Dolley Madison Digital Edition
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Dolley Madison Digital Edition
Edited by Holly C. Shulman, Virginia Center for Digital History.
Reviewed 2007–09–01.

Dolley Madison Project
University of Virginia Press; Edited by Holly C. Shulman.
Reviewed Oct. 1-Nov. 3, 2006.

Dolley Madison is arguably the most important first lady of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, several books have been written about her, and her letters have been collected, organized, and published. Lucia B. Cutts, the granddaughter of Dolley Madison’s sister Anna Payne Cutts, compiled the first collection of the former first lady’s letters in Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison (1886). Yet, only selected letters were included in the work in order to present her relative in a favorable light. In 1914 the historian Allen C. Clark published an expanded version of Mrs. Madison’s letters, Life and Letters of Dolly Madison, offering a more complete look at “Queen Dolly,” as he called her. Once again, however, the collection of letters was scrubbed clean by the editor in order to present a friendly reading of the subject. Clark opened his book with the famous line: “The incomparable Dolly!”

The latest edition to the Dolley Madison collection, The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison (2003), edited by David B. Mattern and Holly C. Shulman, differs from the previous collections in that it includes more letters and does not attempt to sanitize the selections. Most importantly, this collection of letters influenced the development of the two Web sites under review.

The Dolley Madison Digital Edition is the first complete edition of all known correspondence of the wife of the fourth president of the United States, containing roughly two thousand letters. Although many letters are simply thank-you notes or polite responses to social invitations, others offer rich insights into the personality and experiences of the First Lady, especially those exchanged with her sisters.

The letters are organized into five periods: birth and youth; the years as wife of the secretary of state; the years as first lady; retirement; and widowhood. Researchers can search the database by names, dates, topics, and even places. A helpful table of contents lists the letters by date, author, and recipient. With historical integrity, all letters retain any original misspellings and word usage specific to the time. The editors added to the original letters only a date at the top when one was missing.

Several helpful features make the site both user-friendly and accessible to a wide audience, including: a biographical sketch of Mrs. Madison that draws on the most recent scholarship; an accompanying section (“Crosslinks”) to each letter listing all names (including nicknames, middle, and maiden) appearing in the letter, in order of appearance; a different color font to highlight unclear or missing characters or words; and a summary of the contents of each letter.

Although the site is gated, there is a free trial option accessible to all. The registration and subscription process is convenient and can be done online. Access can be purchased by individuals ($195 for independent scholars, $295 for institution-affiliated scholars) or by institutions (from $145 for high schools to $295 for public libraries). There is also a nominal annual maintenance fee.

The Dolley Madison Project is a companion site, described on its home page as “The Life, Letters, and Legacy of Dolley Payne Madison.” Like The Dolley Madison Digital Edition and recent printed edition, this site is also edited by Shulman, with Mattern serving as the project’s senior editor. This site is more of a general resource on all things Dolley, offering portraits and visual images, timelines of her life, and other information serving a far wider audience than The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. For instance, readers learn that the correct spelling of her name is “Dolley” and not “Dolly” (or even Dorothea), which originated with a mistake made by Margaret Bayard Smith and other early biographers.

Dolley Madison was not only very famous in her time, but her popularity obviously endures in American popular culture. The first of the four basic features of The Dolley Madison Project is an iconic exhibit of images of her and the commercial uses of her name in a wide array of businesses and products, including the Dolly Madison Bakery and Dolly Madison Ice Cream, and other items, from dolls to silverware to tobacco.

The site also has an archive of her letters that links to The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. The third feature is another exhibit, with a broader scope than the first. It contains images of Mrs. Madison, selected letters to and from her, lists and images of her residences, and a helpful timeline of her life. The fourth feature is a collection of helpful resources, including essays, a biographical chronology, and a list of frequently asked questions.

Even computer novices and those not trained in historic research will find both sites extremely easy to navigate. Similarly, everything from the font, color, general appearance, and organization of both sites not only enhances the popular image of what historical documents are supposed to look like but lends to the overall quality, accessibility, and thoroughness of the sites. The images and letters are clear and attractive, a wealth of information is organized and designed to be conveniently accessible, and users are only one or two mouse clicks away from all information on the sites.

Although the content of the two sites overlaps, The Dolley Madison Project would be the best starting point for those interested in studying Dolley Madison. Both sites deserve glowing recommendations, as they are among the best I have seen and should function as models for future efforts on not only presidents and first ladies but on any historical figure.

The editor maintains that most of the early literature on Mrs. Madison viewed her life a bit narrowly, perhaps because those works inescapably viewed her through the lens of the correct role for women during her lifetime. Indeed, all but the most recent studies of Mrs. Madison focused their complimentary assessments of the first lady only on her “warmth” and “pleasant personality,” her popular social functions, and her ability to blend European fashion with American simplicity in the president’s house and in the capital city. However, Shulman overstates the significance of her book and the sites under review by suggesting that they mark a dramatic departure in the study of Dolley Madison by finally offering a more comprehensive, politically nuanced analysis. They do, but in the past few years several books on the first ladies and Mrs. Madison have revealed her many contributions to her husband’s career, her role in creating the first ladyship and the American political parlor, and her patriotic service to her country. That said, Shulman does not overstate the valuable contributions these two sites will make to the study of Mrs. Madison.

Robert P. Watson
Lynn University
Boca Raton, Florida