Tag Archives: James Madison

Betsy’s Circle: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy Bonaparte’s more surprising friendships was with Dolley Madison. On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common, yet they had an amiable relationship that lasted many years. For example, while Dolley was in the White House, Betsy often looked in on Dolley’s son at his boarding school near Baltimore. And Dolley Madison once gave Betsy the commission of buying her a turban or anything fashionable on her next trip to Europe because she so admired Betsy’s taste. 

Dolley Madison, born Dolley Payne, was raised as a Quaker in Virginia. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager. When Dolley was twenty-two, she married a young lawyer named John Todd, with whom she had two sons. Tragedy soon struck, however. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793—which wiped out some 11 percent of Philadelphia’s population—killed both her husband and her younger son, who was only three months old.

Within a year, Dolley had met and married James Madison, a bachelor who was seventeen years older than she was. As the main author of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was an important political figure, so this new relationship thrust Dolley into a much different social sphere than she had been used to.

She proved to be more than up to the task. After Thomas Jefferson became president, James Madison became his secretary of state and Mrs. Madison served as the hostess for the widowed president. After eight years, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and Dolley Madison officially became the first lady. She was famous for her entertaining. The following description comes from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Under Mrs. Madison’s direction, Benjamin Latrobe had transformed the oval drawing room into a blazingly colorful salon that was the talk of Washington. Latrobe had repainted the walls sunflower yellow, highlighted moldings with strips of pink wallpaper printed with white and dark green leaves, hung crimson velvet curtains with gold tassels, and laid a carpet with a red, blue, and gold arabesque pattern. Dolley Madison held open houses every Wednesday in the lavishly decorated room. So many people attended—sometimes as many as 400 in a day—that the regular event became known as Mrs. Madison’s “crush or squeeze.”

Dolley Madison became a beloved national hero during the War of 1812. When it became evident that the British were going to take Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and that it would not be possible to protect the President’s Mansion, Dolley stayed to oversee the removal of as many precious and important items as possible—including a full-sized portrait of George Washington. It is this action for which she is best remembered today.

Gilbert Stuart - George Washington - Google Art ProjectGeorge Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Dolley and James Madison remained devoted to each other, Dolley did have one major sorrow. Her surviving son Payne Todd was an irresponsible alcoholic. His behavior was a trial to his mother, particularly after James Madison’s death. Because of Payne’s heavy spending, Dolley Madison spent much of her later years in poverty.


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Betsy’s Circle: Elbridge Gerry

During her lifetime, Betsy Bonaparte knew many famous and fascinating people. One of her more unusual friendships was with Elbridge Gerry, James Madison’s second vice president. Poor President Madison had the unhappy distinction of having both his vice presidents die during their term of office. The first was George Clinton in 1812, and the second was Elbridge Gerry.

By the time he became vice president, Gerry had put in some fifty years of public service. Originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, he served in the Continental Congress as a representative of Massachusetts, and he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He also attended the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign that document because he thought it didn’t create a strong enough central government. He once said,

“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots.”

In the decades that followed, Gerry served as U.S. Congressman and as the governor of Massachusetts. It was during his term as governor that he signed a law redistricting the state along highly partisan lines—an incident that became the basis for Gerry’s most enduring legacy. His name was incorporated into our modern term gerrymandering. The -mander part of the term was borrowed from salamander because some wit thought the boundaries of the new districts looked like the outline of a lizard. Even though Gerry’s name was pronounced with a hard G—like Gary—gerrymandering is said with a soft G.

Betsy met Vice-President Gerry while she was living in Washington, D.C. during 1813, perhaps through the Madisons, who were friends. The vice president and the socialite got along well and enjoyed debating the merits of various political systems. Betsy liked having a platonic relationship with a man who appreciated her mind, rather than one who was mesmerized by her beauty. All her life, she longed to receive more recognition of her talents. Unfortunately, the rewarding friendship did not last long. Elbridge Gerry died on November 23, 1814.


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