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Center for Women's History

Women’s history is American history. Bring it into your classroom with our new curriculum!

Major support for the Center for Women's History curriculum was provided by 

 

 

Lead support for Saving Washington was provided by Joyce B. Cowin and the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. Additional support provided by Susan Klein.

 


 

Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

 

 

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Resource 1: Coverture
This resource explores the text and context of the ancient legal principle of coverture, imported to the American colonies as a part of English common law, that severely restricted women’s political, financial, and personal rights. A woman, according to the law, was included in (or covered by) her husband’s or father’s legal identity; she did not exist legally apart from him. Coverture affected the lives of all American women. It has been diminished over time, but vestiges of it remain even today.

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Unknown artist, Sir William Blackstone, ca. 1755. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London,  Primary Collection, 388.

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Resource 2: Political Battles
This 1796 political cartoon satirizes a caning episode between Federalist and Republican congressional opponents during the Adams administration, as elected officials stood by, grinning foolishly. In the young government, a man’s honor—his character and reputation—were the main qualifications for office, leading to aggressive, personal responses to political disagreements.

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Congressional Pugilists, 1798. Etching on wove paper. New-York Historical Society Library, PR 10.

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Resource 3: Lessons Learned
Margaret Bayard Smith, a close friend of Dolley Madison’s and a well-known published writer, describes how Dolley’s social events drew large, diverse crowds and her significant skills smoothed political animosities during the years when James was secretary of state and a candidate for the presidency.

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Gilbert Stuart, Dolley Madison, 1804. Oil on canvas. White House Historical Association / White House Collection, Gift of the Walter H. and Phyllis J. Shorenstein Foundation in memory of Phyllis J. Shorenstein, 1994, 994.1737.1.

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Resource 4: Parties and Politics
Now the president’s wife, Dolley Madison’s brief letter to her sister recounts the previous night’s party, and reveals how deeply she understood the role her social events played during a chaotic time. Regardless of their politics, people came to the so-called “squeezes”— parties packed tightly with guests—because so much of the unofficial business of government happened there.

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Charles A. Burnett, Photo by Philip Beaurline, Dolley Madison’s Snuffbox, ca. 1800. Silver. Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site, Bequest of Marion duPont Scott, NT85.2.45.

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Resource 5: Fashion and Politics
This exploration of Dolley’s sense of fashion shows both her taste for luxurious French fabric and her awareness of the political messages conveyed by her clothing choices.  The combined message of her clothing and her personality—European style and New World informality—subtly signaled that the United States would take its place among the world’s great powers, but it would do so on its own terms.

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Dolley Madison’s Silk Satin Open Robe. The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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Resource 6: Saving Washington
Dolley’s famous letter to her sister details the frightening hours before British troops invaded Washington during the War of 1812, and her rescue of the iconic portrait of George Washington. When Margaret Bayard Smith included the entire letter in her profile of Mrs. Madison, Americans celebrated Dolley’s wifely devotion and her patriotic bravery.

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Attributed to Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796. Oil on canvas. White House Historical Association / White House Collection.

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Resource 7: Paul Jennings’s Account of the British Attack
This extract from the 1865 memoir of Paul Jennings, once enslaved by the Madisons, offers his recollection, more than fifty years later, of the British seizure of Washington City during the War of 1812. It directly challenges the version of events presented by Dolley Madison, including who actually saved the famous George Washington portrait.

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E. C. Perry Photograph Co., Paul Jennings, undated. Photograph. Estate of Sylvia Jennings Alexander.

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Resource 8: Washington Burns
During the War of 1812, the British marched into Washington as the sun set on August 24, 1814. After setting fire to the Capitol building, they proceeded to the White House and torched it as well. Taking the British perspective of the seizure of Washington, this engraving shows the city in defeat and flames. At the conclusion of the war that December, Washington was in ruins. Should the government relocate to a different city? Would abandoning Washington send the wrong message about American strength and determination? Should the city be rebuilt?

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West Smithfield, Published by G. Thompson, The Taking of the City of Washington in America, 1814. Wood engraving. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C., 96510111.

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Resource 9: Write to Me
In 1844, Dolley Madison writes to her unreliable son, Payne Todd, about their crushing financial difficulties, and begs him to come and help her. Despite being one of the most famous and respected people in the United States, Dolley inherited very little after the death of her husband and, as a woman, had little opportunity to support herself financially. She lived out the last years of her life in near destitution.

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Mathew B. Brady, Dolley Madison, three-quarter length portrait of a woman, facing front, seated, 1848. Half-plate daguerreotype. White House Historical Association / White House Collection.

Creative: Tronvig Group