American Portraits

Dolley Madison’s Respect for Washington

In this lesson, students will learn about the respect that First Lady Dolley Madison had for the city of Washington and its people as well as her respect for American treasures. Students will determine ways in which they can be respectful of others in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

Dolley Madison was the head of the social scene in Washington while her husband, James, was Secretary of State to Thomas Jefferson. Dolley regularly served as the ceremonial First Lady during important events because the president was a widower and needed a hostess at his side. In 1809, Dolley became the official First Lady when James was sworn in to serve as the fourth president. Dolley was a model of social behavior to the new society in Washington, and her popularity helped her husband gain increased social and political standing during his two terms in office….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can being respectful of others help you to achieve success?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the respect that First Lady Dolley Madison had for the city of Washington and its people as well as her respect for American treasures. Students will determine ways in which they can be respectful of others in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Dolley Madison’s respectful actions while she served as First Lady.
  • Students will evaluate how Dolley Madison displayed respect for other people, even if they had opposing opinions.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of respectful behaviors to their own lives.

Background

In 1812, President James Madison was elected to his second term. The British were in the midst of a war with France, and they began a policy of boarding American ships and pressing U.S. sailors into service with the British Navy. Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain. Britain blockaded the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States and fought the Americans in land and sea battles throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The British Navy controlled the Chesapeake Bay and began moving up the Pawtuxet River closer to the capital city, Washington, D.C. After the Americans lost the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, the British were only miles from closing in on the capital city. President Madison left the executive mansion to meet with his generals about the impending invasion and asked his wife to take all of the important documents with her if she was forced to evacuate.

Vocabulary

  • Midst
  • Blockaded
  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Pawtuxet River
  • Battle of Bladensburg
  • Impending
  • Evacuate
  • Draperies
  • Ceremonial
  • First Lady
  • Grandeur
  • Contentious
  • Elite
  • Spyglass
  • Swarms
  • Implored

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What is Dolley Madison’s identity as First Lady? How would that role be different than other roles she may have held?
  • Why was Dolley Madison so respectful of George Washington and the symbolism of his portrait?
  • Why did Dolley invite strangers into her home? Why did she believe it was her duty to save important artifacts and documents from the British?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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