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Todd Madison, Dorothy Payne (1768-1849)

Dorothy Payne Todd Madison (1768-1849)


First lady

Society of Friends. Dorothy Payne Todd Madison, the wife of President James Madison, was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, on 20 May 1768. Her parents, John and Mary Coles Payne, owned slaves but set them free soon after Dorothy was born. The Paynes then joined the Society of Friends and moved to Philadelphia. They raised their daughter in the Quaker faith, and in 1790 she married a young lawyer named John Todd Jr. The marriage was brief; in 1793 Todd died unexpectedly and left his wife and newborn son, John Payne, with little money. As a result Dorothy Payne Todd went to live in her mothers boardinghouse in the city.

Beauty of Philadelphia. At this time the widow relinquished her beliefs in the Quaker faith and began to dress in a more stylish manner. All who met her commented on the beauty and cheerful disposition of the young woman affectionately called Dolley (sometimes spelled Dolly). Among her mothers boarders were two prominent men, Congressman James Madison (Va.) and Senator Aaron Burr (N.Y.). In 1794 Madison and Dorothy Payne Todd wed.

Washington Socialite. Madison became secretary of state in 1801 and president of the United States in 1809. During her husbands long political career Dolley Madison became the center of the social scene in Washington, D.C. British diplomat Sir Augustus John Foster reported that Dolley Madison was a very handsome woman and tho an uncultivated mind and fond of gossiping, was so perfectly good-tempered and good-humored that she rendered her husbands house as far as depended on her agreeable to all parties. In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson opened his house for receptions on New Years Eve and the Fourth of July, Dolley Madison served as hostess for the widower president. When James Madison assumed the presidency, the first lady had the White House refurnished to befit the dignity of her husbands high office. In May 1809 she started the first of her soon-to-be-famous Wednesday drawing rooms, in which she invited congressmen and their wives, belles of the city, and foreign emissaries to visit the presidential pair and play the card game loo. Dolley Madison was the perfect first lady for the reserved president, and she set standards that dominated the social life of Washington until the Civil War.

Duty. During the War of 1812 a British army landed on the coast and made a quick march to the capital. After the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, on 24 August 1814 the president and his cabinet fled to Virginia, but the first lady felt it her duty to remain at the White House and load important documents and silver plate onto a waiting carriage. When a written message arrived from her husband imploring her to leave the city, Dolley Madison did so, but not before denying the British a trophy: she personally removed from its frame a full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. When enemy troops arrived at the presidential mansion, they found the table set for forty guests, the first family having arranged a large dinner party for that day. After eating the food and drinking all the wine, British officers ordered the White House burnt.

Retirement. James Madisons term as president ended in 1817, and he and his wife retired to their Virginia home, Montpelier. After the former president died in 1836, Dolley Madison returned to Washington, where she retained much of her vivacity and grace up to her eighty-first year. She died on 12 July 1849. James and Dolley Madison had no children.


Elswyth Thane, Dolley Madison: Her Life and Times (New York: Crowell-Collier, 1970).

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