Michelle Obama? Meet Dolley Madison

A hot new book portrays Michelle Obama as a backstage power broker. If that’s true, she might follow the lead of the fourth President’s amazing wife.

by Hugh Howard
michelle obama photo
Photograph: Courtesy of Associated Press, J. Scott Applewhite

Even as we admire Ann Romney’s refusal to allow her multiple sclerosis to limit her life (or her husband’s), the sheer physical bravery of Mrs. Madison comes to mind. During the War of 1812, Mrs. Madison watched the exodus of the city’s inhabitants and its militia as thousands of British troops marched on Washington. Although she could hear the boom of cannon from her rooms in the President’s house, as the White House was then known, she refused to leave until she had arranged for the safe departure of the life-size portrait of George Washington hanging in her dining room. Ever politically savvy, she recognized it would be a prize for the invaders. If it were to “fall into the hands of the enemy,” she observed,  “[its] Capture would allow them to make a great Finish.”

According to Kantor’s book, Mrs. Obama has transitioned from a second-guessing presidential spouse to a truly effective political force inside and out of the White House. In spite of that achievement, however, she has yet to achieve the across-the-aisle popularity Dolley Madison had. The legendary U.S. senator Henry Clay—himself known for his brilliant political compromises—said of Dolley, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison.” Standing nearby, she heard his remark and fired off an immediate riposte: “That’s because Mrs. Madison loves everybody.”

That was remarkable, because at that time Washington D.C. was every bit as divided as it is today. When Madison’s 1812 war declaration came to the floor of Congress, the opposition Federalists voted in a bloc against it, 39 to 0, a strategy of unanimous opposition we see employed so often in Congress today. And Mrs. Madison was the subject of virulent attacks on her character and even her morals. Yet as her contemporary, journalist Margaret Bayard Smith, wrote, “In … trying times, Mrs. Madison appeared to peculiar advantage … [meeting] political assailants with a mildness, which disarmed their hostility of its individual rancor, and sometimes even converted political enemies into personal friends.”

Whatever is said about her this week, Mrs. Obama is not the first First Lady—nor will she be the last—to follow Dolley Madison’s lead, investing her talents and ambitions in helping to shape and define her husband’s presidency. (Michelle Obama's latest effort in that direction: She started tweeting.) But whoever is cast in the role of presidential wife in 2013, she would do her nation a service if she could succeed, as Mrs. Madison did, in bridging some of Washington’s bitter political divides.

Writer and historian Hugh Howard’s new book is Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War. Click here to buy.


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First Published January 13, 2012

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