Dolly Payne Madison (1768-1849) was highly respected by some of history's greatest politicians during an age when it was considered appropriate for women to be seen and not heard, and was accepted equally by both men and women.
Dorothea Payne Todd Madison, wife of former United States President James Madison, protegee of George and Martha Washington, and the friend of the reserved John and Abigail Adams, was once described by President Andrew Jackson as a "national institution." She withstood personal tragedies to become a popular First Lady who was devoted to her family and country.
Dolly Payne Madison was born May 20, 1768 on a farm in New Garden, North Carolina to John Payne, Jr. and Mary Coles Payne, who were aristocratic, Quaker Virginians. She grew up in Virginia on the Payne Plantation called Scotchtown. Madison claimed both states as her home and later in life would refer to herself as being a native of North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Moved to the North
In 1783, when Dolly Payne was 15 years old, her parents made the decision to sell their plantation, free their slaves, and move the family north. Dolly's father did not believe in slavery and decided to use the money made from selling the plantation to set up business in Philadelphia. With this in mind, he and Mrs. Payne moved Dolly and her seven siblings, Walter, William Temple, Isaac, Lucy, Anna, Mary and John to a large and thriving city. This move coincides with a significant event in United States history, as 1783 marked the end of the Revolutionary War.
For several years, Madison adjusted well to city life. Her father had set up an office and shop in the front room of their home and was working in the starch business. Madison eventually became a very beautiful woman, and was considered to be the greatest beauty of her era. However, she remained a modest person who did not take her attributes for granted.
When Madison was 19 years old, the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in May of 1787. There she watched with others as the prestigious delegates arrived, among them George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. She also saw for the first time a man from Virginia who was known to be a brilliant political thinker, James Madison, and who would later be called the "Father of the Constitution."
The year 1789 marked a drastic change in the Payne household, as Madison's father was forced into bankruptcy. Although John Payne had been a successful farmer in Virginia, he did not know how to be a successful businessman. After his failure in business, Madison's father sank into despair and her mother was forced to take in boarders.
Husband and Child Died
During this time, Madison had many suitors and was very popular. At the age of 21, many of her friends were already married, but she was in no hurry to settle down. The most persistent of her suitors was a man by the name of John Todd, a religious Quaker and lawyer. Eventually, Madison said yes to his proposal and the two were married in January of 1790. Two years later they had their first son, and a year after that, their second.
August of 1793 brought about a horrific change in many Philadelphians' lives. An epidemic of yellow fever swept over the city, and it was the worst epidemic to strike any American city at that time. A great number of people died, including Madison's husband and second born child. Although she also became ill, Madison eventually recovered after a long, slow fight. She then found herself a widow who had to care for her remaining son, Payne.
Met James Madison
In the spring of 1794, Madison experienced what would later affect the rest of her life; she was notified that James Madison would like to meet her. He was a highly ambitious man, and well known in Philadelphia. He helped draft the Constitution and was responsible for proposing the Bill of Rights, the first ten constitutional amendments which safeguard an individual's civil liberties. Within a few weeks after the two met, it was widely rumored that they were engaged, and Martha Washington even questioned Madison about the matter. Although she emphatically denied this rumor, it proved to be true, as Dolly Payne Todd and James Madison were married in September of 1794.
Over the next several years, Dolly and James observed, and at times were directly involved in some of the most important events in the history of the United States. They saw John Adams inaugurated as President in 1797; Thomas Jefferson served two terms as a United States President beginning in 1801, and James Madison was made Secretary of State at that time; in 1800, the capital was moved to Washington, D.C.; and Napoleon gained Louisiana from Spain. Then in 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France. As a result of this Purchase, the United States had suddenly doubled in size.
When Jefferson decided not to run for a third term, his first choice for a successor was Madison. So in 1809, James Madison was inaugurated as President and Dolly Madison became the First Lady. Some say she took on the job as if she had been born to fill it. At times, she was affectionately referred to as "Lady Presidentess" or "Queen Dolly" she was widely known for her caring and loving nature, her fashion consciousness, her impeccable manners, and discreetness. Many commented on the good food Madison always served her guests. There were many kinds of cakes, jellies, macaroons and fruits, but the one thing Madison served, which was new to most, was a delicious cold treat referred to as "ice creams" by her guests.
The year 1812 brought about a Declaration of War and James Madison's re-election. America was soon at war with the British, and in the beginning, much of the battling was done at sea, with many American victories until about 1814. During this time, the British would take the offensive in the land war. Madison's actions on August 24, 1814 would cause her to be remembered forever in American history. On that date, as the British troops advanced upon the city and Madison had been advised to flee, she first took the time to decide what precious possessions would be stowed away in wagons and what would be sacrificed to the enemy forces. Madison made certain that her husband's important and secret papers were saved, along with the silver and a few small portable treasures and a portrait of George Washington, yet she left all of her own frivolities behind. Once Madison left the city, the British were there within two hours of her departure. The destruction that was caused included the burning of the Capitol Building and the torching of the President's House. All the contents remaining in the home had been destroyed forever. With Madison's foresight and quick actions, future generations would be able to view the Washington portrait which had hung over the fireplace.
In the following years, Madison witnessed the end of the war and James Monroe's inauguration as president. After leaving office, the Madisons returned to Montpelier, Virginia, to stay. Montpelier, in Orange County, had been James's home long before he and Dolly were married. The Madisons found peace in Virginia during those retirement years and all energies were spent on improving James's beloved home. Here Dolly Madison would remain for the next 20 years.
In their final years, the Madisons came to realize their increasing poverty. This was largely due to the fact that they were "land poor," and constant visitors to their home were very expensive. Also, Madison's son Payne proved to be extravagant, unproductive, and self-indulgent, while his expenses seemed endless. He spent more money than he had, and James Madison was forced to pay his gambling debts repeatedly. Despite Payne's troubles, Madison displayed constant love and devotion for her son.
James Madison's Death
James Madison died in 1836, and the Madison papers were his last preoccupation. He willed them to Dolly Madison so she might have them published and perhaps be comfortable financially. These papers were James's testimony and reflections on many years of significant historical events. After his death, Madison decided to move back to Washington, and at this time, she sold some of his papers to Congress and received $30,000 for them.
In the remaining years of Madison's life, she would see four different presidents enter office, the rest of the Madison papers sold to Congress, the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, and the introduction of the first telegraph. She had led a full, active, and productive life and witnessed and participated in a whole span of history. In 1849, Dolly Madison died and would be remembered with respect, admiration, and affection.
Mayer, Jane, Dolly Madison, 1954.
Gerson, Noel B., The Velvet Glove, A Life of Dolly Madison, 1975. □
"Dolly Madison." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dolly-madison
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Born: May 20, 1768
New Garden, North Carolina
Died: July 12, 1849
American first lady
Dolley Madison was the much-admired wife of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison (1751–1836). She was highly respected by some of history's greatest politicians, including President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), who once described her as a "national institution." This was high praise during a time when women were expected to remain in the background and be seen but not heard.
Life in Philadelphia
Dolley Payne Madison was born on May 20, 1768, on a farm in New Garden, North Carolina. Her parents were John Payne Jr. and Mary Coles Payne, who were Quaker Virginians. (The Quakers were a religious society that was started in the seventeenth century.)
In 1783 after the Revolutionary War (1775–83), in which the American colonies fought for independence from British rule, her parents made the decision to sell their plantation. They freed their slaves and moved the family north when Dolley was fifteen years old. Her father used the money made from selling the plantation to set up a business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When Dolley was nineteen years old, the representatives to the Constitutional Convention (May 25–September 17, 1787) gathered in Philadelphia. Many important representatives attended the convention, which resulted in the creation of the U.S. Constitution. George Washington (1732–1799), Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) were among those who attended the convention. At this time Dolley saw for the first time a Virginian named James Madison, who was later called the "Father of the Constitution."
Dolley Payne grew into a beautiful and popular woman. At the age of twenty-one she met John Todd, a lawyer, and the two were married in January 1790. The couple eventually had two sons. Then, in August 1793, an outbreak of yellow fever (a deadly disease that is spread by mosquitoes) occurred. A great number of people died, including Dolley's husband and her youngest son. Although she also became ill, she eventually recovered after a long, slow fight.
A new life
In the spring of 1794 James Madison requested a meeting with Dolley Payne Todd. Madison was an extremely ambitious man who was well known in Philadelphia. He helped draft the Constitution, the document that represents the basic laws on which America is founded. He also was responsible for suggesting the Bill of Rights, the first ten constitutional amendments that safeguard an individual's civil freedoms. Within a few weeks after the two met, it was widely rumored that they were engaged. Although she denied this rumor, it proved to be true, as Dolley Payne Todd and James Madison were married in September 1794.
Over the next several years, Dolley and James observed and at times were directly involved in some of the most important events in the history of the United States. In 1797 they saw John Adams inaugurated as president. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson began the first of his two terms as president. At that time, James Madison was made secretary of state. In 1803 the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France. As a result of this purchase (the Louisiana Purchase), the United States had suddenly doubled in size.
As first lady
When Jefferson decided not to run for a third term, James Madison was elected president of the United States. Madison began his first term in 1809, and Dolley Madison became the first lady. Some say she took on the job as if she had been born to fill it. She was widely known for her caring and loving nature, her fashion sense, and her graceful manners.
In 1812 James Madison was reelected and the War of 1812 (1812–14) began. The war was fought between Great Britain and the United States over Britain's disregard for American neutrality and their practice of boarding American ships and forcing sailors to join the British navy. On August 24, 1814, British troops moved into Washington, D.C., and Dolley Madison was told that she should leave the city. She made certain that she saved her husband's important papers, the silver, and a portrait of George Washington. Madison narrowly escaped the British, who burned the Capitol Building and set fire to the President's House.
In the following years, Madison witnessed the end of the war and James Monroe's inauguration as president. After leaving office, the Madisons moved to Montpelier, Virginia. They found peace in Virginia during their retirement years. They spent their time improving James's beloved home, where Dolley Madison would remain for the next twenty years.
James Madison's death
James Madison died in 1836. He willed his papers to Dolley Madison so that she could make some money by having them published. The Madison papers were James's writings on the many years of significant historical events. After her husband's death, Dolley Madison moved back to Washington, D.C. She then sold some of her late husband's papers to Congress and received $30,000 for them.
In the remaining years of Madison's life, she would see four different presidents enter office, the rest of the Madison papers sold to Congress, the laying of the first stone for the Washington Monument, and the introduction of the first telegraph (an early communication system). She had led a full, active, and productive life. On July 12, 1849, Dolley Madison died in Washington, D.C.
For More Information
Davidson, Mary R. Dolly Madison: Famous First Lady. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1966. Reprint, New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1992.
Flanagan, Alice K. Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 1768–1849. New York: Children's Press, 1997.
Gerson, Noel B. The Velvet Glove, A Life of Dolly Madison. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1975.
Moore, Virginia. The Madisons: A Biography. McGraw Hill, 1979.
Pflueger, Lynda. Dolley Madison: Courageous First Lady. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1999.
"Madison, Dolley." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/madison-dolley
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Dolley Madison, 1768–1849, wife of President James Madison, b. Guilford co., N.C. Born Dolley Payne of Quaker parents, she was brought up in simplicity and was married (1790) to a Quaker, John Todd, who died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. She left the Friends to marry Madison in 1794. In later years as official White House hostess for President Jefferson (who was a widower) and for her husband, both in the White House and at Montpelier, she was noted for the magnificence of her entertaining as well as for charm, tact, and grace.
See her memoirs and letters (1886, repr. 1971); biographies by E. S. Arnett (1972) and C. Allgor (2006).
"Madison, Dolley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/madison-dolley
"Madison, Dolley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/madison-dolley
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Throughout the history of the United States, only three First Ladies have come close to matching the fame of their husbands. Jacqueline Kennedy was much admired for her beauty, grace, and elegance. Eleanor Roosevelt was respected worldwide for her dignity, generosity, and greatness of spirit. Dolley Madison was known at first for her skills as a social hostess in the White House; but during war with the British, she proved herself both courageous and quick-thinking.
Dolley Payne, born in Piedmont, North Carolina, on May 20, 1768, was raised in rural eastern Virginia, the land of her parents, John and Mary Coles Payne. Her mother was a Quaker, and Dolley, one of eight children, was raised in that faith. John Payne freed his slaves in 1783 and moved the family to Philadelphia. After his death in 1793, Dolley's mother returned to Virginia with her two youngest children. By that time, Dolley had married John Todd, a young Quaker lawyer.
Yellow fever hit Philadelphia in 1793, and Dolley took her two sons, John Payne and William Temple, to escape the city. Nonetheless, William died of the fever that year, as did Dolley's husband. The following year, Aaron Burr, then a U.S. Senator, introduced the young widow to a mild-mannered, frail-looking bachelor seventeen years her senior. At the time, James Madison, who had served in the Continental Congress and had sponsored the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was a member of the House of Representatives. The vivacious Dolley and the shy James were married in 1794.
When Madison became the nation's fourth president in 1809, Dolley became the first First Lady to serve a full term in the White House. The president's home had not been built during Washington's years in office; John and Abigail Adams spent only four months there; and Thomas Jefferson was a widower. In fact, Dolley had often taken on the role of official hostess during Jefferson's administration.
Once in the White House, Dolley transformed the rather austere and neglected mansion into a visitor's paradise. She called upon architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his wife Mary for assistance. New paint and tasteful decorations brightened every room. They were neither too fancy nor too foreign. The front entrance was fixed
so that visitors no longer had to fear falling into a pit upon entering. Before long, White House functions were the most coveted invitation in town. And Dolley Madison, with her gowns of silk and satin and an ostrich feather stuck in her hair, established a ritual for every other First Lady to follow—that of showing off the nation's presidential home with pride. Since that time all First Ladies have followed her lead to a lesser or greater degree, although few have matched the elegance of Dolley Madison.
At the beginning of Madison's second term, war broke out between the United States and Great Britain over grievances arising from oppressive shipping practices during the Napoleonic Wars. Ironically, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain the day after the British had lifted the trade restrictions. Without telephone or other communication, it was some time before either side knew what the other had done. By then, the so-called War of 1812 was in full force.
The United States was ill-prepared for war against Great Britain. Despite some early and surprising U.S. Navy successes, by 1814 the British had landed in Maryland. On a late August morning, Madison rode out on his horse to investigate cannon fire. Dolley was left at the White House with 100 soldiers as guard and one spyglass. Before long, most of the guard left to join the fight.
Dolley spent the day peering through windows with her spyglass and trying to decide what she must save if the British came. After a soldier returned with the President's message to leave and meet him in Virginia, Dolley loaded as many Cabinet papers as possible into a wagon as well as any silver that could be carried. She was also determined to save the portrait of George Washington by famed painter Gilbert Stuart. When it proved too time-consuming to unscrew the frame from the wall, she ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out and rolled up. Now restored, the portrait is the only object that has been in the White House since 1800.
Before she left, Dolley spent a few moments writing a short letter to her sister Anna. She ended it by saying, "I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take."
The British did arrive shortly thereafter and burned the city and the White House. It was a harsh blow to American pride. The Madisons returned to find their home in ruins. They never lived again in the White House, but it was rebuilt in three years, grander than before.
Dolley and James retired to Montpelier, Virginia, where she continued to entertain in her lavish style. After Madison died in 1836, Dolley went back to the Washington society she loved. She died at the age of 81 in 1849, shortly after attending a ball for President James K. Polk. Her funeral attracted thousands of mourners. Dolley Madison had become a folk hero and an icon in American culture for the courage she had shown in 1814 when Washington came under attack.
Editors of American Heritage. The American Heritage Book of the Presidents and Famous Americans, Vol. 2. New York: Dell, 1967.
Whitney, Robin Vaugh. The American Presidents, 8th edition. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Books, 1996.
"The Dolley Madison Project." Virginia Center for Digital History. Available from <http://moderntimes.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison>
Madison, Dolley. "The Burning of Washington, August 23, 1814." National Center for Public Policy Research. Available from<http://www.nationalcenter.org/WashingtonBurning1814.html>
The White House: First Ladies' Gallery. Available from <www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies>
Corinne J. Naden and
"Madison, Dolley." Americans at War. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/madison-dolley
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Born May 20, 1768 (Guilford County, North Carolina)
Died July 12, 1849 (Washington, D.C.)
First lady, hostess
Dolley Madison was the wife of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17; see entry in volume 2). As the nation's official hostess, she set entertainment standards that were copied by future first ladies for decades. Known for her genuine warmth, kindness, and elegant style, she was at the center of the Washington, D.C., social circle for years. With purpose and charm, she hosted social functions that brought together politicians and diplomats with widely differing views. Her presence and conversation skills opened discussions between individuals who otherwise may have never spoken to one another. The American public adored Dolley. Through forty-two years of marriage, the Madisons were seldom apart for more than a few days. Dolley sustained her husband through his time in public office. Her loyalty never wavered, and her cheerfulness rarely failed.
"The great little Madison has asked to be brought to see me this evening."
Dolley Payne Todd, in a letter to a friend
Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768, in a two-room log house in Guilford County, North Carolina. She was the third of eight children born to John and Mary Coles Payne. Mary, often called Molly, was from a well-known Virginia Quaker family. John's prominent Virginia family were members of the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England. This was the official church of Britain and of Virginia. The Anglican Church in America changed its name to the Episcopal Church. Quakers had split from the Church of England in the 1640s and began settling in America in 1681. The Quaker community as a whole is known as the Society of Friends.
When John and Mary married, John converted to the Quaker faith. John's family was not happy to see him join the Quakers, and their feelings about the matter are probably what caused him to move to frontier land in North Carolina in 1765. Only ten months after Dolley's birth, the family moved back to Virginia, settling at Mary's old home at Coles Hill near Hanover, Virginia. When Dolley was ten years old, the family moved to a large tobacco plantation, Scotchtown, 10 miles from Coles Hill. Virginia statesman Patrick Henry (1736–1799), a cousin of Mary Payne, had owned the property from 1771 to 1778. Dolley lived at Scotchtown for about five years during the American Revolution (1775–83) and fondly recalled her days there. The Paynes owned slaves, but the Quaker faith was against slavery. Adhering to Quaker beliefs, John freed his slaves and moved his family to Philadelphia in 1783. There, he joined the large Society of Friends community and set up a business. The family attended the Pine Street Meeting House, still in existence in the twenty-first century.
Dolley was educated in strict Quaker tradition. Her lessons included reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her reading did not include literature or poetry; instead, she studied passages from the Quaker Book of Discipline. Dolley dressed in plain gray cloth, wearing skirts that extended down to her ankles. She was not allowed to wear any adornments such as jewelry.
Marriage and motherhood
John's business did not prosper, and the Paynes found themselves moving from house to house in a state of near poverty. John went bankrupt in 1789 and was ousted from the Quaker community. However, John had arranged a marriage between Dolley and a prosperous young lawyer, John Todd Jr., also a Quaker. Dolley and Todd wed in 1790 and purchased a fine brick home at Fourth and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Their first son, John Payne Todd, was born in February 1792, shortly before the death of Dolley's father. A second son, William Temple Todd, was born in the summer of 1793. Dolley's eleven-year-old sister, Anna, came to live with the Todd family so that Mary Payne could give adequate care to her other, younger children. Anna would live with Dolley until adulthood.
Dolley's mother had started a boardinghouse to support herself and her children still living at home. Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the United States between 1790 and 1800, and the boardinghouse was popular with senators, including U.S. senator Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1) from New York.
Tragedy struck the Todd family in the fall of 1793. A yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia, killing Dolley's inlaws, her husband, and her infant son, William. Dolley fell ill too, but she recovered. Her year-and-a-half-old son, John, became the center of Dolley's life. She overly indulged young John, catering to his every wish.
The "great little Madison"
Dolley inherited her husband's estate, so her finances were in good condition. The twenty-five-year-old widow had matured into a real beauty, and she turned a considerable number of heads as she strolled with little John Payne along Philadelphia's streets. In the spring of 1794, Senator Burr contacted Dolley and informed her that James Madison, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, wished an introduction. Dolley was fully aware of the intellect of Madison and knew that he had been the primary author of the U.S. Constitution, written in Philadelphia in 1787. As noted in The Madisons: A Biography, Dolley quickly wrote the now famous note to her best friend, Eliza Collins, that described Madison as "the great little Madison." Instead of dull Quaker cloth, Dolley chose a purple dress for the meeting.
When they met, Dolley immediately realized that though the forty-three-year-old Madison was a man small in stature, his character towered over that of other men. Much to the delight of his family and friends, who thought he was a confirmed bachelor, Madison fell in love and within months proposed to Dolley. Although she greatly admired Madison, Dolley was concerned that he was not a Quaker but an Episcopalian. Nevertheless, she accepted his proposal.
Dolley and James wed on September 15, 1794, at the home of Dolley'ssister, Lucy Payne Washington, at Harewood in present-day West Virginia. (At age fifteen, Lucy had married George Steptoe Washington, a nephew of the nation's first president, George Washington.) Just as Dolley had expected, the Pine Street Meeting House expelled her from the Quaker community; this was their custom when a member married outside the Society of Friends. However, by this time Dolley not only admired the "great little Madison" but had fallen deeply in love.
Out from under the strict Quaker restrictions on clothing, Dolley began to dress with more flair. By 1795, she was wearing necklaces and increasingly fashionable gowns. James continued serving in the House, and the Madisons lived in Philadelphia for the next few years. Dolley discovered that she greatly enjoyed the social scene. Her energetic, fun-loving ways delighted all.
Three years at Montpelier
During the presidency of John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1), the Madisons lived at Montpelier, James's estate in Virginia. The estate of former secretary of state Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Monticello, was 30 miles from Montpelier. Jefferson and the Madisons became the closest of friends.
Dolley loved the property at Montpelier as much as James did. Her young son, John Payne, whom they generally called Payne, relished his life at Montpelier, especially Christmas. Quakers shunned the holiday, but the Madisons celebrated with food and drink. Their home was decorated with the traditional cedar greenery, holly, and candles. Christmas trees were not yet used in American homes. The only sadness in the Madisons' life was their apparent inability to have children of their own.
To Washington, D.C.
When Jefferson was inaugurated as the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, he chose his friend and confidant James Madison as his secretary of state. From March 1801 until March 1809, Madison served as Jefferson's right-hand man. Dolley played a key role, too. Jefferson was a widower (his wife had died in 1782), so Dolley took on the role of official hostess at the President's House. She was often assisted by her sister Anna and by Jefferson's grown daughters, Patsy and Polly.
Federal City, as Washington, D.C., was often called, had a small but vibrant social scene, and Dolley was at the center. She charmed people with her lively manner and friendliness. While James approached strangers with caution, Dolley greeted all as if they were old friends. In public, Dolley had exchanged her dull Quaker dresses for beautiful French gowns and turban headdresses.
Invitations to the Madisons' home were prized. An evening included superb food, drink, lively conversations, and a game of backgammon. Dolley had a talent for putting guests at ease, including gatherings of people with strongly differing political views. She often used this talent to glean political information that might be helpful to her husband.
By the early 1800s, Dolley had become engrossed in James's political interests and had an excellent understanding of political issues. The Madisons freely conversed and confided in each other about political matters. However, unlike Abigail Adams (1744–1818; see entry in volume 1), wife of the second U.S. president, John Adams, Dolley kept both her political philosophies and opinions private, sharing them only with her husband and closest confidants, including Jefferson.
Wife of the president
James Madison succeeded Jefferson as president on March 4, 1809. At the inauguration, Dolley wore a glamorous champagne-colored gown and a purple velvet bonnet with white plumes. Dolley's years as hostess for Jefferson had prepared her well for her role as the president's wife. Dolley took charge of the Madisons' social life, planning official dinners and deciding what invitations to accept or reject. She set the standard for presidential entertaining for decades to come.
Dolley held Wednesday receptions called "levees" or "drawing rooms." She could skillfully entertain a diverse group of people—from diplomats to everyday citizens—in one room, keeping the peace and having a friendly word for all attendees. Dolley managed to smooth over political differences and left all guests eager for a return visit.
Often when Dolley attended the theater, her dress, jewels, and hairstyle stole the show, apparently creating more excitement than the appearance of the actresses. At forty-one, she was a fresh spirit, one who truly enjoyed living. Americans admired and idolized her.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820)
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, born in England and educated in both England and Germany, immigrated to America in late 1795. Latrobe was the first formally educated architect to practice and teach in the United States. When he first came to America, he worked as an architect, mapper, and surveyor for three years in Virginia and designed the Virginia State Penitentiary. Moving to the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia, he introduced classical Greek Revival architectural elements to America when he designed the Bank of Pennsylvania. He then designed and developed the Philadelphia Waterworks system, which included a steam engine to raise the water level of the Schuylkill River. In 1799, Latrobe was elected to the prestigious American Philosophical Society, founded by American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1) to promote scholarly advances in the sciences and arts.
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson engaged Latrobe to help design dry docks for the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. The next year, Jefferson appointed him as surveyor of public buildings in the United States. For the next nine years, Latrobe directed construction of the south wing of the U.S. Capitol and influenced the Capitol's design at every opportunity. He aided Jefferson in continuing to execute the original plans for the President's House, which was not yet finished when President Adams moved in in December 1800, only a few months before the end of his term. Latrobe added porches to the east and west ends. A few years later, Latrobe and Dolley Madison worked together to elegantly redecorate the President's House. Latrobe designed the U.S. Customs House in New Orleans in 1809 and St. John's Church on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., in 1815. He also contributed to the design of the University of Virginia.
Between 1815 and 1817, Latrobe helped in the reconstruction of Washington's public buildings including the Capitol, which had been destroyed during the War of 1812. He resigned amid disagreements over design changes and costs. Latrobe was overseeing construction of the New Orleans Waterworks when he died of yellow fever in 1820.
The Baltimore Cathedral, officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is considered Latrobe's masterpiece. Latrobe designed the Basilica in consultation with President Jefferson and Father John Carroll (1735–1815; see entry in volume 1), the first U.S. Catholic bishop. The cornerstone was laid in 1806, but construction was delayed during the War of 1812. Completed in 1821, one year after Latrobe's death, the Basilica was the first Catholic cathedral in the United States and is considered a symbol of religious free domin America. In the twenty-first century, the Basilica is recognized as one of the most beautiful churches in the United States.
Dolley oversaw the first redecoration of the President's House. Once Jefferson moved his furniture back to Monticello, Dolley worked closely with architect-designer Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820; see box) to refurbish the mansion. With good taste and enthusiasm, Dolley helped Latrobe shape the decor.
War of 1812
When the United States launched the War of 1812 (1812–15) against Britain, Dolley and James waited together in agonizing suspense to hear of military encounters, successes or failures. The battle came directly to Washington, D.C., in August 1814. While President Madison fled the city to command troops, Dolley waited until the last minute to evacuate. She courageously gathered and successfully moved out of the city vital government papers and some of the young nation's few treasures, such as silverware, eagle ornaments from the East Room, and a full-length portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). (In the twenty-first century, the portrait hangs in the mansion's East Room.) To transport the heavy painting, Dolley had the gardener, Tom Magraw, who remained at the mansion to help her, break the glass and remove the canvas from the frame. The British burned the mansion the night of August 24, 1814. After Dolley evacuated, she did not meet up with James for thirty-six hours.
Within a few days, the president and first lady sadly viewed the destruction of Washington's public buildings, including the burned-out shells of the Capitol and President's House. Immediately following the invasion of Washington, the British turned toward nearby Baltimore, but American troops at Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore's port, fought back, causing the British to retreat. Then in September, U.S. commodore Thomas Macdonough (1783–1825) took his small fleet of four ships and turned back a British advance that was intended to capture New York City. Dolley, the president, and the rest of America rejoiced. Peace would follow within a few months.
Dolley and James moved their residence to a beautiful and unusual building, the Octagon House, two blocks west of the President's House. When the news of a decisive American victory at New Orleans and the signing of the peace treaty reached Washington, D.C., in January 1815, the Octagon House over-flowed with celebrants. As usual, Dolley led the festivities.
After a brief trip to Montpelier in the spring of 1815, the Madisons returned to Washington and took up residence at the Seven Buildings, from which they could look out on the shell of the President's House. The blackened sandstone walls were painted white, and from that time on, the home of the president was called the White House. The Octagon House still stands in Washington in the twenty-first century, but the Seven Buildings, a complex of buildings, does not. Dolley began her Wednesday night receptions again, and the mood in Washington was joyous. Peace had arrived, respect for America had been won, and all looked to the future. The rebuilding of Washington had begun.
Payne, Dolley's son from her first marriage, infused some worry into the Madisons' otherwise happy life. He had finished at Baltimore's St. Mary's Academy in 1812. In the spring of 1813, the Madisons sent him to France as one of three secretaries for the U.S. peace delegation attempting to negotiate an end to the War of 1812. Payne was treated like royalty because he was the president's stepson, and he took full advantage of the situation. He stayed in Paris long after the peace treaty was signed, gambling and freely spending Madison's money. He ran up huge debts that Madison had to cover.
Full of stories of his Paris adventure, Payne returned to Washington and to his parents in 1815. He was tall, handsome, and had a European elegance about him. He was an intriguing storyteller and conversationalist. Dolley and James hoped the young man would soon settle into a career, perhaps as a diplomat. They also hoped he would marry and present them with grandchildren.
Instead, Payne became quite the man-about-town. He danced, played cards, drank a considerable amount in taverns, hunted, rode on horseback over Maryland and Virginia, and showed not the slightest inclination to set any long-term goals. Dolley loved his company and assumed he would find himself eventually, but James was worried.
Glittering social season
In the winter of 1815–16, Dolley directed the most glittering social season Washington, D.C., had ever seen. At forty-seven, she was more attractive than ever, and she dressed in beautiful colors. She loved all shades of pink, but white was also a favorite. Then in early 1816, she appeared at a ball in a black velvet gown trimmed in gold; she wore a gold lace turban on her head. Everyone scrambled to get a glimpse of her. Dolley also entertained an adoring public with her beautiful bird, a macaw from Brazil. Every day, people gathered at a certain hour to watch Dolley at a corner of the house where she stroked and conversed with the talkative bird.
For every hour Dolley spent entertaining in glamorous style, she spent many more taking care of household duties and working with her hands. She would dress in her plain Quaker garb and cook, embroider, and sew; she even dusted the house's treasures. She also worked on a project to establish an orphanage in Washington and spent the winter hours sewing clothes for the children.
Retirement to Montpelier
On March 4, 1817, James Monroe (1758–1831; served 1817–25; see entry in volume 2) was inaugurated as the fifth U.S. president. James and Dolley Madison attended the inauguration and the ball just long enough to say their goodbyes. Within a few weeks James, Dolley, and the pet macaw arrived at Montpelier. Nelly Madison, James's energetic eighty-five-year-old mother who lived at Montpelier, greeted them.
Once at home the Madisons knew they would need to cut back on expenses. They would no longer draw James's $25,000 annual salary, but living on a smaller budget proved difficult. There was a steady stream of visitors to entertain. Guests enjoyed the Madisons so much that they stayed and stayed. At Christmas, the home was always filled with candlelight, holly, cedar, and many family and guests. Montpelier's Christmas eggnog was a popular drink.
Also at Montpelier were over a hundred slaves to feed and clothe. The Madisons by then believed slavery was an evil but did not know how to eliminate it. The slaves were still needed for crop production. Montpelier's slaves were treated in an exemplary manner. They lived in a shaded area of the plantation known as Walnut Grove. They were well fed, decently clothed, and not overworked, and their health needs were taken care of by the Madisons. The slaves were treated as humans, not property. When the Madison nieces and nephews would walk down to Walnut Grove with a special food treat to share, they usually returned with a squash or another vegetable that the slaves had grown in their gardens.
Since the Madisons never had children of their own, they enjoyed their many nieces and nephews. Anna had married U.S. representative Richard Cutts (1771–1845) of Massachusetts in the Madisons' Washington home in 1804, and the couple had six children. Dolley's brother John Payne and his wife, Clary, had four children. Their daughter Anne Payne became like a daughter to Dolley as the Madisons grew older. Dolley's sister, Lucy Washington, had three children. Various combinations of nieces and nephews were always racing through the halls of Montpelier. Dolley's macaw was allowed to fly about the house in the day. The children would run with real or pretend fear if someone yelled "Polly's coming!"
In retirement Dolley helped James organize presidential correspondence and notes. James spent long hours preparing his notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He intended to allow the sale of these notes at his death to help sustain Dolley economically. Madison managed the farm lands at Montpelier. Despite droughts, new plant pests, the financial ups and downs of the nation, and decreasing real estate values in Virginia, Madison's thrift allowed the plantation to turn profits; most of his neighbors struggled just to break even. If it had not been for Payne's irresponsible spendthrift ways, the Madisons would have been economically comfortable.
A compulsive gambler, Payne drifted from city to city through the 1820s, running up debt. He landed in debtors' prison in Philadelphia in both 1829 and 1830. Between 1813 and 1836, Madison covered about $40,000 of Payne's debt, the equivalent of at least a million dollars in the twenty-first century. Madison kept most of the debt payments secret from Dolley, who still loved Payne dearly and still hoped he would straighten out.
The Madisons enjoyed visiting with their best friend, Thomas Jefferson, at nearby Monticello. Together, Jefferson and Madison developed plans for a new university, the University of Virginia. Dolley was in the audience at its opening ceremonies on March 7, 1825.
In 1826, Jefferson died, and the Madisons sorely missed him. Nelly Madison, James's mother, died on February 11, 1829, at ninety-seven years of age. James and Dolley had to get used to Monticello without Jefferson and Montpelier without Nelly. Later in 1829, they were temporarily distracted from their worries when Madison was elected to the Virginia Revisionary Convention to revise the Virginia constitution. The convention took place in Richmond, the state capital. Dolley enjoyed seeing the sights there and being back in the social whirl. Both Madisons were vigorous, cheerful, and entertaining—James had long ago given up his stiff demeanor.
By the early 1830s, Madison's health began failing. He suffered from increasingly crippling arthritis. Dolley stayed by his side constantly, writing notes he dictated when his fingers could no longer hold a pen. Dolley's beloved sister Anna died in 1832. On June 28, 1836, former president Madison passed away.
Return to Washington, D.C.
After James's death, Dolley spent more and more time at her house in Washington on Lafayette Square. She received $30,000 from Congress for the sale of Madison's Constitutional Convention papers, but Payne managed to squander most of it. In 1844, she sold the last of the property at Montpelier and lived in Washington permanently. Her niece, Anne Payne, was her constant companion. In 1846, she and Anne were baptized at St. John's Church, an Episcopalian church on Lafayette Square near her house and across the square from the White House. St. John's continued as an active parish into the twenty-first century.
Much of Dolley's fun-loving spirit returned, after the deaths of her sister and husband, and she was an honored part of Washington society. She frequently was a guest at the White House, and first ladies asked her advice on matters related to the White House. She attended the dedication of the Washington Monument in 1848. That year, Congress purchased the rest of James's writings for $25,000 and set up a trust for Dolley to keep the money out of Payne's hands.
Dolley Madison died in Washington on July 12, 1849, at the age of eighty-one. Her funeral, held at St. John's, was attended by every major government official in Washington—the president, congressmen, judges, and military officials—and many private citizens.
For More Information
Anthony, Katharine. Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949.
Flanagan, Alice K. Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 1768–1849. Children's Press, 1997.
Madison, Dolly. Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1886.
Moore, Virginia. The Madisons: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
"Dolley Payne Todd Madison." The White House.http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/dm4.html (accessed on August 16, 2005).
University of Virginia. The Dolley Madison Project.http://moderntimes.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison/index.html (accessed on August 16, 2005).
"Madison, Dolley." Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/madison-dolley-0
"Madison, Dolley." Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/madison-dolley-0