Faces From The Past—xix

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Because the first daguerreotype in this iountry was made in 1839. it is nearly impossible to bridge, through photography, the gulf that separates us from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For that reason, the cruelly scarred picture on the facing page is an extraordinary document; it is the photographic likeness of a woman born seven years before the Revolution began, who was an eyewitness to the beginnings of the United States of America, and who was friend to most of the chief participants in those great events. This daguerreotype, made in the late 1840’s, is of Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth President of the United States.

It was taken near the end of her life, when site was. in the words of a contemporary, “… widowed, poor and without prestige of station [but] the same good-natured, kind-hearted, considerate, stately person, that she had been in the hey-day of her fortunes. Many of her minor habits, formed in early life, continued upon her in old age and poverty. Her manner was urbane, gracious, with an almost imperceptible touch of Quakerism. She continued to the last to wear around her shoulders a magnificent shawl of a green color. She always wore a lofty turban and took snuff.”

Before James Madison died in ]8gO, financial ruin had overtaken him as it had his fellow Virginia planters, Jefferson and Monroc, and his wife inherited a debt ridden estate and the task of publishing his papers, ft was her second widowhood, for she had lost her first husband. John Todd, Jr., and an infant son to yellow fever in 1793. Her only remaining child—a son by Todd—was a spendthrift and gambler, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well for whose sake she sold Madison’s plantation, Montpelicr. and mortgaged her own house on Lafayette Square in Washington. As Dolley Madison’s time ran out, life did not seem to hold much (or her. Rut the wise old eyes of the piclurc still twinkle, and in her eighth decade she was still very close to the center of things in the nation’s capital.

She became a public figure when Jefferson appointed James Madison Secretary of State in 1801. Jefferson was a widower, and his married daughters came to Washington infrequently: Aaron Burr, the Vice President, had also lost his wife; so the wife of the Secretary of State, who was next in line of precedence, became Jefferson’s hostess and social leader of the new capital. When the Madisons arrived there, it was “ new county ,” in Abigail Adams’ words, “surrounded with forest,” and the President’s house (in which the Madisons resided until they could find suitable lodgings) a “great castle” amid the lonely wilderness. But Dolley Madison soon gave the raw capital a standard of manners and a style it badly needed. “She has much taste,” the artist Eastman Johnson wrote. “She talks a great deal and in such quick, beautiful tones. So polished and elegant arc her manners that it is a pleasure to be in her company.” At the inaugural hall held at Mr. Long’s Hotel after Madison succeeded Jefferson as President, she was “almost pressed to death” by those seeking ;i glimpse of her. “She looked a queen,” one woman wrote: “It would be absolutely impossible for anyone to behave with more perfect propriety than site did.”

“Mrs. Madison’s levees” were the supreme occasions of the Washington scene. Washington Irving told of entering “lhc blazing splendor” of her drawing room, where he was graciously received by Dolley—“a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody.” Under her eye the President’s mansion was furnished and decorated (Jefferson had been obliged to bring furniture from Monticello to the empty house), but her efforts went up in smoke in i8i.|, when the British burned the building. Happily for posterity, Dollcy remained there until the last possible moment, packing a wagon with the “most valuable portable articles”—including Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, her husband’s papers, and many state documents.