|First Lady of the United States|
March 4, 1809 - March 4, 1817
|Martha Randolph (acting)|
May 20, 1768
(present-day Greensboro), ,
|Died||July 12, 1849 (aged 81)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Resting place||Montpelier, Virginia, U.S.|
|Father||John Payne Jr.|
Dolley Todd Madison (née Payne; May 20, 1768 - July 12, 1849) was the wife of James Madison, President of the United States from 1809 to 1817. She was noted for holding Washington social functions in which she invited members of both political parties, essentially spearheading the concept of bipartisan cooperation, albeit before that term was in use, in the United States. While, previously, founders such as Thomas Jefferson would only meet with members of one party at a time, and politics could often be a violent affair resulting in physical altercations and even duels, Madison helped to create the idea that members of each party could amicably socialize, network, and negotiate with each other without resulting in violence. By innovating political institutions as the wife of James Madison, Dolley Madison did much to define the role of the President's spouse, known only much later by the title First Lady--a function she had sometimes performed earlier for the widowed Thomas Jefferson.
Dolley also helped to furnish the newly constructed White House. When the British set fire to it in 1814, she was credited with saving the classic portrait of George Washington; she directed her personal slave Paul Jennings to save it. In widowhood, she often lived in poverty, partially relieved by the sale of her late husband's papers.
The first girl in her family, Dolley Payne was born on May 20, 1768, in the Quaker settlement of "New Garden" within (present-day Greensboro), , to Mary Coles and John Payne, Jr., both Virginians who had moved to North Carolina in 1765. Mary Coles, a Quaker, had married John Payne, a non-Quaker, in 1761. Three years later, he applied and was admitted to the Quaker Monthly Meeting in Hanover County, Virginia, where Coles' parents lived. He became a fervent follower and they reared their children in the Quaker faith.
In 1769, the Paynes had returned to Virginia and young Dolley grew up at her parents' plantation in rural eastern Virginia and became deeply attached to her mother's family. Eventually, she had three sisters (Lucy, Anna, and Mary) and four brothers (Walter, William Temple, Isaac, and John).
In 1783, following the American Revolutionary War, John Payne emancipated his slaves, as did numerous slaveholders in the Upper South. Some, like Payne, were Quakers, who had long encouraged manumission; others were inspired by revolutionary ideals. From 1782 to 1810, the proportion of free blacks to the total black population in Virginia increased from less than one percent to 7.2 percent, and more than 30,000 blacks were free.
When Dolley was 15, Payne moved his family to Philadelphia, where he went into business as a starch merchant, but the business had failed by 1791. This was seen as a "weakness" at his Quaker meetings, for which he was expelled. He died in October 1792 and Mary Payne initially made ends meet by opening a boardinghouse, but the next year she took her two youngest children, Mary and John, and moved to western Virginia to live with her daughter Lucy and her new husband, George Steptoe Washington, a nephew of George Washington.
In January 1790, Dolley Payne married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia. They quickly had two sons, John Payne (called Payne) and William Temple (born July 4, 1793). After Mary Payne left Philadelphia in 1793, Dolley's sister Anna Payne moved in with them to help with the children.
In August 1793, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia, killing 5,019 people in four months. Dolley was hit particularly hard, losing her husband, son William, mother-in-law, and father-in-law.
While undergoing the loss of much of her family, she also had to take care of her surviving son without financial support. While her husband had left her money in his will, the executor, her brother-in-law, withheld the funds and she had to sue him for what she was owed.
Despite Dolley's weakened position after the death of most of her male relatives, she was still considered a beautiful woman and was living in the temporary capital of the United States, Philadelphia. While her mother went to live with another married daughter, Dolley caught the eye of James Madison, who then represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. While remarrying would have been crucial for her, as keeping herself and her child on the income that a woman could earn would have been challenging, it is reported that she did seem to genuinely care for James.
Some sources state that Aaron Burr, a longtime friend of Madison's since their student days at the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton University), stayed at a rooming house where Dolley also resided, and it was Aaron's idea to introduce the two. In May 1794, Burr made the formal introduction between the young widow and Madison, who at 43 was a longstanding bachelor 17 years her senior. A brisk courtship followed and, by August, Dolley accepted his marriage proposal. As he was not a Quaker, she was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying outside her faith, after which Dolley began attending Episcopal services. Despite her Quaker upbringing, there is no evidence that she disapproved of James as a slaveholder. They were married on September 15, 1794, and lived in Philadelphia for the next three years.
In 1797, after eight years in the House of Representatives, James Madison retired from politics. He returned with his family to Montpelier, the Madison family plantation in Orange County, Virginia. There they expanded the house and settled in. When Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States in 1800, he asked Madison to serve as his Secretary of State. Madison accepted and moved Dolley, her son Payne, her sister Anna, and their domestic slaves to Washington on F Street. They took a large house, as Dolley believed that entertaining would be important in the new capital.
Dolley worked with the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to furnish the White House, the first official residence built for the president of the United States. She sometimes served as widower Jefferson's hostess for official ceremonial functions. Dolley would become a crucial part of the Washington social circle, befriending the wives of numerous diplomats like Sarah Martinez de Yrujo, wife of the ambassador of Spain, and Marie-Angelique Turreau, the wife of the French ambassador. Her charm precipitated a diplomatic crisis, called the Merry Affair, after Jefferson escorted Dolley to the dining room instead of the wife of Anthony Merry, English diplomat to the U.S., in a major faux pas.
In the approach to the 1808 presidential election, with Thomas Jefferson ready to retire, the Democratic-Republican caucus nominated James Madison to succeed him. He was elected President, serving two terms from 1809 to 1817, and Dolley became the official White House hostess. Dolley helped to define the official functions, decorated the Executive Mansion, and welcomed visitors in her drawing room. She was renowned for her social graces and hospitality, and contributed to her husband's popularity as president. She was the only First Lady given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress, and the first American to respond to a telegraph message. In 1812, James was re-elected. This was the year that the War of 1812 began with Great Britain. After sending diplomat and poet Joel Barlow to Europe to discuss the Berlin Decree and the controversial Orders-in-Council, James Madison would deliver his war request to Congress.
After the United States declared war in 1812 and attempted to invade Canada in 1813, a British force attacked Washington in 1814. As it approached and the White House staff hurriedly prepared to flee, Dolley ordered the Stuart painting, a copy of the Lansdowne portrait, to be saved, as she wrote in a letter to her sister at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of August 23:
Our kind friend Mr. Carroll has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor 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. The 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. On handing the canvas to the gentlemen in question, Messrs. Barker and Depeyster, Mr. Sioussat cautioned them against rolling it up, saying that it would destroy the portrait. He was moved to this because Mr. Barker started to roll it up for greater convenience for carrying.
Popular accounts during and after the war years tended to portray Dolley as the one who removed the painting, and she became a national heroine. Early twentieth-century historians noted that Jean Pierre Sioussat had directed the servants, many of whom were slaves, in the crisis, and that house slaves were the ones who actually preserved the painting.
Dolley Madison hurried away in her waiting carriage, along with other families fleeing the city. They went to Georgetown and the next day they crossed over the Potomac into Virginia. When the danger receded after the British left Washington a few days later, she returned to the capital to meet her husband. However, the rampant pillaging and systematic destruction had desolated much of the new city. As Congress began discussions over the construction of a new capital, Dolley and James moved into The Octagon House.
On April 6, 1817, a month after his retirement from the presidency, Dolley and James Madison returned to the Montpelier plantation in Orange County, Virginia.
In 1830, Dolley's son Payne Todd, who had never found a career, went to debtors' prison in Philadelphia and the Madisons sold land in Kentucky and mortgaged half of the Montpelier plantation to pay his debts.
James died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836. Dolley remained at Montpelier for a year. Her niece Anna Payne moved in with her, and Todd came for a lengthy stay. During this time, Dolley organized and copied her husband's papers. Congress authorized $55,000 as payment for editing and publishing seven volumes of the Madison papers, including his unique notes on the 1787 convention.
In the fall of 1837, Dolley returned to Washington, charging Todd with the care of the plantation. She and her sister Anna moved into a house, bought by Anna and her husband Richard Cutts, on Lafayette Square. Madison took Paul Jennings with her as a butler, and he was forced to leave his family in Virginia.
While Dolley Madison was living in Washington, Payne Todd was unable to manage the plantation, due to alcoholism and related illness. She tried to raise money by selling the rest of the president's papers. She agreed to sell Jennings to Daniel Webster, who allowed him to gain his freedom by paying him through work.
Unable to find a buyer for the papers, she sold Montpelier, its remaining slaves, and the furnishings to pay off outstanding debts.
Paul Jennings, the former slave of the Madisons, later recalled in his memoir,
In the last days of her life, before Congress purchased her husband's papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom of her.
In 1842, Dolley Madison joined St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. This church was attended by other members of the Madison and Payne families.
On February 28, 1844, Madison was with President John Tyler while aboard the USS Princeton when a "Peacemaker" cannon exploded in the process of being fired. While Secretaries of State and Navy Abel P. Upshur and Thomas Walker Gilmer, Tyler's future father-in-law David Gardiner and three others were killed, President Tyler and Dolley Madison escaped unharmed.
In the past, biographers and others stated that her given name was Dorothea, after her aunt, or Dorothy, and that Dolley was a nickname. But her birth was registered with the New Garden Friends Meeting as Dolley, and her will of 1841 states "I, Dolly P. Madison". Based on manuscript evidence and the scholarship of recent biographers, Dollie, spelled "ie", appears to have been her given name at birth. On the other hand, the print press, especially newspapers, tended to spell it "Dolly": for example, the Hallowell (Maine) Gazette, 8 February 1815, p. 4, refers to how the Congress had allowed "Madame Dolly Madison" an allowance of $14,000 to purchase new furniture; and the New Bedford (MA) of 3 March 1837, p. 2 referred to a number of important papers from her late husband, and said that "Mrs. Dolly Madison" would be paid by the Senate for these historical manuscripts. Several magazines of that time also used the "Dolly" spelling, such as The Knickerbocker, February 1837, p. 165; as did many popular magazines of the 1860s-1890s. She was referred to as "Mistress Dolly" in an essay from Munsey's Magazine in 1896. Her grandniece Lucia Beverly Cutts, in her Memoirs and letters of Dolly Madison: wife of James Madison, president of the United States (1896) uses "Dolly" consistently throughout.