Women in History: Dolley Madison

Pretty much all our ideas about what the First Lady of the United States should be come from James Madison’s lovely and vivacious wife.

Pretty much all our ideas about what the First Lady of the United States should be come from James Madison’s lovely and vivacious wife. Celebrate the 250th anniversary of Dolley Madison’s birth this year by learning more about the woman who did a lot more than rescue George Washington’s portrait from the White House.

Plucky Mrs. Madison had already served as the White House hostess for widower Thomas Jefferson before her husband became the fourth President of the United States in 1809. She threw great parties, but she really captured the spirit of the young United States during the War of 1812 when she refused to evacuate the newly built White House during a British attack until the Redcoats were on their way to the city — and even then, Mrs. Madison kept her head, rescuing George Washington’s portrait and a copy of the Declaration of Independence on her way to safety. No one is certain whether the historical anecdote about President Zachary Taylor using “the First Lady” for the first time to describe Madison at her 1849 funeral is true, but the phrase began to enter the popular vocabulary after her death, suggesting that Madison certainly contributed to the ideas of what a U.S. leader’s wife should be like.



American Experience: Dolley Madison

Dolley definitely gets heroine treatment in this standard American Experience documentary, but it also touches on more complicated issues, including problematic treatment of slaves. It’s a fascinating look at the early days of Washington. D.C., when the nation’s capital was a ramshackle city in the process of being built, and at the woman who created the idea of the First Lady.



Women Who Broke the Rules: Dolley Madison by Kathleen Krull

The tagline of this book — “Parties can be patriotic!” —  makes it clear that this biography’s focus is on Madison’s role in early Washington politics. Her networking dinners at the White House may have changed form, but there’s no question they’ve remained an essential part of U.S. political life.  (Elementary)


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

This biography offers a fascinating look at why the “women’s work” Dolley Madison did had such profound political implications, demonstrating how frivolous activities like shopping and throwing parties actually helped shape the develop- ing U.S. political system. (Allgor’s follow-up biography Dolley Madison: The Problem of National Unity, which focuses on the Madisons’ joint efforts to promote civil bipartisanship, is also worth a read.) (High school)


The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison edited by David B. Mattern

This book lets Dolley tell her own stories, from her life with her first husband in Philadelphia to her later difficult widowhood in 1840s Washington, D.C. (Money was such an issue that the former First Lady sold many of her late husband’s papers to cover expenses.) Madison’s distinctive personality shines through these letters, which help to illuminate her role in the nation’s political structures and standards. (High school)


First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role by Jeanne E. Abrams

Dolley Madison couldn’t vote for her husband when he ran for President, but like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams before her, Madison contributed much to the notion of what the U.S. President’s role should be. This book is a fascinating look at the women who helped shape U.S. politics through their relationship with it, and it’s even more interesting to note that the debate about what a First Lady should and shouldn’t do and be is one that continues 200-plus years later. (High school)


Dolley by Rita Mae Brown

This historical fiction book about Madison’s life is thoroughly researched and full of historical details. Brown sees Madison as an intelligent and devoted wife who is perceptive, witty, and as charming as history would have us believe. You’ll enjoy this most after you have some basic familiarity with the people and events that influenced this slice of history, but there is an annotated character list if you start to get your politicians mixed up. (High school)