Dolley Madison is one of the most treasured and popular first ladies in American history. However most of her story has been clouded with half truths and urban legend.
This week, I dive into the life and times of Madison and try to get behind some of the myths surrounding the famous first lady.
“Announcement of Mrs. Madison’s Death.” National Intelligencer. July 14, 1849. The Dolley Madison Project: Virginia Center for Digital History. (LINK)
Aron, Paul. “Eternally Yours.” Colonial Williamsburg, February 5, 2020. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/trend-tradition-magazine/trend-tradition-winter-2019/eternally-yours/
“Becoming America’s First Lady.” Montpelier. (LINK)
“Dolley Payne Todd to Eliza Collins Lee, 16 September 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 15, 24 March 1793 – 20 April 1795, ed. Thomas A. Mason, Robert A. Rutland, and Jeanne K. Sisson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985, pp. 357–358.] (LINK)
“Dolley Madison.” Miller Center. University of Virginia. (LINK)
“First Lady Biography: Dolley Madison.” National First Ladies’ Library. (LINK)
Fleming, Thomas. When Dolley Madison Took Command of the White House. Smithsonian Magazine. March 2010. (LINK)
Howat, Kenna. “Dolley Madison.” Women's History Museum. 2018. (LINK)
Scofield, Merry Ellen. “Unraveling the Dolley Myths.” White House Historical Association. (LINK)
Smith, Rodney K. Dolley and James Madison: An Unlikley Love Story that Saved America. Denver: Outskirts Press, 2019.
Stewart, David O. “The Surprising Raucous Home Life of the Madisons.” Smithsonian Magazine. February 10, 2015. (LINK)
Wills, Garry. James Madison. New York: Times Books, 2002.
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps, welcome back.
Last week I dove into the presidency of the father of the constitution, James Madison. I posed the question about whether you thought his presidency was a success, a dud or somewhere in between. I also mentioned that we would talk about the woman who meant so much to him, his wife and partner, Dolley Todd Madison in the next episode.
Known as America’s first first lady, Dolley Madison was everything her husband wasn’t; tall, extroverted and the life of a party. But she was much more than just Madison’s wife and often her story is mixed in American myth. So this week, I am going to dive into the life and impact of Dolley Todd Madison.
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Dolley Payne was born in New Garden, North Carolina on May 20, 1768 and was the third of nine children. She was raised in a Quaker household where women enjoyed a bit more autonomy than the rest of the country, thanks to the religion’s belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God. From an early age, Dolley watched as her mother, Mary Coles Payne, acted in a position of leadership in their church.
In 1769, the family moved to Virginia where Dolley would spend her formative years. Later in life, Dolley would hold onto Virginia as her birthright and downplay her North Carolinian heritage. The family settled on a 176 acre farm and Dolley was raised primarily by an enslaved woman known as “Mother Amy.”
Though a part of a progressive religion and community, Dolley was still a woman and therefore had limited opportunities for education. Her father, John Payne, struggled financially throughout her youth, though he made efforts to hide the family’s plight as long as he could. While he started out as a planter in the south, he eventually moved the family to Philadelphia when Dolley was 15 in an effort to reinvent himself as a manufacturer. This business venture did not turn into the success he was hoping and he proceeded to go into further unpayable debts.
Eventually Payne was forced to file for bankruptcy putting his membership in the local Quaker meeting house community in jeopardy. Failure to pay debts was a faux pas for Quakers and John eventually lost his leadership position within the church.
Dolley, who stood 5’6 with blue eyes and black hair was socially affable at a young age. This was perhaps an unintended result of living in a household where her father struggled to provide for the family; Dolley, perhaps feeling pressure, may have turned to humor and social graces as a way to ensure a successful future, attempting to attract the right suitor who could provide financial security. Her charms and graces seemed to pay off for she attracted the attention of a local Quaker lawyer, John Todd, Jr.
Smitten with the young Dolley, John proposed marriage but Dolley demurred and declined his proposal. Not one to give up, he proposed a second time and Dolley changed her mind and accepted. They were married on January 7, 1790 at the Quaker Pine Street Meeting house in front of their congregation. A young bride, Dolley gave birth to their first son in 1792 when John Payne Todd was born on February 29th. This was followed quickly by their second son William, who was born on independence day in 1793.
Shortly after William’s birth, their home of Philadelphia experienced an outbreak of Yellow Fever and the city was quickly consumed with patients. Trying to escape the threat of the fever, John moved Dolley and their two children to Grey’s Ferry south of the city. However, John had to maintain his law practice and stayed behind in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, John caught the fever and by the time he made it out to stay with his family, he was suffering from the illness. Dolley could do nothing as first her husband, then her youngest William, began to suffer symptoms from the illness and struggle to survive. In what I can only imagine as the worst possible day, Dolley lost both her husband John and William from yellow fever within hours of each other when they died on October 23, 1793. Dolley was just twenty five.
Devastated at losing her husband and son at such a young age, Dolley sought refuge with her sister, who invited her to regain her strength at Harewood, the estate of her and her husband, Samuel Washington, eldest brother of some guy who would go on to be president. Multiple marriages was a common practice of the time and so it was fairly normal for a young widow to remarry quickly after losing a spouse. But Quaker faith mandated that Dolley grieve her spouse for a full year before seeking a second marriage.
After winning a contested will battle with the Todd family, Dolley found herself in a position of having to sell assets to help pay her debts and offset her expenses. By chance, she met a man named Aaron Burr who would introduce her to her future husband, James Madison. Upon hearing that Madison wished to meet, Dolley wrote in a letter to Eliza Collins, quote, “Dear friend, thou must come to me. Aaron Burr says the great little Madison has asked to be brought to see me this evening.” end quote.
By 1794, Madison was a prominent political figure and Dolley likely knew of the man’s reputation. At the time of their meeting, Madison was serving in the Third Congress of the United States in Philadelphia. Upon the terms end on June 1st, Madison made arrangements to return to his family’s property Monteplier (mont pill yer ) in Virginia. However, he was quite taken with the young widow and sent a request that she make the trip and join he and his family at the compound. In a letter written on his behalf to Dolley, Catherine Coles wrote that Madison, quote “thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue. At night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed and he hopes that your heart will be callous to every other swain but himself.” end quote.
Details of their courtship are scarce, however whatever Madison said and did must have left quite the impression on Dolley. Despite the age difference of seventeen years and the fact that Dolley had not adequately grieved by her religious custom, James Madison and Dolley Payne Todd were married at Harewood on September 15th, 1794. Stealing a few moments to herself on her wedding day, Dolley again wrote to her friend Eliza, saying quote, “in the cource of this day I give my Hand to the Man who of all other’s I most admire. You will not be at a loss to know who this is as I have been long ago gratify’d In haveing your approbation. In this Union I have every thing that is soothing and greatful in prospect—& my little Payne will have a generous & tender protector.” end quote.
After their nuptials, Madison retired from Congress, determined to live out his life on the family estate and manage the farm. Dolley moved into the large mansion, sharing the space with her father and mother in law. From the sources available, it appears as though Dolley and the original Mrs. Madison, Nelly, got along quite well. Their time spent at Monteplier did not last long. In 1800 as Jefferson was elected to the presidency, he asked his friend and political ally to join the administration as Secretary of State.
Unable to secure adequate housing, the Madisons initially joined Jefferson in the presidential mansion where Dolley proved what knack she had for social events, conversing with both friends and enemies of the administration and gaining their trust and respect. Perhaps it was this natural ability that prompted Jefferson to ask Dolley to assist in receiving visitors as hostess during some events.
And here is the first popular myth about Dolley Madison. While she definitely assisted Jefferson in a number of White House receptions, she was not the only wife to do so. Jefferson circulated through the wives of cabinet members to assist in hosting official dinners. The lore of her impact and serving in Jefferson’s administration as official hostess is what led to some referring to her as the first First Lady; alas, there is some debate in the historical community as to just who should wear that crown.
Though she may not have been the official hostess of Jefferson’s White House, Dolley made the most of her opportunities, expanding her social circle and working with Jefferson to follow established protocols and etiquette when receiving members of other nations. While Jefferson infamously cultivated a more casual look and tone, Dolley understood the importance of ensuring the new country made the right impression and worked within the confines of her place to ensure the work was done correctly.
An infamous example of Dolley’s abilities was her success in diffusing what was seen as a major slight when Jefferson escorted Dolley during a state dinner with Great Britain, and not the wife of the British ambassador as was custom. Though she was unsuccessful in initially convincing Jefferson to follow tradition, she was able to mitigate the damage by working within her network to pass along messages of apology, likely preventing an international incident.
While her husband Madison worked on international relations as Secretary of State, Dolley did her part domestically, filling in as hostess as needed to impress foreign heads of state. She worked meticulously to plan extravagant receptions that would make representatives of other countries take notice of the newly formed nation.
Dolley’s status as the wife of a cabinet member and her ability to put people at ease and make everyone feel welcome made her one of the most popular women in the capital. Of course, as a woman married to a man in politics, Dolley became political fodder for critics of the Jefferson administration and those who were against her husband seeking to replace him as president.
In the run up to the election of her husband, rumors circulated about Dolley and James’ marriage; more pointedly, their lack of children. Foes claimed the Madison marriage was childless due to James Madison’s impotence. Since the decorum of the time was to not be seen as actively campaigning for a position, Madison could do little to defend his marriage or his wife, lest he be seen as engaging in political jockeying.
Though they tried, the efforts to smear Madison by attacking his wife were unsuccessful. Madison won the presidency handedly and even his opponents were aware of Dolley’s positive impact. In the aftermath of the election, Governor Pinkney said of Dolley, quote: “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”
Dolley was the first wife known to attend the inauguration of her newly elected husband and later became referred to as “Presidentress.” In a mood to celebrate and with years of Washington experience now under her belt, Dolley planned a presidential inaugural ball. Here is another myth about Mrs. Madison that is filled with only part of the story. While Dolley was in fact the first presidential spouse to plan a ball, it wasn’t the first one ever held. George Washington had a ball thrown in his honor in 1789. However, Dolley should get some credit since thanks to her planning, balls are now held on inauguration day, a tradition she started.
Prior to her tenure at the White House, there wasn’t an identifiable role for the wife of the president. Both of her predecessors were uninterested in public life and were fiercely protective of their spouses. While they held the public receptions as was custom, Dolley was the first to really embrace the role. She was naturally gifted in walking the political high wire and better able to separate the political from the personal. This ability allowed her to be successful in carving out a public space for herself and provided her husband an extra benefit from her innate talents.
One of the most famous stories involving Dolley Madison is her saving of the George Washington portrait as the British laid siege to Washington, DC in their quest to burn the capitol city. Though the portrait was physically removed and saved by the enslaved individual Paul Jennings, Dolley did indeed give the order as she was preparing to vacate the premises saying quote, “note yet - the portrait of Washington - it shall never fall into the hands of the enemy. That must be taken away before I leave the house.” end quote.
And while this is an amazing story, I for one found myself most impressed with her willingness to stay in the White House despite the ongoing military engagement occurring just miles from the presidential mansion. Even as militiamen abandoned post and citizens of the city fled, Dolley was determined to wait until her husband returned safely. Madison, who had ridden to the front lines of the approaching army, issued a warning to his wife saying quote, “run for your life or be taken prisoner by the British.”
True partners, James and Dolley discussed what she should do should the time come for her to vacate the mansion. Madison asked his wife to prioritize grabbing state papers before making her exit. Dolley, though determined to stay until the last second, fulfilled her husband’s wishes and secured the documents in trunks placed safely in covered wagons destined for the outskirts of the city. On her way out of the mansion, Dolley also noticed a copy of the declaration of independence sitting in a glass case and made sure to place it in another trunk.
After Madison retired from the presidency in 1817, both he and Dolley returned to the family plantation in Virginia to care for his ailing mother Nelley Conway Madison who stayed in one wing of the large estate while Dolley and James made residence in another wing. Dolley cared for her ailing mother in-law until her death in 1829.
Seven years after his mother passed away, James Madison died on June 28, 1836 at the age of 85. Dolley was so distraught at the loss of her husband and partner that she reportedly did not attend the service. In his will, Madison left Dolley in charge of his estate and wished for his remaining assets to be used to provide support and maintenance for her for the remainder of her lifetime.
However, debts mounted and Dolley quickly became impoverished. The one thing Madison banked on - the notes he took during the Constitutional Convention - to provide a large enough windfall for Dolley failed to generate the price he hoped. This is partially a result of Dolley’s son Payne who was inept at negotiating a fair and equitable price for the historic papers. While Madison preferred Dolley free the family slaves, she instead sold them in an effort to pay off debts.
Her finances became so dire that she was forced to sell the Monteplier estate and move from the family plantation into what is known today as the Dolley Madison house on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. The house still stands today and is currently used as an office building.
Hearing of Dolley’s hardship, Congress passed a resolution approving a payment of $30,000 for James Madison’s remaining notes of the convention in 1837. Her debts were so large at this point that most of the stipend she received went straight to her creditors. Even a former slave, Paul Jennings, was moved enough to provide what he could to assist Dolley in her retirement.
Celebrated as a pioneer for women in politics, Congress passed a resolution in 1844 granting America's first lady a quote “seat within the hall.” This seat allowed Dolley to sit in the house of representatives and listen as congressmen conducted the business of the nation. She was also an honorary chair of a women’s group, tasked with raising funds to help build the Washington Monument.
In her final years as elder stateswomen, Dolley got to send the nation’s first telegram in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore. And while the honorary titles were enjoyed by Madison, what she needed was money. In 1848, Congress passed a final resolution providing another appropriation to Dolley in the amount of $25,000 for the remaining volumes of her husband’s papers. Aware that her son Payne was less than trustworthy with money, the endowment was placed into a trust of sorts, precluding Payne from gaining access and wasting it away.
Dolley passed away in her home on July 12, 1849 at the age of 81. She was laid to rest next to her husband on the family estate in Virginia. In an announcement of her death published in the National Intelligencer, the author highlighted why she was so cherished writing quote: “Beloved by all who personally knew her, and universally respected, this venerable Lady closed her long and well spent-spent life with calm resignation with goodness of heart and combined with piety only can impart.”
Dolley enjoyed a fine reputation throughout her lifetime and continues to be one of the most popular first ladies in American history.
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Thanks for being awesome peeps. See you next week.
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