Mrs. Mount Rushmore, Part II

A little while back we posted a blog that asked the question: if you could design a Mount Rushmore for our First Ladies, who would you carve into that mountain? The results of that questions revealed that our Facebook fans would choose Dolley Madison, Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abigail Adams (in that order). We couldn’t help but ask though, “Why?” So in the spirit of exploring what these women did to earn the admiration of people generations later, we’re going to explore each one of them one at a time.

So with that said, our next edition of Mrs. Mount Rushmore explores the accomplishments of Mrs. Dolley Payne Todd Madison. What do you know about Dolley Madison? I was surprised by the sheer number of answers I received to this question. Even among “history buffs” there are a staggering number of stories associated with Dolley Madison. And upon some reading and research a staggering number of these staggering stories are, staggeringly, mythical in nature. Meaning they’re a tad… embellished. Reading about Dolley Madison paints a picture of a powerful woman who loved beautiful dresses, big parties, politics, and America. She’s almost larger than life. But which of these stories is true and which ones have been blown up?

Dolley Madison, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Married to fourth President James Madison, she was both a noted entertainer and a shrewd political operative during their eight years in the White House. (The James Madison Museum)

Researcher Mary Ellen Scofield recently published an article entitled “Unraveling the Dolley Myths.” In her article Scofield points out that most of the tall-tales associated with the great Dolley Madison are rooted in truth. For example: cupcakes and ice cream. Everyone is familiar with the famous brand of snacks called “Dolly Madison.” And of course the stories of how Mrs. Madison was the first to serve ice cream in the White House. While Mrs. Madison loved herself a party, she can hardly be credited for creating a brand of snack cakes – the Dolly Madison brand came about in 1937 when Roy Nafziger founded a brand of snack and named it after a First Lady whom he found fascinating. And Dolley wasn’t the only White House hostess to serve ice cream. Abigail Adams beat her to the punch, as did Thomas Jefferson for that matter.

These aren’t the stories that make people adore Dolley Madison though. These are simply stories that inflate her a little bit. The big story that even some school children can recite is the story of how Dolley Madison saved the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Dolley braved the flames of the White House, burning down around her during the War of 1812, so that she could save this classic portrait of our first great leader. This paints for us an amazing picture of a woman concerned more about her country’s well-being then her own. And needless to say it’s the grounds for a great action scene in some Hollywood blockbuster. But….not 100% true.

A detail from the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison “saved” when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. (

While Dolley Madison certainly saved the famous portrait of our Commander-in-Chief, she herself didn’t actually carry it out of the White House. The First Lady and remaining White House staff had advanced notice of the enemy advance on Washington, D.C. before the British even there. Before they had even hit the city limits, Mrs. Madison had asked a staff member to break the frame of the painting and rescue the canvas because they were unable to unscrew the frame from the wall itself. The Madison’s doorkeeper and gardener, both still present, assisted Mrs. Madison with loading valuables, including the painting, into a wagon that set off well before the British arrived. And while it’s also true that Mrs. Madison stayed in the White House far longer than would have been safe, she didn’t actually run from a burning building.

This Tom Freeman painting shows British soldiers burning the White House on August 24, 1814. Dolley Madison had escaped with the Stuart portrait of George Washington before the British troops arrived at the White House, but she certainly stayed longer than was safe. (White House Historical Association)

Another misconception is that Dolley Madison had served as Thomas Jefferson’s surrogate First Lady during his time as President. Jefferson’s own wife had died years before the Presidency. And tradition held that the host of a White House event, be it dinner or a gala ball, needed to have his wife or a female substitute present in order for other politicians and invitees to be able to bring their wives. This tradition is true enough. But the misconception began with two biographical pieces that were written about Dolley Madison in 1836 and 1886. The first was a biographical piece in which the author, Margaret Bayard Smith, states that, “the president’s house was the seat of hospitality, where Mrs. Madison always presided (in the absence of Mrs. Jefferson’s daughters).”  The second piece was a collection of letters published by Lucia Beverly Cutts, a grandniece of Dolley herself. In this collection Cutts states, “Mrs. Madison, aided by her sister, usually presided at the White House and was much depended upon.” Many authors over the years have taken these two women at their words and as such the stories have “become fact.”

The truth, however, is a little different. Thankfully Thomas Jefferson kept a very detailed list of guests who attended all of his functions. And upon doing some reading, some tallying, and some math, you quickly discover that Dolley Madison was not around nearly enough to be considered a surrogate First Lady. A vast number of dinners held by President Jefferson had no women in attendance. How much is “vast?” Only 20% of his dinners between 1804 and 1809 had women in attendance. If you further break down the dinners in that 20%, Dolley Madison wasn’t present at any more than half of them. To give her credit where it is due, Mrs. Madison was present more often than any other cabinet member’s wife. And at those dinners at which she was present she did perhaps assist in hostess duties. But her presence is far from consistent, and not nearly enough so that she could be called a surrogate First Lady.

Martha Wayles Jefferson died at age 33 on September 6, 1782, eighteen years before her husband was elected President. Contrary to popular belief, Dolley Madison did not serve as a substitue First Lady for Jefferson. (

So then…why is she held in such a great light? If some of these fundamental “truths” are not actually completely true, then how was this woman so great? Dolley Madison grew into a figure larger than life over the course of history because she herself was a bit larger than life for a woman of the time. Mrs. Madison could throw a party like it was no one else’s business. She understood the ins and outs of socializing and mingling and exactly what it could accomplish politically. Even if her ice cream wasn’t original, she put together guest lists, entertainment, and planned events that went down in Washington history. More than one politician and V.I.P. came away saying that Mrs. Madison’s charms made them feel not just welcome, but important. This set the stage for some hardcore political “moving and shaking” amongst the guests. Combine this with Dolley’s taste in fashion and love of fancy dress, and you have the makings of a hostess who could easily become a political heavyweight.

Dolley Madison was also a highly visible woman. Being the First Lady she was able to hold the same types of gathering that other socialites were already having. But by virtue of her position, and bolstered by her ability to entertain, her “crushes” as they were called (due to the sheer number of people present) garnered much attention. She was also known for her grace and delightful nature when giving and receiving gifts. As the wife of a politician, both of these things are necessary talents. These things made her a popular topic in social circles. These stories were passed along by word of mouth, perhaps inflated as they went. This ensured Mrs. Madison’s reputation among people whom she had never even met. So you have to ask yourself – how could she not have become bigger than life?

So if you step back to examine Dolley Madison in this light you find a woman who may not have had as many “firsts” as you previously thought. She may not have run from a burning building. And she may not have actually “reigned” over Washington like a queen. But what you have is a woman exercising her political know-how at a time when women didn’t usually have (or at least couldn’t show) a lot of political know-how. Politics was a man’s world – not fit for a lady. Dolley Madison broke stereotypes and proved to the young United States that the President’s wife was more than just an accessory. She was a valuable asset. And even though we have to separate some myth from some truth, you still have a woman who definitely seems to have earned her place on Mrs. Mount Rushmore.

-Andrew Curtiss, Volunteer