What Does Melania Trump Have in Common with Dolley Madison, the Original First Lady?

Jane Hampton Cook
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Posted: Jan 12, 2017 1:59 PM
What Does Melania Trump Have in Common with Dolley Madison, the Original First Lady?

What does Melania Trump, the incoming first lady, have in common with the woman often known as the first first lady, Dolley Madison? Plenty.

As Dolley and Melania both show, the heart of every first lady is a love story. These are three interesting ways our first first lady and our soon-to-be first lady are connected.

Like Dolley, Melania Is Described as a Stunning Woman

When TMZ’s Harvey Levin interviewed President-Elect Donald J. Trump for the Fox News Channel special Objectified, he asked, “What attracted you to Melania? She is stunning."

“We had a very immediate attraction, absolutely,” Trump said, explaining that Melania is a “very, very good and kind person.”

Most women who have become first lady didn’t marry a president, but rather a man they loved who later became president. When Congressman James Madison started pursuing a young vivacious widow named Dolley Payne Todd in 1793, he didn’t hide his attraction for her.

“He [Madison] thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue, at night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep a calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he shortly will be consumed,” Dolley’s aunt told her.

Other agreed. Dolley was a catch. As I explain in my new book: The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812, one of Dolley’s male friends observed, “She [Dolley] could raise the mercury in the thermometers of hearts to fever heat.”

Dolley, like Melania, Complemented Her Husband’s Personality

Some have criticized Mrs. Trump for choosing cyberbullying as a platform when her husband has been known to name-call in his tweets. Because of this, she is possibly the best person to take on this platform.

“I give him my opinions, and sometimes he takes them in, and sometimes he does not. Do I agree with him all the time? No. I think it is good for a healthy relationship. I am not a 'yes' person. No matter who you are married to, you still need to lead your life,” She told Harper’s Bazaar earlier this year. “I don't want to change him. And he doesn't want to change me.”

Where Mr. Trump is a showman and loves a roaring crowd, she enjoys quiet evenings at home. While he was rarely off the campaign trail and gave multiple media interviews a week, Melania was rarely seen on the campaign trail and limited her press availability.

Mr. Trump upon occasion will tell crowds that his wife wanted him to be more presidential. Melania has a quiet power and a willingness to tell her husband when he’s gone too far. This is perhaps her greatest strength.

In a different way, Dolley also rounded out her husband’s personality.

“Mrs. Madison is a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody. . . But as to Jemmy Madison—ah poor Jemmy!—he is but a withered little apple-john,” humorist and journalist Washington Irving wrote about the opposite pair when he visited the White House. Dolley was an extrovert while Madison was an introvert.

The reserved James Madison was also seventeen years older than his wife. While she was a Quaker whose parents came to oppose slavery, and gave their slaves freedom, James was a plantation owner. Quakers were also pacifists who opposed war. Madison became a war-time president, which forced Dolley to explain her belief in taking up arms for self-defense to her pacifist family members.

“In my eyes as I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed, though a Quaker—I therefore keep the old Tunisian saber within my reach,” Dolley explained to her Quaker cousin Edward.

Dolley is known as the first first lady because she created the role of first lady that we know today. Oral history says that President Zachary Taylor used the term “first lady” at Dolley’s funeral. After the burning of the White House in 1814 by an invading British military, Dolley took stock of her life and role as the wife of the president. She leveraged her influence and led the women of Washington to start a charity for orphans. She convinced Congress to give them a charter. As result, she became the first wife of a president to start a charity, setting the pattern for future first ladies to take on a platform. Dolley’s nonprofit still exists today under the name Hillcrest Children and Family Center in Washington, D.C. One of Dolley’s friends understood that her power wasn’t merely external, but came from her heart: “’Tis not her form, ’tis not her face, it is the woman altogether, whom I should wish you to see.”

The same could and should be said about Melania Trump as she takes on the role crafted by Mrs. Madison. As they did for Dolley and Michelle Obama, Americans ought to give Melania a chance to share her heart for serving all of the people and allow her to be herself in the process.

Dolley and Melania Share Missions of Changing a Harsh Culture

Trump has praised his wife’s involvement with their ten-year old son, Barron. Melania doesn’t have a nanny and drives Barron to school.

“She’s very involved with him, she loves family,” Trump explained. After he takes office in January, Melania and Barron will reside in New York on weekdays until Barron finishes the school year. Many families make similar choices when one parent starts a new job in a new town in the middle of the school year. This choice makes Melania relatable.

Melania has explained that her initiatives as first lady will involve the “betterment of the American people” and that she “cares deeply about issues impacting women and children.” She has specifically expressed concern about the social media culture, which can be “mean and too tough,” especially for children.

“It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied or attacked. It is terrible when it happens on the playground, and it is absolutely unacceptable when it is done by someone with no name hiding on the internet. We have to find a better way to talk to each other,” she said in a speech a few days before the election.

“We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media,” Melania explained. “It will be one of the main focuses of my work, if I am privileged enough to become your first lady.”

Similar to Melania, Dolley Madison faced a harsh culture when she and her husband moved into the White House in 1809. Just a few years earlier, President Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr, had killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel, as many have discovered through the hit Broadway show Hamilton. Two hundred years ago, challenging enemies to a duel was a heart breaking and tragic part of our culture, the metaphorical swamp of Washington, D.C.

Thus, President Jefferson, a widower without a wife to serve as a hostess, wouldn’t risk entertaining members of both political parties at the same party in the White House.

Dolley and James Madison sought to soften this hostile culture by opening the White House to house parties for members of both political parties. By mixing socially, politicians got to know each other as human beings, not as political enemies. They could talk politics at Dolley’s parties, but social graces prevented them from getting too hot in the presence of ladies. The tactic worked. So many people attended these parties, they were called “squeezes.” As a result, Dolley tamed the alligators of the swamp and Washington society loved her for it.

“Everybody loves Mrs. Madison,” Speaker of the House Henry Clay legendarily raved.

“That’s because Mrs. Madison loves everybody,” she quipped back.