James and Dolley Madison: America’s First Power Couple

Written by Bruce Chadwick
Review by Jeanne Greene

When historian Bruce Chadwick (Lincoln for President, 2010) turns an experienced eye on the fourth president and his wife, he reminds us they were Southerners and, in 1809, Washington was a hospitable southern city.

When Madison, a fortyish congressman with a burgeoning career, arranges to meet an attractive young widow, he finds a wife – and a political asset. First as hostess for bachelor President Jefferson and then as wife of President Madison, Dolley puts her unique stamp on Washington society. Her personality and attire (feathers! turbans!) may be over-the-top but, unlike her staid husband, Dolley has charisma.

Chadwick follows the course of a marriage rather than strict chronology, but without stretching the “power couple” analogy too far. Dolley’s role as the president’s wife (the term “First Lady” was not yet in use), was not emulated by her more retiring successors. Chadwick does not neglect the man who wrote the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. As President, Madison defeats the British army in 1812, but, just as she did in marriage, Dolley steals the limelight in this dual biography. James and Dolley Madison is a fascinating introduction to an era of widespread change, which is recommended for the general reader.