Dolley Madison: The Fame Years

Rotunda’s Dolley Madison Digital Edition, edited by Holly C. Shulman, has been updated with 158 new documents, 543 new and revised identifications of people, places, and terms, and two new editorial essays.

This seventh installment takes the reader through 1845. By the end of the year, Dolley was settled in the nation’s capital, and would never return to Montpelier—or any other place in Virginia. She had established a close friendship with President Tyler, and after James K. Polk was inaugurated on 4 March 1845, she created a warm relationship with both the president and his wife. In addition, the reader may follow her friendships and her social life, and how she dined and partied with the elite of the Polk administration. She continued to receive requests for autographs, both hers and her husband’s, and received dedications for books and poems. This is the Dolley Madison of fame.

Concurrently, Dolley lived a far different private life. Her financial situation was precarious. Her brother-in-law, General William Madison, had filed suit against her, and that proceeded even after William’s death. She asked for loans, and could only repay her debts in small amount. Her finances shot, her son still in Virginia, her slaves divided between Henry Moncure, John Payne Todd, and herself, she considered emancipating her husband’s valet, Paul Jennings, but in the end rented him out to President Polk.

The image above was painted a half century after her death. The illustrator, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, depicted Dolley presiding over a ball held on 8 December 1812 and imagined her accepting the colors of the just-captured British vessel Macedonia, walking toward it in readiness to stamp on the British flag. The ball did take place, the flag was brought there, but Dolley never trod on it, nor did James Madison even attend. The picture reflects one of the myths that by 1845 had grown up around Mrs. Madison.

Texas Joins Archipedia

With the 2014 annual meeting in Austin just over a month away, we are happy to announce the addition of 1,319 building entries covering roughly half of the state of Texas to Rotunda’s SAH Archipedia, with 50 of these accessible via SAH Archipedia Classic Buildings. This material comprises the full text of the recently published Buildings of Texas: Central, South, and Gulf Coast. Additional photographs will be added in the months to come. The first of two Buildings of the United States books devoted to the Lone Star State, this volume includes four major cities (Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, and San Antonio), surveys a range of building types and styles from Spanish missions to modern skyscrapers, canvasses everything from the Alamo and the Johnson Space Center to the Menil Collection/Rothko Chapel and the O. Henry House, and highlights such topics as Texas dance halls, faux bois (false wood) art, cattle and ranching, and barbecue.

Additions to History of the Ratification

The digital edition of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, published by our electronic imprint Rotunda, has just made two important updates to its content. With the addition of Volume 23 from the print series, the digital edition includes the complete New York content. This chronicles the proceedings of the state Convention, where a mostly Antifederalist collection of delegates debated over the Constitution clause by clause. We have also added Volume 24, which is the first volume of Rhode Island content. Notably independent in its thought, Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen states to ratify the Constitution, a process that eventually took three years to complete.

FLOTUS Showdown

Greatest film of all time? Vertigo, according to the Sight and Sound poll. Greatest album? Sgt. Pepper, says Rolling Stone. Best college men’s basketball team? AP has Syracuse at the top (for now). We live in an age of lists. While list-making is to a certain extent just a parlor game, as well as a handy way to sift through information overload, such a list can be a fairly reliable yardstick for fluctuations in reputation.

The Siena Research Institute periodically polls historians to assemble their rankings of the U. S. Presidents, but many people probably don’t know that Siena also ranks the First Ladies. The latest edition of the First Ladies rankings has just been released, and it has inspired considerable commentary (including this CNN piece). In the rankings’ top spot is Eleanor Roosevelt, who, apart from her famous marriage, was one of the great public figures of the twentieth century. In fourth place, almost exactly 200 years after she and her husband left the White House, is Dolley Madison, often credited with creating the role of the First Lady as we know it.

The Founders loom perhaps largest of anyone in our history, and not surprisingly their wives did very well in the poll, with Abigail Adams (#2) and Martha Washington (#9) joining Dolley in the top ten. Another trend in the list seems to be recognizing the more recent presidents’ wives: the four most recent First Ladies all made the top twelve, including Michelle Obama (#5). Who fared less well were the women in between—that long century and a half between the end of the early republic and the second World War. Lost in the shuffle are some formidable First Ladies, such as Lou Hoover (#17)—or the exceptional case of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (#14), who hid her husband’s deteriorating health from his own cabinet and, in order to reduce his burden, actually took on many of his presidential duties herself. Historians debate whether this was admirable resourcefulness or simply a political spouse going rogue.

A particularly poor showing on the list can almost always be traced back to difficult personal circumstances, whether it is Eliza Johnson (#38), who was too unhealthy to perform the traditional duties and had to defer to her daughter, or Jane Pierce (#39, last place), whose arrival at the White House was preceded by an almost incomprehensible run of personal tragedy (she lost all three of her children—the last only weeks before her husband’s inauguration).

The way in which Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt seem to bookend a long period of largely forgotten stories says something about a historical memory that naturally concentrates on the recent history, as well as the enduring prominence of the Founding Era in our minds, but it may also reflect a diminishment of the President’s—and, in turn, the First Lady’s—importance during a significant stretch of our history. “While there were powerful presidents between Madison and FDR, including James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, during most of the 19th century the power of the president remained limited by the strength of Congress,” says Holly Shulman, editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. “While this balance of power shifted under the Progressive Era presidents, it was only with FDR, the New Deal, and the Second World War that the Presidency as we know it took shape.  That supremacy has solidified in the nearly 70 years since the end of World War II.  The era of the imperial presidency has brought to the American public an ever-more prominent First Lady.”

The very interesting survey results may be viewed in their entirety on the Siena web site.

The Unlikely Activist

The odds were against Ed Peeples growing up to be an activist who would inspire countless others. Raised in what he describes as a systematically racist South, Peeples transcended his roots to become a committed soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. This fascinating and unlikely story is the focus of his new memoir, Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism. Peeples recently answered a few questions about his beginnings in activism and the changes he has seen over a half century.

Q: You were born and raised in Richmond—the capital of the Confederacy—in 1935 and went to segregated churches and schools. Considering the very conservative nature of the city, what motivated you to pursue civil rights activism?

A: It was an evolutionary process. Until age eighteen I had never known anything but white supremacist ideology as the explanation for the racial relationships I saw all about me. So that is what I and “my people” considered “normal.” Leaving home introduced me to a number of experiences which little by little led me to challenge that “normal,” which in turn ultimately made a commitment to civil rights action an inescapable moral obligation. The early chapters of my memoir follow this transformation.

Q: The recent celebration of MLK Day and then the passing of Pete Seeger brought an outpouring of memories and appreciations of the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. Do you think these strong emotions suggest a nostalgia for something that is gone from our society?

A: Some may see these celebrations as merely exercises in nostalgia for long-gone heroics. But I see them as necessary for reassuring today’s Civil Rights Movement successors of the fact that they are organically part of a long, enduring, world-wide communion of justice seekers and thus are never alone. So I am not so much impressed with those who volunteer or celebrate only on MLK Jr’s birthday as I am by those who make advocacy of human rights a way of life.

Q: You were raised by a wage-earning single mother. How was your upbringing influenced by her situation, as well as by other adults around you, including your teachers?

A: The Southern culture I grew up in was a schizoid milieu. I was taught many of the social niceties and personal virtues which for so long whitewashed the South’s reputation. But when it came to race, ethnicity, social class, gender identities, the handicapped, immigrants, foreigners, etc.—it was all-out bigotry. Some of these lessons were delivered with bombast and rampage, but more were passed to me through gussied up apologetics and deft examples. My mother and my school teachers were of the later pedagogical school.

Q: What was your experience like in the Navy, and how did your challenging racism impact your relationships while on duty?

A: I entered active duty in the Navy at age 22 as a college grad and already had a number of experiences dealing with justice seeking, so I was bit better prepared for push back against racism than many others there. Moreover, my actions were always carefully calculated, and so I seemed to have created something of a reputation as the military equivalent of a jail-house lawyer. I once had a letter to the editor published in Look Magazine “constructively criticizing” the Navy. It appeared right under a letter written on the same subject by Adlai Stevenson. True, I was occasionally put on report and lost liberty on cooked-up charges in retaliation for my activism. But my reputation among the officers as no push-over, and cover provided by my loyal cadre of shipmates, appears to have been enough to keep me out of the brig, the frequent fate of other such malcontents.

Q: Do you recognize qualities in our current society that remind you of the forces, both good and bad, that you encountered as an activist in the ’60s?

A: Oh yes. Those who object to protections of voter rights, equality of educational and economic opportunity and health care accessibility for all Americans today use nearly the identical schemes and sophistry that we faced in our battles with the segregationists in the 1950s and ’60s. But one thing that was always encouraging to me back then was the fact that while white bigotry gave the appearance of being a solid front, wherever I went in the South, I could always somehow find white brothers or sisters in racial justice. There were not many of them and the media rarely acknowledged the humblest among them, but they often courageously fought alone behind enemy lines in the white sanctuaries of racism. They played no small part in the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q: You had a long teaching career. What changes did you see in your students’ awareness over the course of your career?

A: I taught students in many different majors and professions, mostly in the fields of science and medicine, during great periods of change in race relations. Of course, in subjects where race was a significant element, conditions have turned upside down from 1963 when, for example, I was dropped from teaching any further introductory sociology courses because I invited a black man to speak to my class on race relations. Again in 1964 white supremacy reared its pointy head when some unidentified individual showed up in my class in Ku Klux Klan garb, presumably calculated to intimidate me. A few weeks later, in our team-taught class, a number of our medical students hurled their paper coffee cups at Senator Hubert Humphrey advocating the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the lecture hall TV monitor. But as years passed—time, compelling data, and the living testimonials of victims of racism progressively softened resistance. So today formal analysis of social stratification of all sorts in our society is found in some form or another in a preponderance of the disciplines in our state’s universities and colleges.

Q: What’s the most special moment to you in the course of your activism, and (aside from your memoir) where to you plan to go from here?

A: There have been many highlights I might mention here. One which was among the most gratifying was the day I learned that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed and signed by president Johnson. We had learned that the threat of the truth revealed in our report on the Prince Edward County school closing to the US Civil Rights Commission may have figured in the negotiations with the segregationists in Congress for its passage. It was a thrilling and proud moment for me and I finally saw a concrete result of my years of work in and about Prince Edward County, “The Story Without An End.”

As for what is next for me: Now almost 80, I will continue to push other unheralded activists who struggled alongside me during this last half century to record their story much as I have in my book, Scalawag. For it is these testimonials that show what had to be done in behalf of justice after Martin Luther King left town.

Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism is available now. The book also has its own web site.