Bold Women In History

Last week, I went to a follow-up appointment with the surgeon, and one of the things I had to do was fill out a post-op questionnaire all about how I’m doing since I came home. One of the questions asked if the patient was suffering feelings of depression, and I realized something very important–I’ve actually been feeling very happy, eager to go out and have fun even. I guess a near-brush with disaster will do that, or maybe it’s a compensation for missing out on RWA, lol. But it led me to do something I always said I would never, ever do–sing karaoke. It was a friend’s birthday party Saturday, and well, one thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was singing “California Gurls.” Keep in mind that I have a terrible singing voice and am very sensitive about it, but when it was all over I realized it was actually kinda fun. Liberating.

So now I am on a “Make The Most Of Life” campaign. Every week I am going to try something new, just to help me remember life should be an adventure. I will post what I find to do (as long as it’s PG-rated…)

And when I was looking for topics for today’s post I found out that July 12 is an anniversary for one of my very favorite Bold Women in history–Dolley Madison, First Lady of the US from 1809 to 1817, who died on that day in 1849 after a long and very eventful life. She seemed appropriate to talk about today. I first “met” Dolley when we got an assignment to do a report on a figure in American history in the 5th grade. I found a book about her in the school library and loved her immediately! She was all the things I wished I could be.

She was born Dolley Payne into the Quaker Payne family on May 20, 1768, one of 8 children, and grew up in Virginia until 1783 when her family sold the family slaves and moved them to Philadelphia, where his business promptly failed and he died in 1792, leaving Dolley’s mother to run a boarding house to take care of the family. She married lawyer John Todd in 1790 and had two sons with him, but he and their younger child died in a yellow fever epidemic only 3 years later. In May 1794 she met James Madison, who had been admiring her from a distance, through their mutual friend Aaron Burr. At first glance they were a strange couple. James was 17 years her senior, a longtime bachelor, short and quiet, while Dolley was tall, buxom, and supremely outgoing, but they fell in love and were married in September of that year. She was then cast out of the Quaker church, which freed her to pursue her love of the latest fashions (especially elaborate hats and turbans!)

In 1797, James retired from the House of Representatives and took Dolley and her son to live at his home at Montpelier in Virginia, where they planned to live a quiet, private life. Fate intervened when Thomas Jefferson asked James to be his Secretary of State in 1801 and the family moved to the brand-new capital Washington DC. James became the 4th president in 1809, and Dolley really came into her own. She was a great First Lady, known for being very fashionable and giving fabulous parties. She redecorated the White House to reflect its stature, and was also very intelligent, shrewd, and charming, renowned for her ability to bring quarreling factions together and smooth quarrels at a very hotheaded time. (Too bad we don’t have her around now…)

Her most famous moment came during the War of 1812, as the British Army converged on DC and the populace fled. Alone at the White House, Dolley packed up vital papers and insisted on making sure the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was saved before she left for safety herself. As she later wrote to her sister, “Our kind friend Mr. Carroll has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. The process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out….. It is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen from New York for safe keeping. On handing the canvas to the gentlemen in question, Messrs. Barker and Depeyster, Mr. Sioussat cautioned them against rolling it up, saying that it would destroy the portrait. He was moved to this because Mr. Barker started to roll it up for greater convenience for carrying.”

And another account of her perilous journey, “The friends with Mrs. Madison hurried her away (her carriage being previously ready), and she, with many other families, retreated with the fleeing army. In Georgetown they perceived some men before them carrying off the picture of General Washington (the large one by Stewart), which with the plate was all that was saved out of the President’s house. Mrs. Madison lost all her own property. Mrs. Madison slept that night in the encampment, a guard being placed round her tent; the next day she crossed into Virginia, where she remained until Sunday, when she returned to meet her husband.”

She was a beloved figure for the rest of her husband’s presidency, and indeed for the rest of her life. James died in 1836 after 42 years of marriage, and even though Dolley was plagued by worries over her n’er-do-well son for the rest of her life, she lived in DC and entertained and enjoyed life until her own death in 1849.

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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