No union is ever perfect. Yet it’s not a stretch to consider Dolley Madison the perfect First Lady, “a bridge between presidential dignity and democratic accessibility.”
As Allgor (History/Univ. of California, Riverside) details, Dolley and James Madison certainly enjoyed an uncommonly good partnership, perhaps against the odds. He was 43 and she 25 when they married, he retiring, she fond of the social swirl; James—Allgor puts himself on a first-name basis with the founding couple—“resided most comfortably in the theoretical realm, happiest when composing or untangling complex political theories,” while his wife was a master of practical diplomacy. She put her skills to work early on, when James became Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state; one of the more newsworthy aspects of this book is its revelation of Jefferson’s misogyny and poor manners, which resulted in more than one diplomatic flap, especially when they were combined as in the wonderfully complicated “Merry affair,” which almost caused new warfare between the fledgling United States and England. So skillful was Dolley at repairing some of the damage Jefferson did that she even managed to fly under his radar, even as he sternly condemned other women active in Washington politics. Dolley also forged a diplomacy of the dining-room table that brought together feuding Federalists and Republicans; “by welcoming all and making her house the place to see and be seen, Dolley also upped the social ante, making society even more necessary to politics in the capital city.” So it was when she became First Lady, taking charge of making a White House worthy of the name, soon to be burned by the British in the War of 1812, in which she emerged as a national hero. Allgor also credits Dolley with skillful campaigning that saved her husband’s bid for reelection in 1812.
A welcome life of a woman who deserves greater representation in history books.