Love, Slavery and Truth in the Madison Match
Hello, Dolley — Madison, I mean. She stole the glory from the British burning down the president's house 200 years ago.
You've heard the story: She saved a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington before fleeing the mansion where she lived with her husband, President James Madison. It was the War of 1812, known as the War That Nobody Won.
Saving the iconic portrait was a story, or myth, which helped offset the losses of the day. Mrs. Madison was not all she seemed to be. She probably told a servant (or slave) to take it down, not an unheralded act of bravery.
Now it would have been heroic to stay in the house and stare the British army down. The charismatic British major general, Robert Ross, said he would not burn it over a lady's head.
But this is what she was for sure: a shrewd first lady who was first to be her own publicist. More popular with the people, she helped her shy, older husband James look and act more presidential. A cerebral, slight man, he stood a bit shorter. A vivacious lady, she entertained lavishly on Wednesdays. "Mrs. Madison" was a character that cultivated her husband's mentor, Thomas Jefferson. A widower, President Jefferson asked her to stand in as hostess at his formal dinners from time to time. Madison succeeded him.
Everybody liked her. But not many knew who she really was.
The British also burned the Capitol, leaving the citadel in smoking ruins. Washington was deserted and undefended. Ross was delighted to discover an untouched dinner for 40 still sitting on Mrs. Madison's table. Nobody was home. Except the British, who dined with glee. (They did not touch private property.)
The sacking of Washington was a military disgrace. President Madison did not meet the war well; unlike George Washington, he was not a military man. Then again, he was the "Father of the Constitution."
Showing pluck, he went out riding close to the redcoats' advance that awful August day and crossed the river into hiding with friends — his undisclosed location.
A young nation had been thoroughly spanked by its old nanny for being naughty. The British set their sights on Baltimore next.
Circling back to Mrs. Madison, here's what they never told you. Born and raised a Friend, she married her first husband, a fine lawyer named John Todd, in Philadelphia's Pine Street Quaker Meetinghouse. The fierce influenza epidemic of 1793 took Todd's life away in a flash. The young Quaker widow, with a son, found herself living in her mother's boarding house.
Fortunately, Congress was meeting in Philadelphia in the 1790s (while the Capitol was underway) and one boarder, a sleek congressman named Aaron Burr, did a good deed. He introduced Dolley to his friend "Jemmy."
And here's the rub. Her circumstances were not desperate, but it would be best to remarry quickly, while she was young and becoming. The Society of Friends, her religion, would not let it happen within their walls. In fact, Mrs. Todd was expelled for marrying Madison, the Virginia planter and congressman. Planter is just another word for slaveowner.
This truth must be told, especially since Lynne Cheney's new biography of James Madison states that Dolley Madison was expelled for "marrying out of her faith."
No, Mrs. Madison was expelled because the Friends were out in front against slavery. That is very different, Mrs. Cheney. In Philadelphia, Friends had already opposed slavery for a century. Philadelphia Quakers were likely the best "friends" that slaves had in 1814.
Madison owned a hundred enslaved people. This is the man who championed freedoms and put them down on parchment.
Often we gloss over the Virginia vs. Philadelphia angle in our history. Four of the first five presidents were Virginia planters who owned lots of land and slaves. John Adams, born to old Yankee stock, did not.
For early Virginian presidents, slavery was a birthright. They enjoyed that life until they died.
The Madison marriage stood at the center of our most tragic conflict. Fifty years later, the Civil War was raging.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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