Most women who marry heads-of-state seem forever destined to languish in obscurity. They are usually known by those who study their husbands' lives, but few are ever fortunate enough to escape the shadows of their husbands. They seem relegated to some kind of second-class status in the history books, unfortunately, and the role that they play in the success of their husbands' administrations is too often forgotten by history. Dolley Madison is a fortunate exception to this pattern, and one surmises that if PBS did something about her life without a comparable film about her husband's life, they must consider her pretty important (and rightly so). Their neglect of her husband James Madison strikes one as somewhat strange, I must admit, since he is the Father of the Constitution and a prominent Founding Father. Nonetheless, it is fortunate that they did not treat his wife with the same neglect that they treated him, and there is enough in this film (I think) about both individuals to satisfy fans of either one.
Comparison with other films by this filmmaker
Before I watched this film, I am sad to say, I didn't know enough about Mrs. Madison to have an opinion one way or the other; although I had a high opinion of her husband. It was this interest in her husband, in fact, that led me to this film in the first place. I was searching for documentaries about James Madison on Netflix, you see, and instead encountered this film about Dolley Madison in the search results. I thought it might make an "acceptable substitute" for a James Madison fan like me, and was quite pleased when it turned out to be even better than I had anticipated. It was far more than merely "acceptable," I am happy to say; and it turned me into a fan of Dolley Madison as well. I was pleased to see in the film's opening credits that director Muffie Meyer was involved in this film; since I had seen her work on three other PBS documentaries put out prior to this time, and admired them all greatly. All of them were documentaries about this general time period, you see, and included two excellent biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton respectively (both Founding Fathers), not to mention a superb documentary on the American Revolution that was six hours long.
Early life and marriages
James Madison was not Dolley Madison's first husband, as it turns out, since she had two sons by a previous marriage to a man named John Todd. Like Dolley's parents (and Dolley herself at the time), John Todd was respected as a devout Quaker; and the Quaker religion did much to win the approval of her parents for the match with him. Dolley became a widow, unfortunately, when her first husband died in an epidemic, though, which also took the life of their son William Temple Todd (then three months old). Her firstborn son survived, though (a boy named Payne), and would be the only child of hers that would ever survive to adulthood. For reasons unknown to history, she never had any children with her more famous second husband James Madison, although Mr. Madison seems to have treated his stepson Payne as his own child, and was a good stepfather to him. Unlike her first husband, Mr. Madison was not a Quaker; and Dolley's marriage to a non-Quaker resulted in her expulsion from the Society of Friends (the formal name of the Quaker religion). She was 26 when she married James Madison, as it turns out, when he was a longtime bachelor of 43. Being 17 years older than his spouse was somewhat unusual even then, I should note here, although Madison's friends were probably more surprised that he had ever married at all. (He was painfully shy, you see, and preferred the company of books to that of people; although he could be charming in small groups when he wanted to be.)
Madison's presidency during the War of 1812
James Madison had already accomplished his Founding Father achievements by the time he married Dolley, and was well-known as the Father of the Constitution already. Whatever his social weaknesses (and he had a few of them, I should note here), he was a brilliant legal mind; and a number of his writings are still read by students of law and government today. If James Madison was an introvert, Dolley Madison was her husband's exact opposite in that regard; and was probably known more for her extroversion and charm than for anything else about her. It was probably owing more to her political influence than to his that Mr. Madison became president in 1809. Her husband's chief opponent Charles Pinckney, in fact, admitted that his defeat was largely owing to her. She was an integral part in getting support for her husband, as it turns out, and was glad to play the role of First Lady in her husband's historic presidency. The main issue of his presidency turned out to be the War of 1812 (a second war with Great Britain, after the American Revolution), and Dolley Madison's greatest claim to fame here is her role in saving historic objects from the White House shortly before the British burned the building in 1814. (The British had just captured the Capitol, you see, and would have liked to take the portrait it had of George Washington as the trophy of their victory. Fortunately for the United States, though, Dolley Madison was able to save the portrait, and thus prevented a propaganda disaster for the United States by so doing. She thus earned herself a place in the history books even among general audiences for this act.
British entry into Washington DC, 1814
Portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison helped to save from British capture
Complicated relationship with her son Payne
Dolley's son Payne, though, was a source of grief to his mother many times throughout her life. When he grew to adulthood, he acquired a number of vices that ranged from alcohol to gambling to promiscuity. His gambling landed him in considerable financial trouble more than once that was exacerbated by his heavy spending, and he often turned to his parents for help when he was having money problems. When he was not having money problems, he would completely lose contact with his parents, and would leave them agonizing over how he was doing - a situation that caused both parents (including his stepfather) considerable grief. Payne adopted the tactic of borrowing money from his mother without telling his stepfather, and borrowing from his stepfather without telling his mother. Thus he kept both of his parents in the dark about how much he had really borrowed in the past. It was largely because of this that his parents both saw major financial problems when they were older, and they had a hard time saying no to their son's constant requests for money. When the couple sold Madison's papers of historical interest to the Smithsonian Institute for some needed revenue, the Congress made sure that this money was placed in a trust fund controlled by Dolley's friends, to keep it out of her son's hands - a testament to how notorious her son's spendthrift ways had become.
John Payne Todd, Dolley's only son to live longer than one full year
Paul Jennings, the Madisons' sometime slave (who lived into the photography era)
Slaveholding by the Madisons
This documentary also discusses the role of slavery in the Madison household, which is probably the most controversial thing about this couple today. They were both Southerners who grew up with it, you see, and their famous plantation at Montpelier was dependent upon the labor of their slaves. One of those slaves was a man named Paul Jennings, I should note here, and he wrote a famous memoir of his experiences in the Madison household, after he had been freed. He had been forced to endure some separations from his family at times during his enslavement, although the Madisons allowed him to visit his family occasionally even then, which was more than most slaveholders allowed at this time or afterwards. He served the Madisons during their presidency, as it turns out, and continued to serve them after that time for many years. He was with James Madison when he died in 1836, and continued to serve Dolley Madison after her second husband's death left her widowed for the second time in her life. When she ran into financial troubles from her son's spendthrift ways, she was forced to sell her slaves, and eventually sold Paul Jennings as well. But when she ran into further financial trouble again long after she had sold Jennings, the now-freed Paul Jennings actually came and lent her money that she badly needed - a testament to his ability to forgive and forget. He seems to have loved the Madisons despite his being enslaved by them, and it is one of the more memorable stories in this documentary that he was able to forgive them despite these provocations.
Conclusion: Dolley Madison is a compelling subject
For these and other reasons, it's hard to think of a woman more compelling than Dolley Madison, or a more interesting subject for a documentary. This documentary underscores that women are as compelling a topic as the men, and that these "great deeds" of the men are not the only worthy topic for a popular historian - or the only deeds worthy of note. This documentary belongs up there with the finest documentaries on women's history out there, and who better than PBS to tell the story right for television. (One hopes that they will follow up this story with a documentary about her husband as well, if their funding and biases eventually allow this to happen.)
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
James Madison: The most underrated Founder
"Elizabeth" (Queen Elizabeth I of England)
PBS's "Marie Antoinette"