This revealing new portrait of James and Dolley Madison introduces the reader to America’s first power couple. Using recently uncovered troves of letters at the University of Virginia, among other sources, historian Bruce Chadwick has been able to reconstruct the details of the Madisons’ personal and political lives.
Chadwick argues that Madison was not a boring, average president, as other historians have characterized him, but a vibrant, tough leader—and a very successful commander in chief in the War of 1812.
He contends that Madison, the architect of the Constitution, owed much of his success to the political savvy of his charismatic, much younger wife, whose parties and backdoor politicking make for remarkable stories. And Dolley, through her many social skills, created the dynamic role of First Lady that we know today.
Despite their glamorous lifestyle, behind the scenes, the Madisons struggled with family drama: James and Dolley’s constant funding of their charming but sociopathic son’s misadventures ultimately led to their own financial ruin.
Blending the personal and the political, this is a fascinating profile of a couple whose life together contributed so much to the future course of our nation.
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James and Dolley MADISON
AMERICA'S FIRST POWER COUPLE
By BRUCE CHADWICK
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 Bruce Chadwick
All rights reserved.
SAVING GEORGE WASHINGTON IN A CITY ON FIRE
Just after sunrise on August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison stood on the roof of the White House, holding her hands steady around a spyglass in the balmy summer morning. She squinted with one eye and peered through the spyglass with the other, in a vain effort to find her husband, the president, who was said to be riding back to the White House from an army camp in Bladensburg, Maryland, about seven miles away, and spurring his horse to run as fast as possible down narrow dirt roads of the green countryside to meet her. She could see from her perch atop one of the two highest buildings in the city (the other being the still-unfinished Capitol) all of the wide thoroughfares and the side streets of Washington, DC. They were nearly deserted; most of the residents had fled the day before, after they read in the newspapers that the British Navy, with fifty-two ships in all and thousands of men, horses, and cannon, had landed in Maryland on Friday, after a brief trip up the Patuxent River from the nearby Chesapeake Bay, in the War of 1812.
It was a jolt; the news panicked the region. The capital attacked? Impossible. The editor of the National Intelligencer, the capital's leading newspaper, told his readers, "all citizens must join in the common defense."
All were surprised by the landing. The war had been winding down. Peace talks were being held. Why should the British invade the Chesapeake? Washington? And if there was an attack, everybody expected the British to assault Baltimore, not Washington. The surprised residents of the capital now shuddered that the nightmare was about to come true, that Englishmen in their blazing red coats, carrying their muskets and pistols and lugging dozens of cannon behind them, would soon enter the city.
Wild rumors flew all over town. One had Dolley Madison surrendering the White House to the British commander and begging him not to burn the city. Another had the British torching all of the government buildings but sparing residential homes. A third had all of the residential homes set on fire. A fourth put the British troop strength at sixteen thousand (it was closer to five thousand). Another said that the American defensive force was well over ten thousand troops (it was barely three thousand). Yet another had dozens of other enemy ships landing at different seaports on the Maryland shore.
The rumor about the torching of the capital raised eyebrows. Nearly a year and a half earlier, in the spring of 1813, that same rumor had floated through Washington and made everybody nervous. Dolley Madison wrote in that spring that she had heard that the British planned to land several hundred soldiers below Alexandria and attack Washington from across the Potomac in boats "so that they may be on hand to burn the President's house and offices." She told this to Edward Coles, who had just left as Madison's secretary. She added that she kept a sharpened Tunisian sword near her in the White House every day just in case the Redcoats did appear.
In the previous day's edition of the National Intelligencer, General R. G. Hite, the commander of the military's tenth district, put out a call for volunteer troops. "To see their capital threatened by an insolent foe who insists upon dictating terms to them, after desolating their shores and sacking their cities," he cried, "the spontaneous efforts of the people are demanded." That same day, Washington James Blake, a physician serving as mayor of Washington, also begged for volunteers to defend the city and established a 10 p.m. curfew. "Every man will come forth in this glorious cause," he said.
Dolley had become an enemy of the British, almost as much so as her husband. The feisty First Lady had sent off letter after letter to her friends in Europe that scalded the British and their armed forces as the war droned on. "The British on our shores are stealing & destroying private property, rarely coming to battle, but when they do are always beaten.... If the war should last six months longer the U.S. will conquer her enemies," she told a friend in Paris, writing the letter in positive tone in case someone else read it and forwarded it to the British.
She was hated by the British army, the British diplomats and the British press. British admiral Sir George Cockburn, head of the British Navy and one of its heroes in the Napoleonic Wars, had written Dolley a letter. In it, he told her that he planned to take the White House and have dinner there in two days. He urged her to flee because if he caught her there, the president's home would be "burned over your head." An insulted Dolley replied, "I do not tremble at this, but feel affronted that the Admiral ... should send me notes that he would make his bow at my drawing room soon."
Not satisfied with his threat, the cocky Cockburn then told America's First Lady that his men would capture her, put her on a boat, and take her to England, where she would be held hostage, imprisoned in a dark, dank jail, and then paraded through the streets of London in disgrace as hundreds of thousands of Brits jeered at her as her cart was hauled by.
Similar threats had been made by the British against Martha Washington during the American Revolution. She paid no attention to them. Martha told friends that she wanted to know when she would be paraded through the streets of London so that she could wear her best dress.
President Madison's wife of twenty years was a tiny figure on the roof of the President's Mansion that day. The oversized White House was one of the largest and most impressive buildings in the country. The sprawling, twenty-three-room building stood three stories high, with two upper floors reached by outside staircases and a ground-floor level with the street. It had lengthy, covered walkways on each side of it. The building sat near the Potomac River in the middle of a series of tree- and shrub-filled fields with no structures on them, making the president's home seem even larger. Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the capital's main thoroughfares, ran past the front of it. Several chimneys, one with a huge metal lightning rod, stuck up out of the roof. All of the rooms on all three floors had huge windows that overlooked the city.
President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, had moved in during the winter of 1800, when it was still incomplete. Abigail Adams complained bitterly that there was not enough wood to make fires and no bells to summon people, and that she had to hang her family's washed clothing on lines in the big rooms of the house to dry. She wailed that there was no yard, no fence, and few complete rooms. She warned her sister that she had to "keep all of this to yourself and when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful." Even so, Abigail wrote upon leaving the home in 1801 that it was "a beautiful spot ... the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it." Eight years later, when Dolley became First Lady, her husband persuaded Congress to let her refurbish the entire interior of the building, making it as classy as any European monarch's home.
Of course, the building had its critics, such as the teenaged daughter of a politician who visited in 1808. "The President's House is surrounded by dark stone which looks very like the wall belonging to the state prison," she snapped.
In 1814, Washington, DC, was not a large metropolis. The 1810 census showed that it had just over eight thousand residents. They lived on a series of streets connected in a huge grid designed by Pierre L'Enfant, the French architect who laid out the town over empty meadows and chopped down forests along the banks of the river. Most of the streets where people lived in 1814 connected to Pennsylvania Avenue, a very wide street filled with horses and carriages all day long. They kicked up huge clouds of dust throughout the summer months. Most of the homes in the town were two stories high, although some were three. In 1814, Washington was still physically small in geography, and everyone was just a ten-minute horseback ride from everyone else. To give it even more distinction, L'Enfant had planted hundreds of high, green trees on the sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. They not only gave the street a majestic look, but also served to provide extra shade and cool spots in the town, which was oppressively hot in the summer.
L'Enfant had planned the capital with considerable help from the first president, George Washington, who wanted an imperial city whose large government buildings would make it, in just a few years, one of the most admirable capital cities in the world.
As Dolley stood on the roof of the President's Mansion that morning—a lone, tiny figure—servants, on her orders, were starting to set a large table and prepare a scrumptious dinner for dozens of generals, cabinet officers, the president, and friends of the Madisons who lived in the capital. Servants hurried from the kitchen and wine cellar to bring drink and food to the side tables in the dining room. Large ice buckets were prepared for the wine bottles that were expected to be used that night. Sets of candles were placed at various spots on the large table to provide light. Dolley expected all of those invited to meet there that night. She had assured her staff, friends, and the president that she would run the White House while the president was at the front, working with his generals in Maryland to battle the British, who were clashing with American forces in nearby Bladensburg. She paid no attention to the stories in the local newspaper that covered not only the imminent British attack at Washington but also the war in the Great Lakes, with lengthy American death and casualty lists.
She looked forward to the dinner party, as she looked forward to all the social events at the White House. It was not unusual for the president's house to host a dinner or party every night, sometimes two or three. The First Lady would wander through each, within minutes becoming a dazzling lightning rod of attention.
Those who met Dolley never forgot her. She was "a handsome woman, tall and majestic. Her manners were affable but a little affected. She has been very much admired and still fond of admiration. [She] loads herself in finery and dresses ... her complexion is brilliant, her neck and bosom the most beautiful I ever saw. Her face expresses nothing but good nature. There is something very fascinating about her," wrote one woman who met her in 1808.
"[She wore] a gown of brick colored silk with a train two yards long trimmed in white. On her head she wore a small cap with a large bunch of flowers ... she moved with much ease and grace," another woman wrote of Dolley.
Her husband, the president, was nowhere in sight, so Dolley put down the spyglass. Just one day earlier, she was on the roof of the building and watched as panic spread through the streets of Washington when people learned that the British had landed and were marching toward the capital. The American army, really nothing more than a collection of badly trained militiamen, was not expected to stop them at any of the encounters they planned in the Maryland countryside. Thousands of Washingtonians packed up their belongings in carts, carriages, and buggies and sped out of town as fast as their horses could carry them. They all also fled at about the same time, so their huge numbers created traffic jams. They were headed for Alexandria, Virginia, or Georgetown, and had to walk or ride across the few bridges that crossed the Potomac to those destinations from Washington. The people fled as individuals, couples, and entire families. Many families went in large carriages or wagons, some with their children sitting in the backs of the wagons, waving to friends that they saw on their way out of town. Some brought their pets with them, and others left them at home. Cats purred and dogs barked as they fled, providing the exodus of residents with a cacophony of sound. Many fled past the slave market near the capital.
Some departed in long trains of carriages, with different members of families and servants in each one. They looked like any other nervous horde of refugees leaving their hometown in any war and headed for an unknown and dangerous destination. They comprised thick crowds pouring past the White House and the Capitol, all intent on getting as far away from the city as possible, and quickly. There was great worry that the British would seize and perhaps even burn the city to the ground.
Dolley waited, and waited, for her husband to return, long after everyone else had fled to safety. The hours and minutes ticked by ever so slowly. She used the spyglass to look north toward Bladensburg; east toward the American naval yard and its ships and warehouses; and northwest, to Georgetown. She could not spot him anywhere.
She had feared this day for over a month. At the end of July, she wrote Hannah Gallatin, the wife of Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, that "we have been in a state of perturbation here for a long time—the depredations of the enemy approaching within twenty miles of the city & the disaffected, making incessant difficulties for the Government." She was nervous. "Such a place as this has become I cannot describe it—I wish (for my own part) we were at Philadelphia."
She feared for the safety of her husband and herself, but not necessarily from the British. Americans, unhappy with the progress of the war, which the press had early on called "Mr. Madison's War," or lack of progress, had been threatening the Madisons with harm. "Among other exclamations and threats, they say if Mr. M attempts to move from this House, in case of an attack, they will stop him and that he shall fall with it. I am not the least alarmed at these things, but entirely disgusted and determined to stay with him," wrote Dolley.
Back then, in late July, she never thought the day would come when she, the First Lady, and her husband, the president, would be forced to leave the White House and flee for their lives. Now, on the hot morning of August 24, that seemed the most likely course of action. That afternoon, Dolley Madison did not even know where the people scheduled to dine with her were or if they were alive. No matter where she looked on the roof with her spyglass, she saw refugees and the landscapes of a war.
And she worried about her husband. "I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr. Madison safe, so that he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility towards him. Disaffection stalks around us," she wrote with a chill that day.
She had been worried all day. "Since sunrise I have been turning my spyglass in every direction, and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discover the approach of my dear husband and his friends, but, alas, I can descry only groups of military, wandering in all directions."
She should have been worried. Madison had joined his troops in the rural countryside of Maryland and had given his generals a pep talk in order to get them to defend Washington. They were surrounded by several thousand American soldiers, mostly members of militia units, who seemed overwhelmed in their skirmishes with the British army. President Madison was misled by Secretary of War John Armstrong and General William Winder, who assured him that the British had no intention of marching on Washington. Thanks to that view, the governor of Maryland, entrusted by the president to protect his own state, had done little. He also had no intelligence on the British because neither the federal nor the state governments had bothered to set up a spy network. Madison, who rode about and walked through the bustling camp, greeting the soldiers, seemed bolstered by their promises and wrote a hopeful note to his wife.
"I have passed the forenoon with the troops who are in high spirits and make a good appearance. The reports as to the enemy have varied every hour. The last and probably truest information is that they are not very strong, and are without cavalry or artillery and of course that they are not in a condition to strike at Washington. It is believed also that they are not about to move from Marlboro," he said.
Excerpted from James and Dolley MADISON by BRUCE CHADWICK. Copyright © 2014 Bruce Chadwick. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note 11
Chapter 1 Saving George Washington in a City on Fire 13
Chapter 2 Opposites Attract: The Unlikely Meeting of James Madison and Dolley Todd 33
Chapter 3 The Happy Groom Retires from Public Life 43
Chapter 4 Return to Montpelier, 1796 49
Chapter 5 Montpelier to Washington, DC: The Making of a Public Man 61
Chapter 6 A New World: The Madisons Arrive in Washington 75
Chapter 7 The Madisons as Social Lions 105
Chapter 8 The Louisiana Purchase: America Becomes a Giant 117
Chapter 9 The Veteran Secretary of State 125
Chapter 10 The Battles with Britain 133
Chapter 11 Mister President 141
Chapter 12 A New Administration and a New Couple 163
Chapter 13 The Never-Ending Dispute with Great Britain 183
Chapter 14 The Ever-Changing America 191
Chapter 15 War Looms Everywhere over America 203
Chapter 16 The First Days of the War of 1812 215
Chapter 17 The War Years: Dolley 225
Chapter 18 The Early Years of the War 243
Chapter 19 War: Land and Sea 255
Chapter 20 The Montpelier of the President: The Summer White House 267
Chapter 21 Into the War's Stretch 277
Chapter 22 Home to Montpelier: Retirement 291
Chapter 23 A New Life amid the Forests 303
Chapter 24 Payne Todd: "The Serpent in the Garden of Eden" 317
Chapter 25 The Madisons: Slavery and Stormy Years 329
Chapter 26 Dolley: Triumph, Tragedy, and History 345
Select Bibliography 419