Dolly Madison -- Hostess With The Mostess

By Don Vitale

You've heard it said-- many times I'm sure-- that behind every successful man, there's a strong, wise, hardworking woman. While you may draw a blank to come up with examples on the spot, friends, look no further than Dolly Madison, this country's official First Lady, the wife of President James Madison.

Great Godfrey, friends, talk about the woman behind the man.....this is it.

Friend and foe alike agreed that Dolly Madison reigned as "The Hostess with the Mostess" in Washington. She not only walked the walk, she talked the talk. For 16 years. Face it, folks, she owned the title. The lavish parties she held weekly known as "squeezes," were considered a 'Must' on most calendars in the nation's capital. By the way, her events were known as Squeezes because of the large crowd of people who attended.

The great and the not-so-great-- politicians high on the ladder and those on the bottom rung-- all meeting face to face...basking in Dolly's hospitality.

Think her hospitality and social graces helped her husband's popularity among the movers and shakers in Washington? In a word (or two) you betcha.

Remember, the subject of this commentary is Strong Men Backed by Strong Women. It's a fact that Dolly's enormous popularity as a hostess helped her husband get re-elected to a second term.

A bit of background here:  Dolly served as unofficial first lady to Thomas Jefferson when Jefferson was a widower. As a result, when Dolly's husband James Madison became president, Dolly was already prepared to assume her role as First Lady.

While social events bore Dolly Madison's signature during her husband's two terms as President, Dolly continued in her role as hostess when they retired to their Piedmont home in Virginia. Hundreds of folks were invited and hundreds attended. Close friends, diplomats, abolitionists, statesmen---all were there to see...and be seen. In time Dolly Madison's role as the president's wife became known as The First Lady. In fact history credits Dolly Madison with creating the title of "First Lady."

Dolly was a widow at the time she met James Madison. It is said that Aaron Burr, a longtime friend of Madison introduced the two. A courtship followed by a proposal...and Dolly accepted.

Dolly it should be noted, did not come into this world with wealth or rank. She could easily have been one of the maids working in the kitchen at Downton Abbey. Yet, because of her outstanding talents as hostess she is the author of the First Lady title that exists today. James Madison died in 1836 at the couple's home in Virginia. Dolly had to sell the estate to pay off outstanding debts. Listen to what a former slave of the Madisons, Paul Jennings, had this to say in his memoirs:

"In the last days of her life before Congress purchased her husband's papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. (Daniel) Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom of her."

Dolly Madison died at her home in Washington at the age of 81. She was interred in Virginia next to her husband.-dv