by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant
4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison, wife of James Madison (1768-1849)
Much more so than her predecessors, Dolley Madison embraced the role of First Lady as we think of it today. In fact, she pretty much created it, setting the bar upon which all later First Ladies have been judged. While Abigail Adams acted as a private adviser to her husband, Dolley was a very public partner to James. In the eulogy he gave at her funeral in 1849, President Zachary Taylor called Dolley “the first lady of the land for half a century.” It was the first time a president’s spouse had been referred to as a “first lady,” although the term did not become an official title until the 1860s when newspapers began using it for Mary Todd Lincoln. When she died, Dolley Madison was the last public figure from America’s founding generation.
Dolley was born to John and Mary Coles Payne, both strict Quakers, on May 20, 1768. She was raised in the Quaker faith, which taught equality between women and men. Dolley took that teaching with her throughout her life, never seeming to act like she was of lesser status because she was a woman. Her parents relocated the Payne family to Philadelphia when Dolley was young and it was in that city in 1790 that she married John Todd. The Todds had two children, John Payne and William. The yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia in 1793 took the life of John on the same day the infant William died. Though John had made Dolley the executor of his will, her brother-in-law kept everything from her and left her in near-poverty until she took legal action to obtain what was rightfully hers. Because she was a woman, she also had to fight in court to be the guardian of her own surviving son. Read the rest of this entry »