I was amazed to discover how often people were ready to accuse the founding fathers – and their wives — of sexual adventures. In 1808, when Thomas Jefferson backed James Madison as his presidential successor, opponents focused on the pint-sized Madison’s marriage to buxom Dolley Payne Todd.
Dolley combined an effervescent personality with a fondness for racy French gowns. Suddenly, the nation’s capital swirled with tales of wild orgies in which Dolley supposedly participated. The implication, of course, was that the diminutive Madison was unable to satisfy his flirtatious well endowed wife.
Dolley did not make the slightest attempt to change her style. She informed friends that the key to dealing with such slanders was to “listen without emotion” when they were repeated in your hearing. They were only designed “to play on your sensibility.”
Dolley also dealt with other critics. Congressman John Randolph of Virginia liked to hold forth in vituperative fashion on James Madison’s faults. Dolley invited groups of women to the gallery of Congress to listen to Randolph’s rants. Afterward, she told everyone: “It was as good as a play.”
It did not hurt that Dolley had the backing of the capital’s only newspaper, the National Intelligencer. The editor’s wife was one of her closest friends. By the time Madison ran for president in 1808, Dolley was a political force unto herself. The losing candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, whined that he had lost to “Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance if I faced Mr. Madison alone.”
Soon everyone was calling Dolley “The First Lady.”
Thomas Fleming, author of The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, has served as President of the Society of American Historians and of the PEN American Center, the international writers organization. A frequent guest on C-SPAN, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel, he lives in New York City. Read more about Thomas here.