Dolly (aka Dolley, Dollie) Madison was married to the fourth President of the United States, James Madison. Most Americans probably remember her for saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from British troops during the War of 1812, but she accomplished so much more during her 81 years. She was not immune to misfortune, however, experiencing many highs and lows. Through it all, she never lost her indomitable spirit and was always optimistic and considerate of others. Dolly Madison was an amazing lady and a true American hero.
Dolly defined the role of, and set precedents for, future presidential wives, and assisted her husband’s career through her popularity as the most important hostess in the US capital. She was a beautiful, vivacious woman who charmed all she met, and was also very politically astute. Much that Dolly did was intended to reflect the importance of the presidency in our Republic, and she contributed much to our young nation during some very turbulent times.
Dolly was born a Quaker (Society of Friends) in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1768. She was one of eight children, and the eldest daughter of Mary Coles and John Payne. The family moved to their plantation in Hanover County, Virginia when Dolly was 10 months old. She had little formal education and was mostly taught domestic skills, which was the customary training for girls.
John Payne served in the Revolutionary War and owned slaves, which made him a very unusual Quaker. However, in 1783, he freed his slaves and moved the family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where there was a large community of Quakers. Philadelphia exposed Dolly to a cosmopolitan environment which was very different to what she had previously known.
Unfortunately, Dolly’s, father suffered business failures and could not pay his debts, which resulted in his expulsion from the Quakers. These events caused him considerable emotional stress and depression, which probably contributed to his death in 1792.
At her father’s urging, Dolly had married lawyer and fellow Quaker John Todd, Jr. in 1790. This union produced two sons, Payne in 1792 and William in 1793. In the summer of 1793, a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia, so Dolly and the boys were sent to a suburban resort. Her husband delayed his departure from the city to care for his ill parents who both soon died from the fever. By the time John Todd rejoined his family, he was ill with the fever, and the fever killed him and son William on the same day. Dolly also contracted the fever but amazingly recovered. Compounding her woes, Dolly’s brother-in-law controlled the family estate and denied her the finances she needed. This was allowed because laws of the time severely restricted a widow’s right to control her deceased spouse’s estate.
In order to make ends meet, Dolly’s mother opened a boarding house in Philadelphia, but soon left that city to live with a daughter in Virginia. Dolly and son Payne remained in the city. During a Congressional session in Philadelphia (still capital of the USA) New York Senator Aaron Burr introduced Dolly to Virginia Representative James Madison. Madison had noticed this attractive widow who lived close to his boarding house, but he was too shy to introduce himself.
Madison was known for his intellect, not social graces. He was a small, frail man, about 5 feet 4 inches tall and barely weighing 100 pounds. He also suffered from various physical ailments, possibly including epilepsy. Though small in stature, Madison was a giant in American politics. He was known as the “author of the Constitution”.
Dolly was initially surprised by the interest of the “great little Madison”, but eventually responded to his obvious affection, and probably to the potential for security. It was a happy time for the couple who were receiving well-wishes from many, including President and Mrs. Washington. Dolly and James married on 15 September 1794 at the home of Dolly’s sister in Virginia. The wedding was lavish with a ball and feast. By all accounts this was a very happy marriage. They were opposites in personality but complemented each other forming a very close relationship.
Since James Madison was Episcopal, Dolly was expelled from the Quakers for marrying outside her faith. The expulsion apparently didn’t bother her too much because she discarded her plain clothing and began using make-up and wearing fashionable clothing that she became known for.
James Madison was appointed Secretary of State by President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and Dolly came into her own becoming a celebrated political wife and hostess. Jefferson was a widower, so Dolly became co-host for his receptions and other state affairs. She became a diplomat in a sense by helping to mend breaches in decorum that arose when dealing with foreign dignitaries. She also supported various charities and organized fundraising for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In 1808 James Madson campaigned for President against Charles Pinckney. Even though women’s involvement in politics was frowned on, Dolly gained support for James through the extensive networking she had developed. After his defeat, Pinckney stated “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”
Dolly was dazzling at James Madison’s first inauguration ball, which set the tone for her part in the administration. She established the president’s house as the social center of the capitol, and her social affairs were very helpful to the administration. In fact, they contributed to the development of a “more perfect Union.” The weekly affairs were open to all, and included politicians from both parties, which had never been done before because political differences were often very bitter and easily turned physical. Her strong social skills and kindness encouraged politicians to mingle, socialize, and discuss their differences peacefully. Dolly essentially helped develop early bipartisanship. She slighted no one, hurt no one’s feelings, often made friends out of enemies, and exhibited sound judgement and common sense. Henry Clay said: “Every one loves Mrs. Madison.”
Dolly set out to decorate the president’s house to reflect their tastes and to establish the mansion as a symbol of the presidency. However, the mansion and much of Washington would be destroyed by the British during the War of 1812.
Note: The following account of events during the burning of Washington has been disputed by some historians, but this version is the best known and certainly cannot be absolutely disproved. It is also the version that I believe.
The War of 1812 began as a mostly naval war, but in 1814 British ground forces were deployed in Maryland with the intention of destroying Washington and possibly capturing the Madison’s. President Madison had left the city to join the American troops, but despite admonitions from all those fleeing the city, Dolly stayed to supervise the evacuation of the president’s house. She had her personal carriage and a wagon she had procured that were being used to transport important papers and other valuables. As the British entered the city, Dolly was told to leave, but she said she would not let the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington fall into British hands.
The portrait was permanently attached to a wall, so she had the frame destroyed and the painting carefully removed. She gave the portrait to a servant for transport to safety. By this time, she was being pushed very hard to leave, and to every one’s relief, she was ready to go. The British occupied the mansion almost immediately. They had dinner, ransacked and pillaged the building, and then torched it.
The roads out of the city were choked with frantic refugees and during that first night many, including Dolly, stopped to watch the capital of the United States of America burn in the distance. She and her entourage went to a tavern that was to be the meeting place for James and Dolly. The President arrived but had to leave almost immediately because of rumors that the British knew of his location and were moving to capture him. Dolly promised to continue moving away from the city, but the next morning was informed that the British were retreating because they thought American reinforcements were moving to engage them. Dolly turned back to Washington but found the Potomac River bridge was burning. She finally convinced an American officer to row her across the river. The president’s house was a smoldering burned out shell, so she made her way to her sister’s home to await her husband.
The Madison’s returned to a Washington that had been pillaged and burned by the British, and further looted by locals. They moved to the Octagon House on New York Avenue, which became the temporary president’s house. Undaunted, Dolly immediately began hosting parties again determined to return to normal as soon as possible. Because of the extensive damage to official buildings, there was a strong movement in congress to move the seat of government back to Philadelphia. It is believed that Dolly’s opposition and determination that she related to her powerful friends helped convince congress to reject that plan.
In 1817, after James Madison’s second term, the family returned to the Madison plantation, Montpelier. They led a very active social life, entertaining friends and tourists with true southern hospitality. Mr. Madison still suffered from many health problems but busied himself with reading and writing. He was preparing his presidential papers in the hope that their sale would provide Dolly with a reliable income after his death. Their fortune had been severely depleted due to the debts incurred by Dolly’ son, Payne.
Dolly faced severe financial hardships after her husband’s death in 1836. Her neer-do-well son Payne’s continued bad conduct made the situation even worse. Payne had never taken up a career and continued to borrow extensively to finance his frivolous lifestyle. Payne was a deadbeat, and Dolly had to sell most of the remaining family property to pay his debtors. She was eventually rescued from financial ruin when congress purchased part of the Madison papers. Congress wisely established a trust for Dolly so that Payne could not get access to her money.
Dolly Madison moved back to the capital shortly after her husband’s death. She became the very busy grand dame of Washington. She was celebrated as the living connection to the founding fathers and was awarded an honorary seat in Congress. She was also chosen to be the first private citizen to transmit a telegraphic message. Because she had established a role for presidential wives, Dolly provided Julia Tyler and Sarah Polk with helpful advice.
Madison Home-Montpelier, Virginia
Death came to Dolly Madison in 1849, which ended a very auspicious and eventful life. She had been an influential figure in our young nation for 55 years. She is still admired today, although few know how much she contributed to our national identification. President Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolly Madison as the country’s “first lady”, the first known public use of that term, which is still in use today. Her death essentially ended the Revolutionary era of American history. Dolly was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, but was later reinterred beside her husband, James Madison, at Montpelier.