I just finished reading Catherine Allgor's book, A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. Here are a few of things I found interesting:
- One of Dolley Madison's biggest contributions was that she created ways for the men who were the American Government to get things done. In 1800 the congress had no structure or rules. The new government of the U.S. and the men who were a part of it believed that there was only one possible common good and that anyone who didn't agree with their view was wrong. People like John Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed that there should only be only one party in American politics.
"Unfortunately, two different camps believed this. To each one — the Federalists and the Republicans– the other party was a "faction," a source of danger and disorder and a very personal as well as national threat. In such an atmosphere. legislators did not even tolerate a discussion that included difference."
Dolley didn't like conflict. She created friendships with everyone. She brought the politicians who thought of themselves as individuals and enemies together socially. She held weekly gatherings called drawing rooms and everyone was invited.
"In or out of the government, only at Dolley's events could political enemies get to know one another in circumstances that demanded the best of them. Government officials fought physically on the floor of congress, in their boardinghouses, and on the street; but they dared not strike one another with ladies present. ….. If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government."
- Two of the things that Thomas Jefferson detested most were " the English and political, intellectual woman." Elizabeth Merry the English ambassador's wife during the Jefferson administration embodied these things. In contrast Dolley Madison was always very careful to be what woman of the time were expected to be, nurturing, polite and seemingly uninterested in politics. In fact she was a smart and very political woman.
- Picture this 🙂 On June 1, 1812 when the House of Representatives was debating the resolution to go to war with Britain the Federalist tried to stop the war resolution with a filibuster.
"The Republicans responded by throwing spittoons, a surprisingly effective move. The sudden clang of metal stopped the speaker in mid-sentence, allowing the Republicans to declare the delaying tactic ended."
- Dolley stayed at the White House until just a few hours before the British marched into Washington and burned the White House. The true story of her staying until the large painting of George Washington had been saved is part of our identity as Americans.
- Dolley created the "unofficial office" of First Lady.
"The First Lady answers the crucial need for the ceremonial in American politics; quite deliberately, the Constitution downplays the role of the ceremonial in its formula for a weak central government, ruled by law and not by personality."
"Ceremonial symbolism, which operates on emotional and psychological levels, unites people. In ordinary times, Dolley's performance supplied a kind of structure that allowed the government to function, unifying (or at least gathering) the branches of government and the individuals within those branches. Dolley also held the nation together in a time of crisis, and, by her ceremonial symbolism, allowed Americans, many of who might never leave the town of their birth, to imagine themselves as part of a larger entity— as citizens of the United States of America"
- The author, Catherine Allgor is a fascinating woman. According to her biographies and interviews on the web she worked as an actress for eleven years and then went back to school to study history. She attended Mount Holyoke College and then got her PhD from Yale. In a short autobiography in 2000 after her first book Parlor Politics was published she said;
"Being a historian, I am conscious of dates and
anniversaries. Holding my first book in my hands this fall
would be meaningful moment enough. But it was exactly ten
years ago this fall that I sold my stuff, packed up my car
and arrived at Mount Holyoke. I had no idea of what "I was
going to do when I grew up," had never turned on a computer
or written a paper. And now a book"
I thoroughly enjoyed A Perfect Union. After reading so many presidential biographies it was fun to learn about a woman of the same period. Dolley was 8 when the declaration of Independence reached the town she was living in and she lived until 1841 when she died at 81. It was also fascinating to learn the key role she played in creating our country and to think about how many of her lessons and strategies are still relevant today.