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Dolley Madison: The Fourth First Lady

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Bass Otis, Mrs. James Madison, ca. 1817. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

Bass Otis, Mrs. James Madison, ca. 1817. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

First Ladies are usually more beloved by the American people than their husbands. They serve many different roles, but their role as a social liaison is probably responsible for their popularity. Dolley Madison is known as one of the most personable and graceful hostesses in Washington.

Early Years

Dolley Payne was born in North Carolina in 1768 to John and Mary Payne. The Paynes returned to Virginia where they owned a plantation. Because John Payne was a Quaker, his conscience would not allow him to keep slaves, but he could not succeed as a plantation owner without slave labor. Thus, he freed his slaves, moved to Philadelphia and started a laundry starch business. Unfortunately, the business failed; Mrs. Payne then supported the family by opening a boarding house.

Dolley met and married John Todd in 1790. She gave birth to two sons; only one survived the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia. The surviving son, John Payne Todd, would cause his mother much heartache through his failure to support himself. He accumulated many debts but never put any effort into paying them. In October 1793, her husband also succumbed to yellow fever.

Marriage to James Madison

Dolley Payne Todd married James Madison in September 1794. Madison was a successful Virginia farmer and politician, who helped compose the Constitution. Although he was Episcopalian, Dolley agreed to marry him. They lived in a rented house in Philadelphia for the first years of their marriage. Dolley’s sister Anna lived with the Madisons. Madison took on the responsibility of being a father to Dolley’s young son, John Payne Todd.

During these early years of her marriage, Dolley began to learn about the life of a political wife, but her husband decided to retire from government after John Adams was elected president in 1796. The Madisons retired to Montpelier, the Madison plantation, located in the Piedmont area of Virginia. There, Dolley cared for her family, including her son and her sister. But in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president, Madison accepted Jefferson’s nomination to be his secretary of state, so the family moved to Washington, D. C., which had recently become the new capital.

A Political Wife

Dolley was a warm, charming, and gracious hostess as she served in the difficult new city of Washington. She quickly became part of the social scene, thriving as she entertained the elite. Even as she performed her duties as social hostess, she also found time to take an interest in the politics and diplomacy.

In 1805, Dolley experienced a medical problem involving her knee. She had to spend several months in Philadelphia to be cared for by Dr. Philip Syng Physick. This separation kept the Madisons apart but resulted in letters that reveal much about their marriage.

Becoming First Lady

In 1809, James Madison was elected president, and Dolley became first lady. Dolley Madison’s grace and vivaciousness once again served her well as she performed her duties as wife of a head of state.

Dolley's tenacity and resolve were severely tested during the War of 1812, when the British were marching on Washington. She was warned to leave the White House, but she insisted on preserving a number of important documents, including a portrait of George Washington. After she left the capital, the British burned the White House to the ground.

Retirement to Montpelier

After the Madisons left the presidency, they returned to Montpelier, where they spent the next 19 years of their happy marriage. After James died in 1836, Dolley eventually had to sell Montpelier to pay her son’s debts.

Dolley returned to Washington and lived via the generosity of friends. Despite her poverty, Dolley Madison continued to be a vivacious and gracious lady. She die on July 12, 1849, and at first she buried in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., but later she was re-interred on the Montpelier estate, Orange, Virginia.


Dolley Madison - Commemorative Stamp

Dolley Madison - Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 03, 2020:

Thank you, Alissa! Yes, Dolley was a fascinating character. It seems to me that the role of First Lady deserves more attention. They are usually interesting and accomplished women who serve the president's administration and the country is useful and important ways.

Alissa Rhyne from Tennessee on May 01, 2020:

Excellent article! Dolley Madison is one of my favorite first ladies! She was truly a remarkable woman.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 04, 2019:

Yes, I've always been impressed that she had the foresight to save the portrait of George Washington. So brave and historically significant!

The First Ladies are fascinating people with interesting and, in some cases, outstanding qualities. Researching them gives one a great perspective on the history of America.

Nice hearing from you, Louise! Have a blessed day!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 04, 2019:

This was very interesting to read. I've never heard of her before, but it sounds like she had a very interesting life.

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