Could Dolley Madison have become the first female president?
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When Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHoward Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 Trump says he never told McCabe his wife was 'a loser' Harris off to best start among Dems in race, say strategists, donors MORE ran for president in 1992, he promised Americans that they were getting "two for the price of one" because of the professional accomplishments of his wife Hillary.

Now America is witnessing another two-for-one possibility with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it Harris adds key Clinton aide, women of color to 2020 campaign: report Democrats more likely Trump's foil, than to foil Trump MORE's historic candidacy as the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. If she wins, her husband, the former president, will become the first gentleman.


With women making up 52 percent of the electorate in 2012, they are likely to be a deciding, though not monolithic, demographic in 2016.

Yet, had women held the right to vote 200 years ago in 1816, one first lady was so charismatic and courageous that she could have become the nation's first female president.

Even as early as 1808, the man who ran against James Madison for president believed that Madison's charismatic wife Dolley was the real reason he lost.

"I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone," Charles Pinckney complained.

James Madison had served as President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of State. The widowed Jefferson sometimes turned to Dolley Madison as a hostess, which made her well known among members of Congress, who were often the power players behind those elected to the Electoral College.

While president, Jefferson didn't dare mix political parties at dinner parties. This made sense when you consider that Jefferson's vice president, Aaron Burr, killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel during his last year as vice president, as the Broadway hit "Hamilton" shows.

The Madisons maintained a different view when they moved into the White House. On Wednesdays, they held open house parties that didn't require invitations. This gave both Federalists and Republicans a chance to talk in a relaxed atmosphere. Guests voluntarily risked sharing company with their opponents. By mixing socially, politicians got to know each other as human beings, not as political enemies. They could talk politics, but social graces prevented them from getting too hot in the presence of ladies.

"Everybody loves Mrs. Madison," Speaker of the House Henry Clay (Ky.) legendarily raved.

"That's because Mrs. Madison loves everybody," she quipped.

While not politically ambitious by today's standards, Dolley Madison also quietly conducted politics for her husband. When James Madison was deathly ill in 1813 and his only paid staff member was away in Pennsylvania, Dolley Madison wrote a few letters for her husband and kept things going.

Ladies from around the country often asked Dolley Madison to intervene for them on legal cases or appointments involving their husbands, brothers or fathers. They looked to her for reassurance during the War of 1812, especially when the British military terrorized towns along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland.

"I cannot conceive a female better calculated to dignify the station which she occupies in society than Mrs. Madison — amiable in private life and affable in public, she is admired and esteemed by the rich and beloved by the poor," one observer wrote.

Before Dolley Madison demonstrated courage under fire in August 1814, which I write about in my new book "The Burning of the White House," another observer wrote "I am by no means singular in the opinion [and] believe that Mrs. Madison's conduct would be graced by propriety were she placed in the most adverse circumstances of life."

In the hours before British marines and soldiers invaded Washington on Aug. 24, 1814, Dolley Madison sacrificed most of her personal belongings to save her husband's Cabinet papers and, famously, Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington.

How that day unfolded and the aftermath following the burning the White House by the British military reveal that Dolley Madison was more than just a charming socialite. She was a woman who rose to the occasion to serve her country and community. Her natural character arc is the stuff of cinema.

Had women been voting and running for office 200 years ago, Dolley Madison no doubt would have been a natural candidate because of her courage, character and charisma.

Perhaps that's why a White House photographer for Hillary Clinton once told me that Dolley Madison was Clinton's favorite historic first lady. Bill and Hillary Clinton once dressed as James and Dolley Madison for a White House Halloween party.

While first lady, Hillary Clinton also placed the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Madison in Dolley Madison's favorite room in the White House, the Red Room. Hanging over an adjoining door, Madison's portrait faces Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington in the East Room. In this way, Dolley Madison still keeps her eye on Washington.

An award-winning writer of nine books, Cook is the author of the new book, "The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812." She is a former White House webmaster and national medial commentator.

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