Dolley Payne Todd Madison (1768-1849)
Dolley Madison, the wife of James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, is widely remembered as the most vibrant of the early First Ladies. Despite her Quaker roots, she was outgoing and boisterous, fun-loving and kind.
Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768, in Guilford County, North Carolina. She was the fourth of eight children born to John and Mary Payne. The family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1783. There is no record of Dolley receiving any formal education. The Philadelphia Pine Street Meeting, the family’s Quaker meetinghouse, provided education for boys and girls, but Dolley at fifteen when the Paynes moved to Philadelphia, may have been too old for these classes.
In 1790, Dolley Payne married lawyer and fellow Quaker John Todd, Jr. The couple had two children: John Payne Todd born in 1792, and William Isaac Todd born in 1793. They lived in a modest home with her in-laws. In 1793 Dolley’s husband and in-laws died of yellow fever. Tragically, her infant son William died on the same day as his father.
Living in Philadelphia, the capital of the young nation at the close of the 18th century, Dolley had the opportunity to meet many important political figures. In 1794, she married James Madison, a planter and Congressman from Virginia. In 1797 the couple moved to the Madison family plantation called Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. She managed the household and cared for her elderly mother-in-law.
In 1801, when James Madison was appointed President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, the Madisons moved to Washington, DC, the new capital city. Between 1801 and 1809, Dolley co-hosted events that the widower Jefferson felt needed a female presence. Jefferson, who had spent time in Europe as a diplomat, understood that social functions were important to the new nation’s image abroad, and as a widower, depended on her and other genteel women to earn the respect of those accustomed to society in London and Paris. But as a true American, she also played a large part in fundraising for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which was led by fellow Virginians.
James Madison was elected president in 1808. On the evening of his inauguration, Dolley Madison sponsored the first Inaugural Ball. During their time in the White House, she was the first president’s wife to formally associate herself with a public charity project, sponsoring a home for orphaned girls in Washington, DC. Throughout her husband’s two terms, from 1809-1817, Dolley Madison was a central figure in political society. She corresponded, socialized, and cultivated alliances with the wives of important political figures. Through these relationships, Dolley Madison was able to influence opinions in favor of her husband and his politics.
Her most important contribution to American history, however, was during the War of 1812. Her husband and his Cabinet had fled when British troops set fire to Washington, DC, but she stayed and supervised the evacuation of important documents, while as silver and art, including a large portrait of George Washington. The White House was termed that after it was repainted because of the fire. Even though the British burned much of the city, Madison continued entertaining in her temporary quarters. This, she believed, symbolized the renewal and optimism of the city.
When President Madison’s second presidential term ended in 1817, the couple retired to Montpelier. James Madison died in 1836. After his death, Dolley was forced to sell off much of his property, including Montpelier, because of debt incurred by her irresponsible son.
She moved permanently to Washington, DC in 1844, where she spent the remainder of her life. During this time she was awarded an honorary seat in Congress, allowing her to watch Congressional debates from the floor. She was chosen by inventor Samuel F. B. Morse to have the honor of being the first private citizen to send a message via telegraph.
On July 12, 1849, Dolley Madison died in Washington, DC at age eighty-one. Although people had addressed Martha Washington and Abigail Adams and “Lady Washington” and “Lady Adams,” legend says that incumbent President Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison as the “First Lady, and” That this was the first time that term was used. She certainly set the standard for all those who would serve in that role in the future.
- Logan, Logna B. Ladies of the White House.
- Schiro, Anne-Marie. It Began With Dolley Madison.
- Watson, Robert P. American First Ladies.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies. New York: Quill. 1990.
- Lebsock, Susan. “A Share of Honour:” Virginia Women 1600-1945. Richmond, VA: Virginia Women’s Cultural History Project, 1984.
- PHOTO: Peale, James, "Dolley Madison, James Madison's Montpelier Home, c. 1794, http://www.montpelier.org (May 2007).