Last weekend I enjoyed the privilege of speaking at the 2nd annual American Girls Tea at the USS Constitution Museum. It was a lovely time and ideal nautical setting at the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston Harbor. Over both days we spoke to 150 guests—our own American girls accompanied by their dolls, mothers, grandmothers and guests. This event featured the 1812 American Girls’ Caroline Abbott doll. While highlighting Caroline’s story, I focused on another heroine of the day, Dolley Madison. Although Dolley Madison was officially the fourth First Lady in a long illustrious line of presidential wives, she is considered to be our first First Lady because she brought great style, vivacity, charm and vision to the role of First Lady.
We talked over cups of tea about how Dolley was a gracious hostess as well as a remarkable heroine. She redecorated the White House (then called the President’s House) and one of her favorite decorating features was her red velvet curtains. She held weekly Wednesday receptions that were extremely popular as anyone was welcome without an invitation as long as you were properly dressed. Dolley greeted everyone personally with a kind, encouraging word to say. She wanted the White House to be a place where opinions were respected regardless of one’s political allegiance. She liked to build bridges of communication rather than walls. And she served her signature ice cream at these receptions which was madly popular!
Dolley’s heroic legacy came about during the War of 1812 when the British marched on Washington City (DC) in August of 1814. Before the White House was burned she rescued many important objects at the risk of her own life. Among these items were James Madison’s cabinet papers, some of his books, and letters, some china, silverware, at least one panel of her beloved red velvet curtains, a small clock and what is known as the Landsdowne Portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. She feared this great symbol of American liberty would become a likely war trophy and would be burned back in the streets of London.
The highlight for me of my time with these lovely young ladies occurred when I asked, after giving a show and tell of all of these rescued items, what they thought the most important item was that she rescued? The reply from one little young lady beyond her years was . . . “her dignity.”
Yes, my dear American girl, your dignity always accompanies you—a poignant and powerful truth that I shall never forget. George Washington would be mighty proud as well.
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