A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor

Quick, what do you think of when you think of Dolley Madison? One of two things: either cupcakes or the image of Dolley saving George Washington’s portrait from the depredations of the invading British Army during the War of 1812?

I did learn a lot more about Dolley Payne Todd Madison and her husband, James, from this biography than I knew before I read it. Did you know that:

Dolley was married to John Todd before she married Mr. Madison, and she had only one son who survived to adulthood, Payne Todd. Dolley and James Madison never had any children together, and he was accused of being impotent, a particularly malicious accusation for a man in those days. Dolley, on the other hand, was said to have been “oversexed”, thus destroying Mr. Madison’s manly force by her inordinate demands. (Only the opposition press said or hinted at such things. We only think the press nowadays is obsessed with sexual scandal and impropriety. Back then, it was no holds barred.)

Dolley’s son Payne was a wastrel and an alcoholic who was nevertheless adored and pampered by his blindly affectionate mother.

Dolley exercised considerable power in Washington society and as a partner in James Madison’s presidency, although she disclaimed any knowledge or influence in political matters as befitted a woman of her time.

Dolley Payne was born into a Quaker family. Her father owned slaves, but he freed them and moved to Philadelphia as a matter of conscience. However, the Madisons were an old, venerable, and slave-owning Virginia family, and after her marriage Dolley became enmeshed in the “peculiar institution” of slavery and never expressed any reservations about slavery or about her participation in owning slaves.

Dolley owned a pet macaw named Polly. Polly was impressive to guests for “her colorful feathers and ability to talk”, but the macaw was also a menace, dive-bombing visitors, screaming and pecking at them.

Dolley enjoyed writing poems, epigrams, and letters, but many of her letters were burned after her death by her nieces in an attempt to protect her reputation, privacy, and legacy.

Although she was a church-goer, Dolley Madison was not baptized into any church until 1845 when she and her niece Annie Payne were baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

As James Madison lay dying in June 1836, his doctors offered to prolong his life with drugs so that he could die on the Fourth of July as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had done ten years earlier in 1826. Madison declined their ministrations, saying that he preferred to die “in full possession of all his noble faculties.” Madison died on June 28, 1836.

Dolley lived until 1849 and became the most celebrated woman in Washington society.

Ms. Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison is readable and features lots more interesting facts and observations; however, the book does have a couple of drawbacks as far as I’m concerned. It begins with a “note on names” in which Ms. Allgor explains her rather confusing system of nomenclature. Rather than refer to men by their last names, as in “Madison” and “Jefferson” and “Adams”, and women by their first or first and last, as in “Dolley” or “Dolley Madison”, the author chooses to call some by first names only (men and women in “political partnerships”) and others by their last names or full names. The result is confusing and distracting.

Also, as another seeming manifestation of overactive feminism, the author spends a great deal of time, like half of the book, “proving” that Dolley was a consummate politician even though Dolley Madison herself claimed to eschew politics as an essentially manly pursuit. Ms. Allgor’s premise that Dolley Madison was involved in politics and a full partner in her husband’s presidency is indisputable, but it comes across in a “protests-too-much” manner that wore me out as a reader after a while. Yes, I get it. She was doing politics in the parlor and in the drawing room even while Mr. Madison met with the Cabinet upstairs. Now, get on with the story.

Aside from these two niggling issues with Ms. Allgor’s biography, I did enjoy the book, and I would recommend it. I feel as if I gained some measure of insight into the political life of early nineteenth century America and into the lives of James and Dolley Madison. (And yes, I put James’s name first because I thought that putting Dolley’s first would be distracting and annoying. I’m a bad feminist.)

Next up on the Presidential Hit Parade: James Monroe. I have James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Harry Ammon on my list of possibilities for this project. Does anyone have any other suggestions for a good biography of Mr. Monroe?

3 thoughts on “A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book. I am doing the President’s Challenge but I have not read anything yet. I hope to start in September.

  2. Great review! Thanks for linking it to the Project!


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