WSJ Historically Speaking: The First Ladies and Their Predecessors



Dolley Madison was born this month in 1768. One of the greatest first ladies in U.S. history, she had a style and energy that brought a uniquely American twist to the role of political spouse. She transformed the White House, not only giving the interiors a much-needed face-lift but also making the presidential residence the social epicenter of Washington, D.C. Among her many gifts to the nation was her insistence that George Washington’s portrait be rescued when the British burned the city in 1814.

But Dolley Madison’s greatest achievement was in creating the role of first lady. President Zachary Taylor used the term for the first time at her funeral in 1849. After her time in the White House, Americans expected first ladies to play a public part, one that was above day-to-day politics and often national in its scope.

The idea of the political spouse has deep historical roots. Livia Drusilla, the ruthless and powerful wife of Caesar Augustus, was instrumental in shaping the destiny of the Roman Empire. Yet even she was imitating a role model that had its original expression in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

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