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Dolley Madison Goes Digital

New version of former first lady's papers fuels scholarship

An 1848 photograph of Dolley Madison (seated) and her niece Anna Payne.

Faced with numerous challenges as the second rector of the University, James Madison occasionally felt duty bound to tend to business in Charlottesville rather than spend time at Montpelier with his wife, Dolley. “I need not say how anxious I am to be with you,” Madison wrote in an 1826 letter explaining that he would be detained in Albemarle County.

While Dolley would have read those words on a piece of stationery, researchers now can look at that letter and others on a computer screen, complete with a background meant to resemble parchment and accompanied by countless links leading down ever-winding corridors of information. The digital age has brought new opportunities—multidimensional and hypertextual—to historical research, and the implications for education are far-reaching.

Holly Shulman, director of the Dolley Madison Project at UVA, understands those electronic possibilities and has used them in creating the Dolley Madison Digital Edition. The effort goes beyond simply putting words on a screen.

“I didn’t want to change print into digits,” says Shulman. “I wanted to take a new medium and find a way to make the letters medium specific.”

Portrait of Dolley Madison by Alan Dordick, after Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation & Alan Dordick Studios.

Shulman has long been interested in communications as well as in political figures, partially due to her background growing up in New York City. Her mother was a political activist and her father was a radio producer who went on to become a network executive at CBS. He produced a popular television show called The $64,000 Question. “We have all been involved in communications in some way or another,” says Shulman of herself and her siblings. “And we have all been involved in social justice.”

Shulman began to see the potential of the digital age in the 1990s while at the University of Maryland, where she was associate director in the honors program. “I sat down at my desk, and there was an icon on my computer called Mosaic,” she recalls. Mosaic was a precursor to the Web browser Netscape, and the Internet was just about to take center stage. She immediately grasped the implications of this new connectivity and its ability to introduce people to information. “Within a year or two I had a series of workshops organized.”

In 2003, Shulman co-edited a book, The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison. She envisioned an electronic collection of the letters, and that year the Mellon Foundation gave the University of Virginia Press a startup grant to form an electronic series of imprints that would be called Rotunda. Soon after, the Dolley Madison Digital Edition emerged as a partnership among Shulman, David Sewell, the editorial and technical manager of the imprint, and Shannon Shiflett, an XML programmer. “I wanted to think about independent units of information that would be linked to other independent units of information.”

What Shulman and company have created is a sort of Dolley Madison matrix. So far consisting of Madison’s letters up to 1838, the database is browsable and searchable by topic, time period, place and people. You can search by who she wrote to, and by who wrote to her. If you’re interested in someone who Dolley corresponded with, or even just mentioned in one of her letters, you can click on the person’s name and a short biography will come up, detailing that person’s historical significance and giving context to their relationship.

“Dolley is on the sidelines of politics,” says Shulman. “She’s not writing letters saying, ‘This is what I think policy should be; this is what I think we ought to do about the postal road system.’ What you’re going to find instead is a letter to her and from her. What you need to know is probably implicit rather than explicit.”

In other words, Shulman’s project yields a treasure trove of social history and underlying political information—organized, annotated and searchable from almost any angle. The compilation of these letters and their accessibility by multiple means is an impressive tool for serious researchers as well as for those just curious about Dolley Madison.

This digital edition is special for another reason. “In the history of the early republic, it’s very hard to find out what women’s lives were like,” says Shulman. While Madison’s letters give a great deal of insight, Shulman has contemplated doing a series on the women of the founding era. “You could begin to think about women’s history in a different way.”

The digital edition illuminates Madison’s significance in establishing the culture and customs of the White House. “I think that it was Dolley Madison who really shaped what it meant to be first lady and what it meant to have a republican government in terms of ceremonial forms. How do you entertain? How do you dress?” says Shulman. “I think that Dolley Madison has important implications for the history of this institution and what the nature of the institution is.”

The project also sheds light on a part of Dolley’s life that may not be apparent to people who know her only as an exemplary first lady and hostess. “Dolley was tremendously charismatic,” says Shulman, “but she was also a very anxious person and not always a very happy person. Her three brothers died very young, in their teens and 20s. Her son never pulled himself together, and this was always a theme in her life.”

The database strives to be as multifaceted as Dolley herself, and to provide insight on the many gradations of this extraordinary woman’s life. It’s an endeavor that doesn’t proceed without a great deal of hard work. “The greatest challenge is that Holly essentially started from scratch,” says Mark Saunders, who directs Rotunda, speaking of the initial stages of the project. “She adopted some standards, but there were really no precedents for it.”

With its user-friendly databases containing worlds of information, accessible by multiple means of inquiry, the project provides a reconfigured way of looking at history.

“These databases promote new ways to discover the material, and that in turn will promote new scholarly insights,” says Saunders. “The end goal is to foster new scholarship.”

The Ultimate Hostess

William John Coffee sculpted this small terra cotta portrait bust of Dolley Madison during an 1818 visit to Montpelier.

Dolley Madison is known as the archetypal gracious first lady, but that was just a phase in a life filled with many twists and turns.

One of seven siblings, Dolley was born in North Carolina in 1768 and grew up in colonial Virginia. It was in Philadelphia, however, that she married a young lawyer named John Todd. They had two sons, one of whom died in infancy, before yellow fever took John Todd and left Dolley a widow.

In 1794, she married James Madison, who was to become secretary of state in the administration of Thomas Jefferson. The Madisons moved to Washington, D.C., and shortly afterward Dolley began to thrive as a hostess and lady of society. James was elected president in 1809, and Dolley used her social skills to help define the ceremonial forms we now associate with the first lady.

James left office in 1817, and the Madisons moved to a quiet plantation in Montpelier, Va. For Dolley, these later years were increasingly plagued by economic concerns and family problems, including an alcoholic son. When James passed away in 1836, Dolley struggled to sell his papers, which they had thought would provide her with some financial security. In 1837, she returned to Washington, D.C., where friends helped her keep financially afloat. She died in 1849.