As we celebrate the 250th birthday of Dolley Madison, let’s take a moment to reflecton the woman who had a real and lasting effecton on our nation’s history.
As our nation’s first First Lady, Dolley was known for her grace and hospitality. A hospitality that was more often than not strategic and thoughtful to achieve an outcome that helped shape our nation.
But, there is more to Dolley’s story that has recently come to light. It’s the story of Dolley and James Madison and the members of Montpelier’s enslaved community as human beings in relationship to one another.
In Montpelier’s award-winning exhibition, The Mere Distinction of Colour, we have tried to capture the humanity of individuals enslaved in a system that denied that humanity. Dolley plays a role in that history as well, sometimes an unsympathetic role, and it may be the instinct of some to wonder if we are treating her unfairly.
Consider this: elite white women were also considered the property of their husbands. Despite her opportunities, and her national success and fame, Dolley Madison—as a woman in America—could not vote or hold public office and —as a married woman under the doctrine of coverture—had little existence in the eyes of the law. Her legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband’s. But she could, and did, exert her authority over the enslaved community, ordering the purchase or sale of individuals as she felt necessary.
The lives of women on Virginia plantations were complicated. It is my invitation that we use Dolley’s story as she used it herself, to have a voice, to be strong, to serve the country. We don’t have to worship Queen Dolley to feel for her, to admire her, to be curious about her. And we don’t need to renounce our love of Dolley to embrace the stories told in our slavery exhibition.
Indeed, it’s my hope that Dolley does at Montpelier what she did in America: she will open our eyes to the stories and struggles of the many other women of Montpelier, and her letters will shed light on the emotional realities of all stories. We will preserve her legacy as we have always done, with incredible attention and respect, so that women historians in years to come will examine and re-examine one of our nation’s most iconic woman.
So, Happy Birthday Dolley! May we continue to learn from your legacy for generations to come.