More than 4000 British soldiers were less than a day's march from Washington when President James Madison learned that the city was about to be attacked. The president had raised concerns about just such an attack months earlier. But Secretary of War John Armstrong had convinced Madison and his cabinet that the capital was an unlikely target for British invasion; America's coastal cities held far more strategic importance, and the hard march through difficult terrain to Washington, D.C. would deter any British schemes on the city. Even when top American officials learned that British troops had sailed into the Chesapeake, it was widely assumed that their target was Baltimore, not the nation's capital.
As the British approached Washington, American leaders continued to misread the situation. Even though the Americans had greater numbers—almost 6000 militiamen were called out to defend the city—poor intelligence led to their being deployed along the wrong road. And many of those that did see action fled almost as soon as the fighting began. After just a three-hour battle, the British marched into the city, where they quickly burned the Capitol, the White House, and a handful of other public buildings. It was not America's finest hour.
Amid this tragedy of errors, however, one person performed admirably. As the British approached her city, First Lady Dolley Madison quickly packed up critical White House documents and the great Gilbert Stuart portrait of former President George Washington, and carried them away to safety. Hers were acts of courage and importance—and they have settled into our folklore as reminders that not all of our early national heroes were men.
But our focus on this single episode of heroism largely obscures the greater importance of Dolley Madison to our early history. She contributed far more to American national development than this one dramatic act. Some historians have argued that her efforts as First Lady paralleled and completed her husband's work decades earlier at the Constitutional Convention; while he laid out the fundamental blueprint for our federal government, she helped make it a functioning political machine.
This argument needs to be explored. But first we must make a digression; before discussing the contributions of Dolley Madison, we must address a broader question about the impact of the American Revolution and its political ideology on women. More simply, we must ask: what impact did the Revolution have on the condition or status of women in America?
Since the 1970s, historians such as Linda Kerber and Catherine Allgor have aggressively set about uncovering the contributions of women to America's Revolutionary and early national past. They have explored, for example, the growing importance of women within early American religions and the subtle but insistent pressure for more educational opportunities. Historians have traced the increasing contributions of women to early American literature, and the niches they filled within America's expanding market economy.
This research has added a rich layer to our understanding of America's early history. But ascertaining the place of women within the nation's political story has proven more difficult. In fact, what has jumped out of the historical record is a surprising lack of historical record. While other disempowered groups—free blacks, religious dissenters, propertyless citizens—applied the Revolution's philosophy of equality and human rights to their own situations and demanded that America live up more fully to its ideals, there was comparatively little acknowledgment that the Revolution's political principles called for a deeper examination of the rights of women. New Jersey briefly allowed women to vote in state elections from 1776 to 1807. But no other state followed suit.
What makes all this even more surprising is that the Revolution had depended on—and actively encouraged—the participation of women. The pre-war boycotts that proved the most effective tool in forcing British concessions depended on the participation of all colonists, male and female alike. Nor were women just quiet observers. To protest the tea tax, women held rallies in which they burned tea and pledged not to consume it—or to allow others in their households to consume it—until the hated tax was lifted. To provide an alternative to the British textiles that were so popular in America, women produced yards and yards of homespun cloth, often at public spinning parties. When the war began, they melted pewter into bullets and collected urine to make saltpeter. And thousands trailed the Continental Army as camp followers, serving as cooks and nurses.
The American Revolution was a popular war, dependent on the efforts of common citizens. Women were necessary for it to be prosecuted, and they were urged by male leaders to participate in dozens of ways. It was also a civil war, pitting Patriots not just against British troops, but also against American loyalists. Consequently everyone had to make a choice; everyone, including women, had to adopt a political identity and assume the risks inherent in that identity. When the shifting tides of war led to the transfer of territory from one side to the other, women, just like men, faced retaliation and exile.
And therefore, to find so little application of the Revolution's political ideals to the condition of women after the Revolutionary War's end is shocking. Of course, eventually women would draw upon the ideals and the rhetoric of the American Revolution to advance a platform of political and social rights. But this would occur for more than fifty years after the Revolution.
Dolley Madison's place in American history must be set against this backdrop. Her contributions can only be appreciated when we look more creatively for the roles played by women in fleshing out America's political experiment. Women were not allowed to hold office or vote; nor were they able to participate directly in the great public debates over domestic and foreign policy. But some, like Dolley Madison, were able to use their position to make a lasting contribution to America's political order.
When the Madisons moved into the White House in 1809, the building itself was in some disrepair. Thomas Jefferson had shied away from pouring resources into the presidential mansion; to do so would violate his Republican emphasis on a simple and frugal government. He similarly shunned elaborate social gatherings. In Jefferson's mind, state dinners and large parties stank of the aristocratic courts of Europe.
But the Madisons, and Dolley in particular, brought a different philosophy to their new home and Washington society. She believed that the White House should be decorated in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the office it represented. She knew that any excessive adornment would be rejected as un-republican. But she also recognized that America's egalitarian culture retained more than a little fascination with rank and refinement. Therefore she completely refurnished the White House and transformed it into a compelling symbol for the new nation—a public space that spoke both to the republican and the genteel strains within American political ideology.
But Dolley Madison made the White House more than just a symbol, she also made it an arena for governance. She hosted a series of social events aimed at placing the White House at the center of Washington society, and her husband, the president, at the center of the policy discussions and deal-making that lie beneath the more formal processes of lawmaking in a republic.
The Madisons' predecessors had struggled to construct an appropriate social style for the nation's capital. George Washington, anxious to lend the presidential office a certain majesty and authority but also aware that as the leader of a republic he must be accessible to the people in some fashion, held very formal weekly gatherings for a handful of guests. When the doors to his parlor were opened promptly at three o'clock on Tuesday afternoons, his guests would gather about him in a circle while he stood ceremoniously by the fireplace in formal attire. He would then work his way around the circle, exchanging a few words with each guest, and always clinging to his sword and cocked hat—perhaps to avoid the undignified new custom of shaking hands. Washington's wife, Martha, had her own weekly parties. On Friday afternoons, women as well as men would gather for a few hours of conversation and entertainment. The atmosphere was informal, but in order to ensure a certain dignified—her critics said aristocratic—air, First Lady Martha Washington sat at one end of the room on an elevated stage, surrounded by the wives of cabinet officers and public officials.
The Washingtons' social gatherings drew considerable criticism. Republicans saw monarchical pretensions lurking within these events. And therefore when Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he resolved to construct a truly republican social world. He refused to hold large social events, arguing that they were too aristocratic in nature—too reminiscent of the European court. And instead, he reduced the White House social calendar to a series of small intimate dinners with members of Congress. In order to fully purge the new capital of aristocratic customs, he announced that traditional diplomatic protocol would also be abandoned in this republican city. When the British ambassador, wearing the full regalia of the European court, first called on Jefferson in 1803, Jefferson greeted him in casual clothes and house slippers.
In the end, Jefferson's social innovations were almost as heavily criticized as Washington's. Some suggested that his indecorous treatment of the British ambassador contributed to the frosty relations between the United States and Great Britain. Therefore Dolley Madison's decision to schedule a more expansive social calendar was filled with significance. She would now try her hand at constructing a social style and social calendar better suited to the values and needs of the new nation.
Dolley Madison began by hosting the presidency's first inaugural ball in 1809. In doing so, she signaled that she would break from the austere social style of Thomas Jefferson. She next announced a series of regular state dinners. In contrast with Jefferson's small, all-male gatherings, the Madisons' larger, more formal dinners became a weekly event while Congress was in session. Moreover, Dolley designed them to best serve her husband's temperament and political needs. The president had a powerful intellect, and was extremely influential in small groups, but within larger crowds he grew shy. Therefore, Dolley seated herself at the head of the table, took charge of the conversation, and steered talk gracefully but persistently toward her husband's political objectives.
To complete her social calendar, Dolley also held weekly "drawing rooms." Open to anyone who had ever been introduced to the president or First Lady, these events were much larger than the state dinners. On average, 300 people crowded into the White House for "Mrs. Madison's Crush." Public officials, cabinet officers, members of Congress from both parties—and their wives—all attended these events. Anyone new to the city quickly learned that attending these parties was the best way to make connections in the capital. More important, all members of the government soon learned that this was where the nitty-gritty of government deal-making took place. Here within the less structured, and less partisan, atmosphere of Dolley's "squeeze," members of both parties could meet and talk, wheel and deal. And all this took place on the president's turf. Dolley's social engineering ensured that the key business of government took place in the White House—and that her husband, the president, remained at the center of this process.
Dolley Madison was not James Madison; her contributions cannot be easily compared to his achievements as the principal architect of the Constitution. But her efforts were far from insignificant. If her husband drafted the blueprint of American politics, she added some informal details that helped make the plan work. Or to employ a different analogy, if he built the rough machinery of government, she greased it up and helped make it run. It is important not to overstate the contribution, or to lose sight of the greater political challenges and achievements awaiting women later in the century when they more directly applied the ideals of the Revolution to their political and social lives. But it reminds us that historical processes have their own pace and rhythm, and that within a culture that was not ready to imagine all of the possibilities implicit within its democratic political ideology, women exercised the powers that they could. Dolley Madison's Wednesday night cocktail parties were not Seneca Falls—the 1848 women's convention that demanded increased political and social rights—but they were a step in that direction.