During James Madison’s two administrations, his wife Dolley reigned supreme over a glittering age in Washington. Her Wednesday-night drawing rooms were the anchor of the social week and brought together every important figure of the day—from politicians and literary figures to generals and socialites. It was here, in the midst of the pastries and punch, that normally combative politicians often softened and deals were made.
Among the women who made up Washington’s close-knit social sphere were Dolley’s sister Anna Cutts, wife of a congressman; Anna Maria Thornton, a Federalist; and Margaret Bayard Smith, chronicler of Washington social life. With lives spanning from the Revolution through the Civil War, much of what we know about the personal lives of the era’s most famous individuals is from the writing of these women.
Young belles such as Maria DeHart Mayo came to Washington to see and be seen, and debutantes were captivated by the dashing new heroes created by the War of 1812. As Ann McCurdy Hart gushed, “What a delightful thing it must be to be the wife of a hero!” Before the war was out, Mayo and Hart became Mrs. Winfield Scott and Mrs. Isaac Hull.