Madison, Dolley Payne (1768–1849)

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Madison, Dolley Payne (1768–1849)

American socialite who as first lady became a famous Washington hostess . Name variations: often spelled Dolly; Dorothea Payne Madison. Born Dolley Payne on May 20, 1768, in Guilford County, North Carolina; died in Washington, D.C., on July 12, 1849; daughter of John Payne (a planter and a businessman) and Mary (Coles) Payne; attended the Cedar Creek Meeting Society of Friends elementary school as a child; married John Todd, Jr., on January 7, 1790 (died, October 24, 1793); married James Madison (president of the United States, 1809–1817), on September 15, 1794 (died, June 28, 1836); children: (first marriage) John Payne Todd (b. February 29, 1792); William Temple Todd (1793–1793).

Payne family moved from North Carolina to Virginia (1769); moved to Philadelphia (1783); married John Todd, Jr. (January 7, 1790); son William Temple born (summer 1793) and died (autumn 1793); returned with husband James Madison to Virginia from Washington, D.C. (1797); moved to Washington, D.C. after James Madison became secretary of state (1801); became first lady when husband was inaugurated president (1809); rescued portrait of George Washington (August 24, 1814); returned to Virginia after James Madison's presidential term ended (1817); following husband's death, moved from Virginia to Washington, D.C. (1837); joined St. John's Church in Lafayette Square (1845); attended the laying of Washington Monument cornerstone (July 1848); attended President James K. Polk's farewell reception (February 7, 1849).

As the War of 1812 raged, Dolley Madison wrote to her sister at three o'clock in the afternoon, Wednesday, August 24, 1814, describing an event that would make her forever loved and admired. With the enemy closing in, prepared to torch the White House, and the sounds of battle within earshot, this courageous first lady steadfastly refused to flee until George Washington's portrait had been saved from destruction.

Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humour with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out; it is done,—and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen from New York, for safe keeping.

Only then did she write, "And now, dear sister, 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. When I shall see or write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!"

Although Dolley Payne Madison is remembered as a Virginian, she was born on May 20, 1768, in Guilford County, North Carolina. The following spring, she moved with her family to Little Bird Creek farm in Hanover County, Virginia. Six years later, her father purchased a more imposing plantation called Scotchtown where Dolley would live until her parents, John Payne and Mary Coles Payne , sold the property. Staunch Quakers, the Paynes both assumed leadership positions at the Cedar Creek Meeting of Friends. As conscientious Quakers, they believed that slavery was morally wrong; thus, when in 1782 Virginia legalized manumission, John and Mary Payne freed all their slaves. The following year, they moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In Philadelphia, Dolley met and fell in love with a fellow Quaker, John Todd, Jr.; they married on January 7, 1790. In time, John Todd, five years older than Dolley, became a highly successful Philadelphia lawyer. On February 29, 1792, Dolley gave birth to a son, John Payne, named after Dolley's father, who passed away later that same year. In the summer of 1793, Dolley had a second son, William Temple, named in honor of one of her brothers.

About the time of William's birth, a yellow fever epidemic raged in Philadelphia. "The fever has assumed a most alarming appearance," wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush. "It not only mocks in most cases the power of medicine, but it has spread through several parts of the city remote from the spot where it originated." In the midst of the epidemic, John Todd, concerned that his wife and children be spared, moved his family out of the city to a place called Gray's Ferry, but John "like the honorable and good Quaker citizen that he was" felt compelled to return "to the plague-stricken city to do his duty." In Philadelphia, as John Todd battled the epidemic, he saw both of his parents die of the dreaded disease. When, on October 24, 1793, he returned to visit his own family, he was infected with yellow fever. As Dolley's mother Mary met him at the door, he gasped, "I feel the fever in my veins, but I must see her once more." A short time later, he died in his wife's arms. The plague would also claim Dolley's infant son, William Temple.

Following the death of her husband, Mary Cole Payne had taken in boarders, one of whom was Aaron Burr, who later became vice-president of the United States and in 1804 fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. Dolley and Burr became good friends. Thus, when Dolley drew up a will following the death of her husband, she named Burr the sole guardian of her surviving son, now known as Payne Todd.

It was Aaron Burr who introduced Dolley to his friend James Madison, then serving as a congressman from Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. The courtship proceeded so smoothly that on September 15, 1794, Dolley and James Madison were wed at Harewood, the Virginia country estate where Dolley's sister Lucy Payne Washington and brother-in-law George S. Washington, the nephew of George Washington, lived. Dolley's marriage to a non-Quaker resulted in her expulsion from the Society of Friends. On December 12, 1794, the Society declared that she was no longer considered a member because "of her marriage with a person not in membership with us, before a hireling priest."

James Madison served in the House of Representatives until his term ended in March 1797. After the wedding, the Madisons therefore returned to the nation's capital, which at the time was Philadelphia. As the wife of a rather prominent public figure, Dolley quickly learned "the dress and ways of polite society" for she "was required to receive the great and small of the government and distinguished foreign visitors." Vice-president John Adams after one visit wrote to his wife Abigail Adams , "Mrs. Madison is a fine woman, and her two sisters are equally so."

James Madison made his final public appearance as a member of the House at John Adams' presidential inauguration. It was also the last time that the Madisons saw George Washington. Katharine Anthony in her biography of Dolley Madison describes a crowd gazing "with awe" at Washington "clad as usual in black velvet." As he moved from Congress Hall to the door of the Hotel Indian Queen many followed him. After he entered the hotel, the crowd called for him whereupon the great man reappeared "for a second and last farewell."

After James retired from the House of Representatives, the Madisons lived for four years at Montpellier (also spelled Montpelier), a large country estate located approximately 30 miles from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home. Although Jefferson during those years served as vice-president, the Madisons frequently visited him at Monticello. When George Washington died in 1799, Jefferson accompanied the Madisons to Mount Vernon to console Martha Washington . Because of the death of James Madison, Sr., shortly before Thomas Jefferson became president, the Madisons were unable to attend Jefferson's inauguration.

When Thomas Jefferson named James Madison secretary of state, the Madisons moved to Washington, D.C. (now the nation's capital), along with Dolley's nine-year-old son, Payne Todd, and Anna Payne , a niece. Jefferson was a widower, and so until the Madison family secured a home of their own, they lived with their old neighbor in the White House.

The arrival of Dolley Madison, the wife of the secretary of state and a friend of the president, had a decided effect on Washington society. One biographer avers that it "may be said truly that she took Washington." Wrote a prominent Philadelphia socialite, "I have become acquainted with and am highly pleased with her; she has

good humour and sprightliness, united to the most affable and agreeable manners." After the Madisons moved from the White House to a home at 1333 F Street, "Dolley remained practically on call for the President's dinner parties whenever they included women guests," continued the socialite, who appreciated Dolley's vivacity: "Mrs. Madison was foe to dullness in every form, even when invested with the dignity which high ceremonial could bestow."

After Thomas Jefferson had served two terms, in 1809 he retired to his Monticello home. James Madison, Jefferson's only secretary of state, then assumed the presidency with Dolley as first lady. On the day of James' inauguration, one of Dolley's biographers asserts that "Dolley took the limelight away" from him for "she looked a queen." Not only did she seem radiant and regal in appearance but, said the Philadelphia socialite, "it would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did." She further observed that Dolley's "unassuming dignity, sweetness and grace" seemed to "disarm envy itself, and conciliate even enemies."

As first lady, Dolley Madison exercised social leadership in ways that most of her predecessors had not. She genuinely enjoyed Washington social life. Her regular Wednesday receptions became known as "Mrs. Madison's levees," and she made certain that all guests were properly greeted. Said one of her guests, "We have not forgotten how admirably the air of authority was softened by the smile of gaiety, and it is pleasing to recall a certain expression that must have been created by the happiness of all dispositions,—a wish to please and a willingness to be pleased."

Washington Irving described how with eager anticipation he looked forward to meeting Dolley Madison when he visited the nation's capital. "I arrived at the Inn about dusk," said the famous author, "and understanding that Mrs. Madison was to have her levee or drawing-room that very evening, I swore by all my gods I should be there." He told of his emergence "from dirt and darkness into the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison's drawing-room" where he "was most graciously received" by the first lady "who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody."

One reason for her popularity was that she was an excellent conversationalist with wide-ranging interests. Wrote a contemporary, "We remarked on the ease with which she glided herself into the stream of conversation and accommodated herself to its endless variety. In the art of conversation she is said to be distinguished."

While Dolley was first lady, Congress authorized the expenditure of $6,000 to refurbish the White House. She played a significant role in the planning and execution of this venture. Her tastes were reportedly "graceful, beautiful and harmonious." Her fondness for yellow was reflected in the satin and damask utilized in creating an elegant drawing room. The drabness of the president's home disappeared with the addition of "gorgeous mirrors," "elaborate mantelpieces," and "handsome oil lamps of the period."

Dolley Madison deliberately avoided partisan politics or "public business" as she called it. This does not mean, however, that she was politically insignificant. In fact, one critic of James Madison believed that DeWitt Clinton would have been chosen president in 1812 if it had not been for the first lady, who was more popular than her husband. Dolley's hospitality extended to political foes as well as friends. As the War of 1812 became more unpopular and came to be called "Mr. Madison's War" in some parts of the country, Dolley's composure and élan countered some of the negative feelings that some citizens had towards the war and the president.

After Dolley rescued the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, the British invaders burned the White House as well as other public buildings before retreating. Because the chief executive's mansion required extensive restorative work, the Madisons spent one year living in the Octagon House and then from October 1815 in a home located where Pennsylvania Avenue and Nineteenth Street merge.

James Madison's presidential term ended in March 1817, whereupon the Madisons returned to Montpellier. Until her husband died in 1836, Dolley seldom ventured forth from her Virginia home, though she continued to be the amiable hostess she had always been. It mattered little, it seemed, how many guests came and how long they stayed. One of her great joys in retirement was her garden which was filled with a variety of flowers. During these years, too, she tenderly cared for her husband's mother Nelly Conway Madison who also lived at Montpellier. Nelly Madison lived to be 98.

James Madison outlived his mother by only seven years, dying on June 28, 1836. In the fall of 1837, Dolley moved to Washington, where she lived for the rest of her life with her niece Anna Payne. As always, her door was ever open to guests that came to visit. Some of the well-known personages that passed her way included John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton ). President Martin Van Buren, a widower, often invited Dolley to the White House. On one occasion, she was accompanied by "a vivacious southern girl" who so "bewitched" the son of the president that he wooed and won her as his bride. Angelica Van Buren then served as the White House hostess much as Dolley had many years before. When John Tyler became president, his daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler , had charge of many social affairs, because the president's wife Letitia Tyler was a paralytic. The young Priscilla, somewhat intimidated by such responsibilities, sought out Dolley for advice which Dolley freely gave with no condescension.

In her last years, the former first lady was on the scene on some historic occasions. She was present, for example, when Samuel F. Morse demonstrated the electric telegraph. After the famous message "What hath God wrought" crackled over the wire from Baltimore to Washington, Morse turned to Dolley who was at his side for a return message. "Message from Mrs. Madison. She sends her love to Mrs. Wethered," was the response. (Mrs. Wethered was the wife of a member of the House living in Baltimore.) Along with President John Tyler and other important dignitaries, Madison was aboard the U.S.S. Princeton on February 28, 1844, when an accident occurred, killing the secretary of state, the secretary of the Navy, plus three others. On July 4, 1848, the cornerstone for the Washington Monument was laid, and Dolley was in attendance. She heard George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of America's first president, give the address.

Dolley Madison's life, however, was not unclouded. Her only son John Payne Todd was a ne'er-do-well constantly in need of financial aid. She never disowned him, often doing what she could to help him escape difficulties that he usually brought on himself. Financial problems often plagued her during these years. Thus, for $30,000, she sold to the federal government James Madison's manuscripts of debates in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, including those made during the 1787 constitutional convention. Later, for $25,000, she sold other James Madison papers to the government. She eventually was forced to sell Montpellier, the old Virginia estate, where she had lived with her husband for many years.

On March 4, 1849, President James K. Polk retired from the presidency; he scheduled one final reception for March 7. It proved to be not only the last of such social events during the Polk administration, but also the last time that Dolley Madison would be present for such an affair. Although now she was an old lady of more than 80 years, on this occasion she was reportedly sprightful as ever. In his diary, the president described the event and then concluded, "Towards the close of the evening I passed through the crowded rooms with the venerable Mrs. Madison on my arm. It was near 12 o'clock when the company retired."

Dolley Madison died four months later, on July 12, 1849. In the summer of 1845, she had formally joined the St. John's Church in Lafayette Square. In accepting her as a member, the rector, Smith Pyne, had written, "God bless you and keep you in His Holy Favor. Gladly will I enroll you in my list of candidates." On July 16, 1849, Dolley Madison's funeral service was conducted in this church by her longtime friend, Smith Pyne.


Anthony, Katharine. Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949.

Clark, Allen C. Life and Letters of Dolly Madison. Washington, DC: W.F. Roberts, 1914.

Cutts, Lucia Beverly. Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison, Wife of James Madison, President of the United States. Edited by her grandniece (Lucia B. Cutts ). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1886.

Dean, Elizabeth Lippincott. Dolly Madison: The Nation's Hostess. Boston, MA: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard, 1928.

Goodwin, Maud Wilder. Dolly Madison. NY: Scribner, 1896.

Moore, Virginia. The Madisons. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

suggested reading:

Arnett, Ethel. Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley. Greensboro, NC: Piedmont Press, 1972.

Barnard, Ella Kent. Dorothy Payne, Quakeress: A Sidelight upon the Career of "Dolly" Madison. Philadelphia: Ferris and Leach, 1909.

Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Emeritus, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan

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Madison, Dolley Payne (1768–1849)

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