian congressman, James Madison, seventeen years her senior, small and quiet spoken, but by her own account, “the Man who of all other’s I most admire.”
For too long Dolley Payne Madison has been wrapped in myths and half-truths meant to promote her importance in American history, but which, in actuality, have only confused her contributions. The twenty-first century is left to reexamine Dolley Madison more faithfully, to admire and assess her political acuity, to appreciate her skill at blurring the lines between politics and presidential hospitality, and most importantly to better understand the realities behind her decades-long influence on Washington City’s unique political culture….where wagging tongues still reside!
Bottom line, she was where she was meant to be and did what she needed to do.
Thank You Dolley!