The Washington Years: 1801-1817

When the Madisons moved to Washington, D.C. in May, 1801, with Dolley Madison's nine year old son, Payne Todd, and her youngest sister, Anna Payne Cutts, they could not have known that they would still be there sixteen years later, with Anna married and Payne in Europe. The Madisons shifted from Montpelier to the nation's capital after Thomas Jefferson asked Mr. Madison to be his Secretary of State, and they remained there, except for their yearly summer vacations spent at Montpelier, through James Madison's presidency (1809-1817). During those sixteen years Dolley Madison carved out a role of her own beside that of wife and mother.

Washington, D.C. was a raw town, a city of half finished buildings set amid forests and swamps. Only about three or four thousand people lived there, and the number of elite, or those with enough money to mingle with the high officials of the Jefferson or Madison administrations, was very small. It was also a Southern town and one in which most Congressmen came strictly to attend to business when Congress was in session, which was only about four months a year.

For the first eight years the Madisons lived in Washington Mr. Madison engaged in a series of complex negotiations with France, Britain, and Spain. He negotiated with Britain and France over the problems of neutral rights and impressment of sailors, and with Spain over the status of West Florida. He dealt with the revolution in Haiti, the depredations of the Barbary Pirates, and the dangers of a possible French empire west of the Mississippi River. As the wife of the Secretary of State, Mrs. Madison had no formal, official duties, but she assumed, nevertheless, a special position. This was due in part to the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a widower whose own daughters lived with their families in central Virginia, and in part to Jefferson's determination to create a new republican society established on the principle of equality. This meant discarding traditional rules of protocol and creating innovative standards of dress and etiquette. Mrs. Madison became the most important woman in Washington society during these years and often acted as Mr. Jefferson's hostess.

There were thus occasions when, because of her unusual but important social role, combined with Jefferson's conscious disregard of diplomatic protocol, Dolley Madison became involved in some of the political and diplomatic issues of the day. One such example came soon after the British sent Anthony Merry, their first minister to Washington, D.C., in 1803. After first receiving Mr. Merry in the White House, the president had the British minister and his wife for dinner. When it was time to go in for dinner Jefferson -- who should have escorted Mrs. Merry -- turned to Mrs. Madison and offered her his arm. This was a flagrant breach of etiquette and a statement of democratic principals. Shortly thereafter Jefferson issued his "Canons of Etiquette" in which he declared the rule of "pele-mele", a standard for a nation, as Jefferson wrote James Monroe on January 8, 1804, which would ensure "that no man here would come to dinner where he was to be marked with inferiority to any other." That dinner, and the one hosted by the Madisons a few days later when they, in turn, had the Merrys to supper, created a political and diplomatic furor. Mrs. Madison's role carried specific significance as part of a series of actions announcing a new independent status in U.S. foreign policy.

She became more important as first lady after 1809. Her historical reputation rests on three of her accomplishments during those years: decorating the White House, her role as hostess, and her courage during the War of 1812.

Thomas Jefferson had furnished the otherwise empty Executive Mansion with possessions he brought from Monticello; the Madisons did not follow this precedent. Mrs. Madison worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to make the White House as beautiful as possible within a budget set by Congress. But they also made sure that the style of the mansion was republican: not too fancy and not too foreign. In so doing Mrs. Madison constructed a public social space that expressed a middle ground between Republican simplicity and Federalist high fashion. She did this through her selection of tables and chairs, plates and spoons.

She created the role of first lady as republican hostess. In order to accomplish this goal she established certain ceremonies, just as she had created public spaces. She managed to be elegant, even stunning, in a simple and unaffected way. Her supporters called her "queenly" but her Federalist enemies accused her of being an innkeeper's daughter, which she was not. She reached out to people and was charming and conciliating during a period in our history when rancor and partisanship dominated public and political life.

Finally, she faced the British invasion of Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1814 with bravery and dignity. By the third week of August invasion was imminent. The city was full of fear and in a state of chaos as the British approached. On August 22 President Madison left town to review the troops. But Mrs. Madison remained in the city. As the British approached on August 23 Mr. Madison was still out of town. Mrs. Madison began pressing cabinet papers into trunks. The next day, with Mr. Madison still off with the army, Dolley Madison found herself guarding the gates of the executive mansion. By that afternoon the British were approaching too fast to be ignored. She filled a wagon with silver and other valuables and sent them off to the Bank of Maryland for safekeeping. That done she determined there was one more task to accomplish: to save the portrait of George Washington. This she did, and then fled in the nick of time. Her husband was politically abused for cowardice in the face of British troops; Mrs. Madison compensated for her husband's moderation and became the heroine of the War of 1812.

Finally, with the war over and the spirit of the nation revived in harmony, James Madison's second term of office ended and James Monroe was inaugurated on March 4, 1817. Her son was now grown; her sister Anna had long been married. The Madisons retired to their Virginia plantation, Montpelier. There they would remain for the following twenty years.