Dolley Madison profiled on ‘American Experience’

Dolley MadisonAlthough James Madison is our fourth U.S. President, many consider his wife,  Dolley Madison (1768-1849) as America’s first First Lady. Dolley’s remarkable  story is recalled on Monday, March 1st, when PBS presents “American Experience:  Dolley Madison” at 9 pm. This 60 minute documentary is narrated by David Ogden  Stiers, and includes interviews with several historians and a distinguished cast  of actors recreating the life and times of Dolley Madison (portrayed by Eve  Best).

A widow living in Philadelphia in 1794, Dolley Payne Todd was introduced to  43 year- old bachelor James Madison by Aaron Burr. Dolley married Madison after  a four-month courtship. Dolley accompanied him to his Virginia estate in 1797  when Madison retired from politics. In 1801, James Madison returned to  government, appointed by newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson to be his  Secretary of State. Jefferson, a widower, came to rely on Madison’s wife Dolley  to serve as hostess in the recently completed White House where she was  instrumental in developing it’s early décor. Upon James Madison’s victory in the  1808 presidential election, Dolley officially became First Lady on March 4th,  1809, hosting the first Inaugural Ball later that same day. Mrs. Madison was  soon a power player in Washington society, presiding over weekly parties,  organizing charity drives, and setting female fashion trends. But her defining  moment came during the War of 1812. On August 24th, 1814, as British troops were  advancing on Washington D.C., Dolley oversaw the evacuation of the White House’s  valuables, remembering to save a certain portrait of George Washington. After  the war, with much of Washington in ruins, there was talk of abandoning the city  and restoring Philadelphia as the nation’s seat of government. James and Dolley  Madison set up a temporary “White House” at Washington’s Octagon House, and by  continuing to conduct business as usual, Dolley was instrumental in helping  Washington D.C. remain the U.S. capital.

Leaving the White House in 1817, Dolley remained a significant figure in  Washington society for the rest of her life, and was celebrated, not just for  her accomplishments, but as one of the last links to the early days of the U.S.  government. At the time of her death in 1849, she could boast of being friends  with all 12 U.S. Presidents. Her lasting legacy is her contribution in defining  the role of the First lady, and making it a crucial element of the American  presidency.

Note: “American Experience: Dolley Madison” will air in the S.F. Bay Area on  KQED 9, on Wednesday, March 31st at 10 pm.