- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Catherine Allgor, associate professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, specializes in early American politics and women’s lives. Her newest book, “A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation,” examines Dolley Madison’s important role in the creation of national politics as we know it.

Question: What made Dolley Madison unique in her time?

Answer: That was one of the first questions I asked myself when I started working on this. I thought the answer was going to be extremely complicated, but it wasn’t really. It was that she was famous and that made her special.

And she was special and famous because she had political power. Because she was a woman in a culture that didn’t have a way to accept a straightforward female, her power got transmuted into other things like being known for hospitality.

Q: What makes her special in our day?

A: I’m a historian — I do history, but I realize that it has to be pertinent to today.

Her lasting contribution to us is really two things. One is that she practically invented the role of first lady, which answers the ceremonial needs of the government. For governments to work, they need an official sphere … and they need a ceremonial sphere. The Constitution purposefully ignored the ceremonial because they were trying to avoid the concept of the monarchy. But most particularly in the role of first lady, Dolley created the role.

If I had to say her most lasting contribution, it was the way she did politics. In a day that politics was violent, these men could not imagine a bipartisan system. But Dolley Madison could, and she politicked in a way that brought civility into politics. She concentrated on building bridges. At really the basic level, she forced people to behave well, and this is her real legacy for us. It’s why I call her the most modern politician of her time. Because that’s what modern politics is — it’s about cooperation and moving beyond force. She was in her way more modern a politician than any of her male contemporaries.

Q: What myths surround her?

A: First the ice-cream myth. People will tell you she invented ice cream or was the first to serve it. She was — if you have to give her a first — she was the first official to serve it in Washington, D.C.

I thought it was really interesting that everyone knew this or had some version of it. That helped me with the puzzle about her fame. People know she was famous, but they aren’t sure why.

Another myth — her most famous moment is when she saved the portrait of George Washington. People think she saved the Declaration of Independence. She did save many of these very important papers.

The painting is interesting because the painting in the myth is a Gilbert Stuart painting. But in this case, it wasn’t. It was a copy, and she knew that. She knew that this was not a valuable painting. But she also knew the psychological effect of Americans hearing that the portrait had gone up in flames or even worse, in her mind, that it would be captured like a prize of war and paraded through the streets of London. She did risk her life to make sure the portrait did not fall into the hands of the British.

Q: Has she been generally ignored by historians?

A: I wish she had been a little bit more. The funny thing is that almost immediately upon her death she was definitely the subject of attention, but it wasn’t necessarily good attention. There were a lot of stories, books about her. Really, a major part of my research was just getting rid of the stuff that got repeated over and over and making sure it was true. She was very, very popular. Even now she is one of the most written-about people for young people.

But she also has suffered. Because she was so famous when the women’s history movement started in the 1970s, the push was to look for role models, and she didn’t seem to be a role model. So the focus was on those who are much more feminist. Dolley just didn’t seem to fit that, and then women’s history got much more complicated and they were looking at those who weren’t as famous. So again she didn’t fit the bill — she wasn’t a role model and wasn’t an unknown wife.

Q: If you had to pinpoint her most important accomplishment, what would it be?

A: I would have to say what we said before: modeling a modern form of politics that is bipartisan. In her lifetime, that was tough. She was what I like to call an incredibly effective meat-and-potatoes politician in ways we’ll never be able to pinpoint because a lot of these things were done behind closed doors. Her husband had a really hard decision whether to go to war in 1812, and I think that she played a large part in garnering support for that decision.

She also was a very, very successful influence peddler, and this is very important because she’s staffing the federal government with Republican supporters and her family and allies and just putting all these people in place is extremely important.

She also really secured the future of Washington City. When Jefferson built the White House, he intended it to be distant from the people. Before she came, there was no single place in D.C. that was big enough to hold all the members of government. This was a city and government that was fractured, and what she did was she made Washington City itself and the White House a practical place for politics.

This was the era where Americans truly began to identify with their capital. I think also her role in securing the capital city and creating the White House as a symbol was important. And it becomes even more important when the British decide to invade and burn it because the British thought it would be such a psychological blow.

Even after her husband’s death, Dolley worked hard as a historian with her husband’s papers, including the all important accounts of the proceedings of the Constitutional Congress. And she got Congress to publish them. So as a historian and preservationist, she’s also very accomplished.

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