Historian Edits New Edition of 19th Century Biography of Dolley Madison

UC Riverside’s Catherine Allgor reconstructs memoir by first lady’s niece in “The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison”

"The Queen of America" book jacketRIVERSIDE, Calif. — Dolley Madison was a savvy politician at a time when women were largely invisible in matters of state. She left no autobiography. But in 1850, a year after the famous first lady died, Mary Cutts wrote a memoir about her aunt, a biography that was edited by family to show the influential first lady in the best possible light to a 19th century audience.

An annotated edition of Cutts’s work, edited by Dolley Madison biographer Catherine Allgor of the University of California, Riverside, was published in August by University of Virginia Press. “The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison” reconstructs the first book-length biography about the wife of the nation’s fourth president, and offers new insights into the lives of public women in the decades after the United States was born.

Allgor is known nationally for her research about the role of women in American political history, particularly first ladies. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation Board of Trustees in 2011 and is an adviser to the National Women’s History Museum. She is the author of “A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation” and “Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government.”

Catherine Allgor

Catherine Allgor

The 240-page “The Queen of America” includes an introductory essay and notes by Allgor, a foreward by journalist Cokie Roberts, and two draft versions of Cutts’s memoir that show details about Madison’s life that Cutts and her family changed or omitted. The book also includes essays by Holly Shulman, editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition (the first complete edition of all known correspondence of Dolley Madison), and Beth Taylor, a research scholar at Montpelier, James Madison’s estate in Virginia.

Allgor notes, for example, that Cutts lied about Madison’s birthplace “as part of a general cover-up about Dolley’s father, a difficult man who may have been a bit shady in his dealings. Mary stresses Dolley’s charm, but omits that it never got her anywhere with her marital family, the Madisons, who had a low opinion of ‘Dolly’ and would have sued her at a moment’s notice.”

Cutts could not avoid mentioning Dolley Madison’s only surviving son from her first marriage, John Payne, but did not detail, for example, the hundreds of thousands of dollars he squandered on liquor and gambling, Allgor says.

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison/Photo courtesy Library of Congress

“After James Madison’s death, the abolitionists attacked Dolley as a slaveholder, so it was perhaps because of this that Mary paints a picture of Dolley as beloved by animals and slaves,” she explains. “If you look at Elizabeth Downing Taylor’s book ‘A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons,’ you’ll see just how much James’s valet hated Dolley, and might have sold her out to the abolitionist press.”

The UC Riverside historian also notes the daunting task that faced Mary Cutts in writing the biography.

“Here is this woman, deep in the 19th century, when women were supposed to be private and domestic. Mary was trying to make a name for herself as a historian and her aunt as a historical subject,” Allgor says. “That was a tough task, since Mary also wanted Dolley to appear the ‘perfect lady.’ What Mary couldn’t quite contain or cover up is that her Aunt Dolley was a savvy politician and well-connected political player.”

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