Madison, Dolley (Payne Todd)
MADISON, Dolley (Payne Todd)
Born 20 May 1768, New Garden, North Carolina; died 12 July 1849, Washington, D.C.
Daughter of John and Mary Coles Payne; married John Todd,1790 (died 1793); James Madison, 1794 (died 1836)
Dolley Madison grew up on a plantation in a Quaker community in Hanover County, Virginia. She went to the local school with her brothers until the family moved to Philadelphia in 1783. Having freed his slaves in 1779, her father suffered financially, and Madison did well to marry a Quaker lawyer, John Todd. John and their youngest child died of yellow fever in 1793; although taken ill, Madison survived.
Madison settled with her second husband, James Madison, on his family estate in Montpelier, Virginia, where she lived until he became Secretary of State under Jefferson in 1801. Since the President Jefferson was a widower whose own daughters were seldom available, Madison served as hostess at the White House (a name she coined) during the eight years of Jefferson's administration. Madison formally assumed the title "First Lady" when her husband succeeded his friend in 1809.
Renowned as a hostess, Madison combined social power with impeccable gentility. She well deserves her reputation as a courageous, independent woman; during the War of 1812, she remained a force of diplomatic calm, even saving Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington during the burning of the Capitol in 1814. She again settled at Montpelier when her husband left public life in early 1817; in 1837, a year after James' death, she returned to Washington, where she reassumed her position of social influence with grace and good sense. She personally knew all 12 presidents from Washington through Taylor.
Madison's letters are firmly within the American tradition of "private" writings not intended for publication. Focusing on household matters, fashion, social commitments, and the health of her immediate relations, her letters reveal neither the personal self nor accounts of matters of public moment. The letters do, however, suggest Madison's characteristic prudence, modesty, and loyalty—her 18th-century sense of decorum. Thus, she writes, in 1809, "It is one of my sources of happiness, never to desire a knowledge of other people's business," and in 1834, "Our sex are ever losers when they stem the torrent of public opinion." In the same vein, Madison criticizes Cooper as "too melodramatic" and "too emphatic about the horrible." Madison's passing remark to her sister, "You have heard no doubt, of the terrible duel and death of poor Hamilton," seems particularly remarkable when one realizes Aaron Burr was not only vice president under Jefferson but was once Madison's suitor.
Madison was a significant figure to the men and women of her own time. She was also a woman privileged in her position, influence, and personal advantages—even in her long, happy marriage to a man who realized that "the saddest slavery of all was that of conscientious Southern women." Although her letters seldom reveal her influence and prominence, they deserve more attention than they have received. It is unfortunate A. C. Clark's edition of the Life and Letters of Dolley Madison (1914) is incomplete and his commentary cryptic and confusing.
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