The Queen of America: Mary Cutts's Life of Dolley Madison. Edited by Catherine Allgor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. 240 pp.
Many historians (including myself) have cited the Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison: Wife of James Madison, President of the United States, edited by Lucia Beverly Cutts and published in 1886 (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), without realizing that the volume was actually written by Dolley's niece, Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, and published without attribution. In The Queen of America, edited by University of California-Riverside Professor of History Catherine Allgor, Mary Cutts's original "Life of Mrs. Madison," written in the late 1840s and early 1850s, is now published for the first time.
The first half of this volume, entitled "Contexts," features three essays by Allgor, Holly Cowan Schulman, and Elizabeth Dowling Taylor that establish the context of Mary Cutts's biography. Taylor's essay sketches the life of Mary Cutts, the daughter of Dolley's younger sister Anna Payne and her husband Richard Cutts. Born in 1814, Mary, who never married, summered at the Madisons' Montpelier plantation until James Madison's death, and thereafter resided in Washington, DC, whence the widow Madison permanently moved in 1844. Dolley, who late in life became concerned with her historical reputation, may have encouraged Mary to become her biographer. Mary died in 1852 at the age of 42, while seeking to publish her manuscript.
Allgor's essay describes Cutts as a "vanishing lady," whose memoirs of Dolley "are as much about a mid-nineteenth-century woman writer as they are about an early republican First Lady" (p. 3). Mary faced the challenge of being a female historian and author in the age of the Cult of Domesticity. Equally daunting, she tried to establish Dolley's "historical significance without making her seem unladylike" to her mid-nineteenth century audience (pp. 8-9)- Mary's biography thus argued that Dolley's legendary charm was not an acquired skill used to disarm political foes but an innate attribute. Mary similarly claimed that Dolley used her famous Washington, DC, entertainments for amusement rather than for political networking.
Shulman's essay explores how Cutts's biography covered up the darker aspects of her subject's life. For example, Mary ignored Dolley's deadbeat brothers and falsely presented her crooked father, John Payne, as a victim of economic hard luck...