Michelle Obama may be the talk of the nation for being portrayed (in a new book by Jodi Kantor) as a White House power player, but if that's true, it's nothing new. The standard for First Lady as powerhouse was set many years ago, not in the twentieth century by Nancy Reagan or Rosalynn Carter, or even Eleanor Roosevelt or Edith Wilson, but in the early nineteenth by Dolley Madison, the first woman to be termed First Lady. From the moment of James Madison's election, Dolley's power was acknowledged: As Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, the man James Madison defeated in 1808, wryly remarked, “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance if I had faced Mr. Madison alone.”
Now that we know for sure that we won’t elect a woman president this year (with Sarah Palin a non-starter and Michelle Bachmann out of the race), the women seeking votes in South Carolina are limited to Republican wives supporting their candidate husbands. But with her book, The Obamas, Kantor has reminded us all of how important a “mere” First Lady can be.
Two hundred years ago, Dolley Madison wasn’t known by that honorific (it was reportedly coined by President Zachary Taylor, speaking at Mrs. Madison’s 1849 funeral). Instead, the press of the day dubbed her “Lady Presidentess,” bringing to mind Bill Clinton’s suggestion that in him and Hillary, voters were getting “two for one.” Whether or not she was truly a co-president, we do know that Dolley Madison was very much more than a presence at her husband’s side. Soon another woman will be in the White House with her husband, and whether it is Michelle Obama or someone else, she ought to brush up on Dolley, whose influence is important to note in 2012, the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which is also known as Mr. Madison's War.
Newt Gingrich has lauded Callista Gingrich’s impact upon him; his third wife’s piety, passion for music, and her devotion to him are said to have smoothed the rougher edges of the hard-driving former Speaker of the House. In the case of 43-year-old James Madison, the arrival of the widow Dolley Payne Todd in his life was even more transformative. Though a world-renowned political philosopher and the principal author of the Constitution, Madison was somber, studious and short (before their marriage, Dolley, who was tall, described him as “the great little Madison”). When they married in 1794 Madison was already a congressman, but it was she—17 years younger, good-looking and black-haired—who turned heads on the street. As a team, they were ready for prime-time.
Like Karen Santorum, Mrs. Madison had a hiatus from public life, when her husband withdrew from politics during the Adams administration. But when Thomas Jefferson was elected president (America's third), Madison became his secretary of state and Dolley took on the new capitol city, first as White House hostess for Jefferson, who was a widower, and then, after her husband’s election in 1808, as Presidentess. She benevolently ruled Washington society, welcoming political friend and foe alike to her open evenings, called “Drawing Rooms.” So many powerful people shouldered their way into her weekly gatherings that they were known as “Squeezes.”
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.
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