Culture Influencers: Sara Frear

On January 5, 2019, Dr. Sara Frear, associate professor of History, delivered a lecture on Dolley Madison to the Captain James Asbury Tait Chapter of the United States Daughters of the War of 1812. The USD 1812, founded in 1892, promotes patriotism, historical knowledge, and the preservation of documents and relics of the war.

Dr. Frear’s lecture, titled “Mrs. Madison’s Meridian,” covered Dolley’s entire tenure as “Mrs. President” from 1809 to 1817, but emphasized her role during the War of 1812. From the inauguration of her husband James Madison on March 4, 1809, Dolley was in a position to create a new political culture that combined her own warmth of personality and love of bright colors with the American value of “Republican plainness” that dated back to the American economic resistance to British policies in the 1760s. Dr. Frear argued that Mrs. Madison successfully struck a balance between exuberance and simplicity while also creating a more democratized social life in Washington. Moreover, Dolley’s ability to soothe political animosities was an enormous asset to President Madison.

During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison’s political skills took on a still greater importance. Not only did she continue her popular receptions as a defiant maintenance of normality in the face of the British threat, but she also directly supported the war effort by addressing troops and christening battleships. Even after the White House was burned, Dolley recovered from a fit of depression to revive her receptions at other Washington locales, and her success at recreating the gaiety of pre-war Washington presaged the end of the conflict and the second victory, as Americans saw it, over Britain. At one reception, Dolley Madison’s personal appearance was so luminous that a witness described her as being “in the meridian of life and queenly beauty.”