The Inauguration of 1809

On 5 March 1809, the day after James Madison’s inauguration, Margaret Bayard Smith described the scene at the inaugural ball the night before:

“It was scarcely possible to elbow your way from one side to another, and poor Mrs. Madison was almost pressed to death, for every one crowded round her, those behind pressing on those before, and peeping over their shoulders to have a peep of her, and those who were so fortunate as to get near enough to speak to her were happy indeed….she was led to the part of the room where we happened to be, so that I accidentally was placed next to her. She looked a queen. She had on a pale buff colored velvet, made plain, with a very long train, but not the least trimming, and beautiful pearl necklace, earrings and bracelets….It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did. Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. It seems to me that such manners would disarm envy itself, and conciliate even enemies.”

When she became First Lady in March of 1809, Dolley Madison created a model for the position that remained largely unchallenged until Eleanor Roosevelt assumed the role in 1933. Dolley was the first First Lady to recognize and harness the power of the position. She did so in a brand-new, small, and dusty city that she embraced. She invented ceremonies and rituals that would come to define the new republican nation, while recognizing that the president of the United States was not only the nation’s political and diplomatic leader, but also the head of state. Her imprint was made in her conciliatory but distinctly American social manner, her parties, her dress, and her furnishing of the White House.

Dolley intentionally chose simple taste and practical values. When the wife of the British Ambassador accused Dolley of serving food that was too rustic, she turned that into a compliment about the agrarian republican values of her nation. As one local literary figure commented at the time: “She spared no pains to please all who might visit her, and all were pleased from the most exalted to the most humble.”

Dolley also understood that clothes could express ideals and ideas, in a language that was appropriate for a First Lady. For her 1809 inaugural ball she chose simplicity over extravagance, velvet over silk, pearls over diamonds. The British Minister and his wife, Anthony and Elizabeth Merry, considered Dolley’s pearls plain and republican; Dolley found their diamonds excessive and monarchical. After the War of 1812, it was said that Dolley Madison was the most popular person in all of the United States. Michelle Obama may well be the most popular woman in the United States today. We wish the very best to our incoming First Lady.

Dolley’s 1809 “buff velvet” inauguration gown was similar in style to her red velvet dress shown here, owned by the Greensboro Historical Museum: