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Dolly Madison visits Needham

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By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff

On June 12, an audience at the Center at the Heights in Needham was treated to a meeting with one of America’s most beloved first ladies. At one o’clock, the room was filled as people waited to hear from Dolly Madison, fourth First Lady of the United States and wife of President James Madison, about her experience during the War of 1812. Played by actress Janet Parnes, her presentation provided her audience with a clearer insight as to what precipitated the war, what occurred during it, and how it ended. Though she was not necessarily invited to meetings where she learned some of this information, Dolly assured her audience that she had been allowed to work on her sewing in the same room. “My hearing is perfect,” she explained to her now-chuckling audience.

The War of 1812 was fought from 1812 until 1815 between the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The war took place from the middle of Madison’s first term to the middle of his second term. Just a few years following the end of the Revolutionary War, America was once again at war. “We were fighting the English AGAIN,” exclaimed Dolly to her audience. “No president ever wants to declare war,” she added, after explaining her husband's hesitation to do so.

The battle that “stung [her] heart the deepest” was one that took Washington D.C. by surprise. In 1814, British forces attacked Washington, intending to destroy every almost every government building in the city. Dolly, knowing danger was approaching, saved what she could from the White House, including prized documents from the Revolutionary War and a beloved portrait of President George Washington. Though thoroughly disturbed by the destruction of the city, Dolly seemed equally as irked by the British taking over the White House, using her good china and drinking her wine.

Dolly explains how the war of 1812 began.

Dolly explains how the war of 1812 began.

When it came time for peace, Dolly made sure her audience appreciated the modern conveniences of telecommunication. “The bloodiest battle of the war happened after the war had ended,” she told her audience solemnly. She spoke of the Battle of New Orleans, which began just a couple weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed by King George IV. The treaty had not yet made its way to Madison, leading the war to continue on at home. “Nobody wanted this war,” Dolly told her audience, explaining both sides’ earnest agreement to end the conflict.

By the end of the war, much of Dolly’s life had returned to normal. Though the battles fought during the War of 1812 were handled by men, Dolly had fought her own fair share of battles during her lifetime. Her determination to be a great first lady won the hearts of the public and officials surrounding her husband.

For about an hour, visitors at the Center at the Heights got to see a glimmer of her well-known personality. When speaking about her husband’s presidential re-election, Dolly told her audience exactly how he won. “I don’t want to be immodest, but he won because of me,” she said.

There wasn’t a doubt in the room that she was right.

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