Hello, Dolley. The sociable, snuff-loving wife of the fourth President knew how to make a lasting impression. Though she had no formal education, she was world-wise and had plenty of practice before James Madison took office–she had occasionally acted as hostess during friend and widower Thomas Jefferson’s eight-year presidential term. The lavish dinner parties and receptions she threw as First Lady, along with her hospitable nature, made her the most socially influential president’s wife to date and set a precedent for years to come.
Her affability won over many, but her personal taste truly had tongues wagging. She set the tone at James Madison’s 1809 inauguration, wearing a buff-colored velvet gown with pearls and a feather-accented turban. Margaret Bayard Smith, chronicler of early Washington social life, said of her, “She looked a Queen…It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did.” The story of her heroically rescuing the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington as the White House burned down during the War of 1812 is legendary, but some contemporaries preferred much more lighthearted accounts.
There is a famous story which Dolley Madison’s nieces enjoyed telling about her. As a former Quaker, Dolley Madison had been raised wearing the modest clothes and bonnets in somber colors which covered her face and body, intended not to draw but deflect attention from her. Once she left the faith, she began dressing in the most current styles of her era, including the low-cut flimsy dresses of the Napoleonic Era. When, at the White House, she recognized one of the members of the public who attended her weekly open house reception as being a fellow—and former—member of her Quaker meetinghouse, she exclaimed to him, looking at his bare head: “Brother, where is thy broadbrim [hat]?” He looked at her exposed upper chest and neck and retorted, “Sister, why is thy kerchief?!” (National First Ladies’ Library)
Madison was more than fashion and good social skills, she was also a general baller. She was given an honorary seat in Congress, which allowed her to watch congressional debates from the floor and she was the first private citizen to transmit a message via telegraph, an honor given to her by its inventor Samuel F. B. Morse.
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