Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dolley Madison House

Soon after James Madison's death, Dolley Madison had to sell Montpelier, her husband's central Virginia estate, primarily to settle the debts of her profligate son (from her former marriage). She inherited a row house (pictured above with its iron balcony) on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, as part of Madison's estate and moved there in 1837.

Madison Place borders the east side of Washington’s famed Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The Dolley Madison House, an unpretentious Federal-style structure at the northeast corner of the square (Madison Place and H Street), was built in 1818-20 by Richard Cutts, a Massachusetts congressman who was Dolley's brother-in-law (he was married to Dolley’s sister, Anna). Cutts, Comptroller of the U.S. Treasury from 1817 to 1829, had borrowed money for the construction of this house from James Madison. In 1829, after Cutts had lost most of his fortune in unsuccessful business ventures, ownership of the house reverted to Madison, although he never lived in it. Upon James Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley inherited the house and moved here to spend virtually her entire widowhood. During her residence, from 1837 until her death in 1849, she advised various First Ladies and played a prominent role in Washington society.

The house served as home of the Cosmos Club from 1886 to 1952. The historic character of the house was subsequently preserved in the 1960s through the efforts of another first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, architect John Carl Warnecke, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The restored building is painted yellow and features a distinctive 19th-century iron balcony. Now federally owned and used by the U.S. Court of Claims, it is not open for public visits.

One of several enslaved persons who accompanied Dolley Madison from Montpelier upon her return to Washington was Paul Jennings. Like Dolley Madison, Paul Jennings had previously lived on Lafayette Square (in the White House, see note at end of post) while James Madison served as President. In dire financial straits after settling debts of her profligate son (by her first marriage), Dolley Madison had to sell Paul Jennings in 1847; later that same year he was purchased by her Lafayette Square neighbor Daniel Webster. Jennings eventually bought his freedom from Webster for $120 (in installments of $8 per month) and went on to settle in Washington, making his home near the corner of L and 18th Streets. As a free man he took a job at the Pension Office.

In 1865, Paul Jennings wrote the first memoir ever written about life in the White House, titled A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison; it was first published as a magazine article. In those paragraphs he also described what it was like to see the former First Lady living in poverty on Lafayette Square after her husband's death. He wrote: "Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. In the last days of her life she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessities of life. While I was a servant for Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in his house I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket."

Note: Presidents Jefferson, Tyler, Polk, Taylor and Jackson also had slaves working for them in the White House. In the early days of the union presidents needed 10 or12 people to run the domestic quarters of the White House; that staff was often a mix of whites, free blacks and slaves. Paul Jennings (1799-1874), the son of a white English trader and a slave woman of mixed African and Indian blood, was born into slavery on Madison's Montpelier estate; a favorite in the Madison household, he came to Washington (at the age of ten) with Madison during his term as president to serve as a footman. He worked in the White House dining room, acted as a messenger and did whatever else was needed. In the words of Jennings, "When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful condition from either mud or dust. The city was a dreary place."

After the 1814 British attack on Washington during Madison's presidency, once peace was eventually declared Jennings played the "President's March" on the violin. From Jennings’ 1865 memoir we learn that "Madison never had fewer than seven horses in his Washington stables while President." Returning to Montpelier after Madison’s presidency, from the same source we learn, "I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, ‘What is the matter, Uncle James?’ ‘Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.’ His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out. He was eighty-four years old, and was followed to the grave by an immense procession of white and colored people."

Jennings went on to see his sons fight with the Union Army during the Civil War and died in northwest Washington at the age of 75.

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