Dolley Madison

views updated

Dolley Madison

Born May 20, 1768
Guilford County, North Carolina

Died July 12, 1849
Washington, D.C.

First lady, wife of President James Madison

Dolley Madison gained fame not just because she was married to President James Madison (1751-1836; see biographical entry) but also as a vibrant, unforgettable individual in her own right. She was respected and admired for her lively, warm personality, her elegant but often unconventional sense of style, and her ability to make a wide variety of people feel comfortable. Valued by her husband both as a companion and for the grace and energy she brought to her role as first lady, she earned the nation's admiration during the War of 1812 when she kept official documents and other items—including a famous portrait of George Washington (1732-1799), the first president of the United States—out of British hands when Washington, D.C., was invaded and burned.

Raised as a Quaker

Madison's parents, John and Mary (Coles) Payne, were Virginia residents of English, Scottish, and Irish descent. Her parents were members of the Society of Quakers, a religion whose members believe that all people are equal, and stress the values of hard work, cooperation, pacifism (a refusal to engage in violent conflict), and modest dress and manners. Dolley was born in North Carolina where her parents spent a year before returning to their Virginia plantation. She is sometimes referred to as Dorothy or Dorothea but was always called Dolley.

Growing up on the family's Virginia plantation, called Scotchtown, Dolley Madison was educated by private tutors and also attended the local Quaker school. At this time her grandmother became a major influence on her life because they shared a fondness for beautiful clothing and jewelry, which was discouraged by the Quaker religion. In 1783 when Madison was fifteen (and the same year in which the Revolutionary War [1775-83] ended), her father freed the slaves who worked on his plantation and moved his family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

John Payne started a starch-making business that was not successful, and in 1789 his company went bankrupt. This failure plunged him into despair, and he died less than five years later. Meanwhile Dolley was witness to all the interesting political events taking place in Philadelphia during this period, especially the Constitutional Convention. At this meeting held between May and September of 1787, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies met to formulate a new government for the country. One of the delegates, and a major shaper of the Constitution, was future president James Madison.

Marriage and motherhood

Before Dolley met Madison, many young men were interested in the young woman with blue eyes and curly black hair. She resisted them all, however, until a Quaker lawyer named John Todd proposed. Dolley married him in 1790, and two years later she gave birth to a son named John Payne (called Payne). Another son, William Temple, was born the next year.

But in 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever swept through Philadelphia, killing both her husband and her youngest son. Madison also fell ill, but recovered to find herself a young widow with a son to support. Eventually she re-joined the social circle of which she had been a part before her husband's death, which included many politicians.

"The great little Madison"

Among her political acquaintances was Aaron Burr (1756-1836). One day he told her that his friend, a Virginia legislator named James Madison, wanted to meet her. Dolly had heard about Madison, who had already gained a reputation as a brilliant thinker and statesman. She called him "the great little Madison" in a letter she wrote to a friend, and indeed, Madison was only five feet four inches tall and weighed about a hundred pounds. He was a forty-three-year-old bachelor who always appeared very quiet and reserved in public, even though his friends found him charming and witty.

Despite the nineteen-year age difference, their personality differences, and Dolley's Quakerism, they were married on September 15, 1794. (Dolley was expelled from the Quaker church for marrying outside the Quaker community.) Their union lasted forty-two years and was, by all reports, full of love, friendship, and appreciation for each other's talents. Although they had no children, their household included Dolley's son Payne and her sister Anna and Madison's niece Nelly.

Soon the friendly, fashionable Dolley Madison was a popular Philadelphia hostess. Her shy husband seemed to blossom in her presence, becoming more talkative and even developing a love for dancing. In 1797 Madison retired from Congress and the family moved to his five-thousand-acre plantation, Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia, where they lived the quiet life of a farming family.

Moving to Washington, D.C.

In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) took office and appointed his trusted friend, colleague, and fellow member of the Republican Party James Madison as his secretary of state. The Madisons moved to Washington, D.C., the new capital of the United States.

Dolley Madison adapted as well to the Washington social world as she had to that of Philadelphia, but here she had an interesting new duty. Jefferson's wife had died many years earlier, and he asked Dolley to serve as hostess during White House functions—a role to which she was well suited.

James Madison was Jefferson's hand-picked successor as president. By the time he won the 1808 presidential election, his wife was already well known and much loved in Washington society. Dolley Madison always wore the latest fashions, and liked to make a stir by trying unusual styles (an example is her habit of wrapping a scarf around her head, which became known as the "Dolley turban.") Her dinner parties and banquets featured the delicious, rich food she loved (as her plump figure showed), including a new treat called ice cream.

A popular First Lady

Dolley brought a new style and several new traditions to the White House. Madison's election was followed by the first inaugural ball (a dance held when a new president takes office), and Dolley started the yearly tradition of the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. Invitations to parties and other functions were extended not just to political figures but writers, artists, and other interesting people. A wide variety of people—from members of European royalty to Native American chiefs—were all treated in the same kind, relaxed manner. She also took a great interest in political matters, encouraging her husband to share his thoughts and ideas with her.

There were, of course, those who found fault with Dolley. She was criticized for her fondness for cards, racetrack gambling, snuff (a form of tobacco that is chewed), unconventional fashions, and fattening foods. Overall, Madison was extremely popular, however, and invitations to her functions were much sought-after. Every Wednesday evening she held special gatherings—which some called "Mrs. Madison's Crush" because they were often so crowded—where guests discussed the serious matters of the day, often with the president himself, in an informal setting.

The war comes closer to Washington

The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain was provoked by two major issues. The first was Britain's maritime policy of impressment in its war with France. This policy was where British officials boarded U.S. ships to capture deserters from their own navy, often wrongfully taking American citizens in the process. The other issue that led to the war was Great Britain's overly friendly relations with Native Americans. Americans believed that the British were encouraging Native Americans to attack white settlers who were moving west. The Native Americans believed that the settlers were encroaching on (gradually taking over) their land.

During the War of 1812 Dolley toned down her entertaining somewhat but did not completely stop, for she thought that parties and gatherings would help to keep people's spirits high during a troubling time. For a while the war was fought at a considerable distance from the capital, Washington, D.C., but in the summer of 1814, the British landed in the Chesapeake Bay area (about fifty miles away). Few preparations had been made to defend the city.

On August 22 James Madison rode north to view the situation at Bladensburg, Maryland, where U.S. forces (comprising mainly militiamen, temporary members of state-sponsored armies that were generally inferior to regular army troops) were preparing to meet the British in battle. Dolley waited anxiously for news from her husband. His first message was reassuring, as recorded in Robert Rutland's The Presidency of James Madison : "The reports as to the enemy have varied every hour. The last and probably truest information is that they are not very strong … and of course they are not in a condition to strike at Washington."

Two days later, the British defeated the outnumbered and less experienced American troops at Bladensburg and, in the evening, began to march toward Washington. Earlier that day, Dolley had received a second message from her husband, this one urgently instructing her to leave the city. She hurriedly packed official papers and documents in trunks, as well as much of the White House silver and other items.

Dolley had to leave behind most of her own personal belongings, but she made sure that a number of important documents and the famous portrait of George Washington by the celebrated American painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) was saved. Due to a shortage of time and space it had to be cut out of its frame for removal. In her memoirs, Dolley remembered that she "lived a lifetime in those moments."

The British invade and burn the capital

As her carriage left Washington for the Virginia countryside, Dolley saw crowds of people who also were fleeing the city. Arriving at a roadside inn at Great Falls, Virginia, Dolley found the innkeeper reluctant to admit her. The tide of public opinion had turned against James Madison's apparent ineffectual handling of the war. Nevertheless the Madisons were reunited that night, but the president soon left her to rejoin the U.S. forces at Baltimore.

The British, meanwhile, had entered the nation's capital unopposed. Several officers went into the White House to find the table set for a banquet for forty people, and they proceeded to consume the food and wine that Dolley had intended for her own guests. Their meal finished, the British burned down the White House, destroying all of its contents; they also burned a number of other public buildings. Such destruction was unusual in countries that observed international standards of war, but the British were retaliating for the destruction of public buildings when the United States had sacked York, Canada, earlier in the war. The Madisons returned to Washington on August 27 to find much of the city destroyed. With the White House in ruins, the Madisons moved into a residence called the Octagon House, and Dolley Madison resumed her active social life.

More peaceful years

A treaty was signed with Great Britain on December 14, 1814, and American general Andrew Jackson (1767-1845; see biographical entry) dealt a final blow to the British with the Battle of New Orleans. In 1816 James Monroe (1758-1831; see biographical entry) was elected president, and the Madisons retired to Montpelier. Besides a beautifully decorated house, the plantation also comprised farm buildings and slave quarters (despite his opposition to slavery, James Madison never freed the slaves on his own plantation), pear orchards and grape arbors, and fields in which grains and tobacco were grown.

These years were not completely free from worry, however. Dolley's son Payne had grown up to be an irresponsible, restless young man prone to drinking and gambling. Eventually he was many thousands of dollars in debt, and James Madison had to repay these debts to keep his stepson out of jail.

Financial troubles

The Madisons' financial problems were made worse by a general depression in Virginia agriculture in the years following the war. Determined not only to preserve important national records but to provide his wife with a source of income after his death, James Madison began to organize the papers he had produced during his long career in politics. Dolley helped her husband to organize and edit the documents. She also nursed him throughout the illness that led to his death in 1836.

In 1837 Dolley returned to Washington. Once again she was an important figure on the Washington social scene, offering advice to the first ladies of presidents Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), John Tyler (1790-1862), and James Polk (1795-1849). That same year, she was able to bolster her income by selling Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention to Congress for thirty thousand dollars.

In 1844 Dolley was forced to sell Montpelier, which she had left to the management of her son, a spendthrift and alcoholic. Four years later, she sold Madison's correspondence to Congress for twenty-five thousand dollars, but she did not receive the payment until just before her death. She made her last public appearance at a White House reception in 1849, escorted through the rooms of her former home by President Polk.

After a five-day illness, Dolley died in Washington on July 17, 1849. She was eighty-one years old. Her funeral was attended by an impressive array of both officials (including the president and his cabinet, diplomats, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, army and navy officers, and the mayor of Washington, D.C.) and private citizens. Madison's body was initially laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery, but eventually her remains were removed to her beloved Montpelier.

For More Information


Arnett, Ethel Stephens. Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley. Greensboro, N.C.: Piedmont Press, 1972.

Davidson, Mary R. Dolly Madison: Famous First Lady. New York: ChelseaJuniors, 1992.

Flanagan, Alice K. Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 1768-1849. Danbury, Conn.: Children's Press, 1997.

Gerson, Noel B. The Velvet Glove, a Life of Dolly Madison. New York: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1975.

Madison, Dolley. Memoirs and Letters of Dolley Madison, Wife of James Madison, President of the United States. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Moore, Virginia. The Madisons: A Biography. New York: The McGraw-HillCompanies, 1979.

Rutland, Robert Allen. The Presidency of James Madison. Lawrence, Kans.:University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Web sites

Dolley Payne Todd Madison: 1768-1849. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812. [Online] (accessed on November 26, 2001).