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I am reading a book on each president with a few detours in order to learn more about American History and to try and decode how the past influences the present. "First Ladies of the Republic" by Jeanne E. Abrams was one such detour in my passion project. I couldn't imagine making my way from Washington (#1) through Madison (#4) and then jumping to Monroe (#5) without first learning more about Martha, Abigail and Dolley, our first first ladies. 

I enjoyed the book but wished it was shorter and longer. Let me explain. The book is broken into 5 sections: an introduction, a section on each of the women, and a conclusion. It is well researched and thoughtful. I trusted Abrams, which is important to me as a reader. However, I found the book to be repetitive. Not only within each section, but from section to section. It seemed like half the book could be left on the editing room floor and the same information would have been imparted. As an example, I grew weary of reading about the salons the first ladies hosted. I yearned for more insight and less fluff (what they wore, what they ate...). To that regard, I wished the book was longer.

As an example of wanting more, Abrams wrote about how Dolley influenced her husband politically but offered little examples of how. On page 226 of my hard copy, Abrams wrote, "Dolley became a skilled and discreet diplomat as well." She then quoted Margaret Bayard Smith who stated how Dolley helped smooth over political differences between her husband and others, but Abrams offered no distinct examples. I know Dolley was charming, intelligent and tough, but I wanted to hear about her real world exploits of acting as a behind-the-scenes diplomat to help Madison's presidency. Who did she talk to? How did she manipulate powerful men during an age when women were expected to simply mind the children? How did she obtain these skills? 

Perhaps the information I seek was not to be had, especially for Dolley who left behind the least footprint of the three. However, one thing I enjoyed about the other biographies I have read so far in my passion project is when authors posit on how the subject of the biography felt. Why did she make the decisions she made? How did she achieve her goals? I wanted more insight from Abrams and, based on her biography, I imagine she has a lot more to offer than what is in the four corners of this book. I know some readers do not like when biographers editorialize so perhaps this was a conscious choice by the author and/or an editorial decision by the publisher to stick to the facts, just the facts, ma'am.  

So, I have decided to do a little editorializing of my own and describe our first first ladies:

Martha was reluctantly thrown into the role as the original first lady. While she preferred to live a quiet life on Mount Vernon, she was guided by her marriage and her duty as a wife to join her husband in New York as the first president of the United States. Washington appreciated his wife's sacrifices and viewed her as his political equal, although Martha took little interest in politics beyond supporting him and the troops when she was able. She filled the role of first lady with humanity, grace and resilience. No better script could have been written than for Martha to set the scene for the role of first lady.

Pan the camera to Abigail. While their husbands did not care for each other, Martha and Abigail were friends. Abigail watched Martha define the role of first lady and no doubt learned from her. The image that appears of Abigail is also that of a loyal wife, but also of a true and eager political equal. She strongly influenced her husband. "Remember the ladies," she famously wrote to John in March of 1776 during the fight for independence from Britain. "Do not put unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." The precursor, perhaps, to President Obama's (#44) recent comment on NPR that the world would be a better place if more women were in charge.

While Martha was a quiet soul and Abigail was opinionated and full of mirth and determination, Dolley was energetic, ambitious and cunning. Abigail mostly shared her political thoughts epistolarily with John. Dolley, on the other hand, was more forward. She was out spoken, won politicians over to her husband's thinking, and was even given an honorary chair on the congressional floor. In 1814, right before the British burned down the White House during the War of 1812, the legend goes that she saved artifacts from the executive mansion. Her husband's letters. The presidential seal. A portrait of Washington. Most likely she didn't save all that is claimed since the British were at the doorstep and it would have been quite difficult for her to transport a large painting of President Washington, but big personalities deserve big legacies, even if the truth is padded. For sure, Dolley earned her nineteenth century nickname: Lady Presidentress.

By the way, Dolley was not the first one to serve ice cream at the White House. That distinction belonged to Martha.

What would the world be like today if we had had founding mothers instead of founding fathers? What if there had been President Martha Washington (#1), President Abigail Adams (#2) and President Dolley Madison (#4)? Isn't that a past and a present that is fun to imagine? I can see it now. Roll camera. Action.

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