Dolley Madison: The Nation's "First" Lady.
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Monday marks the beginning of Women’s History Month 2021. The focus of this blog is always history, and so, we do not usually theme our posts around things such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, Black History Month, etc. However, today we have a subject that so totally exemplifies the impact of women on the history of our country that we cannot fail to feature it as a fitting “kick-off” to Women’s History Month 2021 – Dolley Madison.
Celebrated in her time for her beauty, style, charisma, bravery, and quick-wittedness during the War of 1812, Dolley Madison’s most significant contribution was more subtle and more consciously political. When she arrived on the scene in Washington, politics was a rough game: physical fights, shouting matches, stony silences, even duels. The United States had its Constitution and Bill of Rights, but it was not clear how actual people were to do the nation’s work. The idea of bipartisan cooperation did not exist; there was not even a word for it. But Dolley Madison understood that warring factions needed a safe place to come together, and that social life, especially with women present, would require good behavior from all. In this setting, even enemies could have an informal conversation and quietly look for common ground.
Mary Coles, a Quaker, married John Payne, Jr., a non-Quaker, in 1761. Three years later, he applied for admission to the Quaker Monthly Meeting in Hanover County, Virginia. The Meeting approved his application, and he became a fervent follower of Quakerism. In 1765, Mary and John, moved to the Quaker settlement of “New Garden” in Guilford County, North Carolina where, on 20 May 1768, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who they named Dolley. In the past, biographers and others claimed that her given name was Dorothea, after her aunt, or Dorothy, and that Dolley was a nickname. However, her birth was registered with the New Garden Friends Meeting as Dolley, and her will of 1841 states "I, Dolly P. Madison". In looking at documentary sources, we find it spelled as Dollie, Dolly, and Dolley but no reference to Dorothea or Dorothy.
By 1769, the Paynes had returned to Virginia and young Dolley grew up at her parents' plantation in rural eastern Virginia. The family grew until eventually, she had three sisters (Lucy, Anna, and Mary) and four brothers (Walter, William Temple, Isaac, and John).
In 1783, when Dolley was 15, John Payne emancipated his slaves, as did many southern Quaker slaveholders, and moved his family to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, John Payne went into business as a starch merchant but, by 1791 the business failed, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. While the exact details are not known, John’s failure was viewed as a "weakness" among his Quaker brethren, and he was expelled from the Pine Street Monthly Meeting “for failure to pay his debts”. He died in October 1792. Mary Payne initially made ends meet by opening a boardinghouse but ended up returning to western Virginia with her two youngest children.
In January 1790, Dolley Payne married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer in Philadelphia. The Todd’s’ first son, named Payne, was born in 1791, and a second son, William, followed in 1793. In the late summer of that year, yellow fever hit Philadelphia, killing 5,019 people in four months before wintry weather ended the epidemic. Dolley lost four members of her family: her father-in-law, her mother-in-law, and then, on the same October day, her husband and three-month-old William. While undergoing the loss of much of her family, she found herself trying to take care of her surviving son without financial support. Although her husband had left her money in his will, the executor of his estate, her brother-in-law, withheld the funds and she had to sue him for what was rightfully hers. In the immediate aftermath of the yellow fever epidemic, she had, according to her worried mother, only $19, many debts, and the unpaid bill for her baby’s funeral. Like many American women, Dolley faced extreme emotional loss and financial strain at the same time.
Philadelphia was then the nation’s temporary capital and its most sophisticated city. Dolley, even in her despair, was a beautiful woman who caught the eye of many men, including a Virginia Congressman named James Madison. She certainly wanted and needed to remarry, since supporting herself, Anna, and Payne as a single woman would have seemed next to impossible, and in many cases a woman in this situation would have jumped at the opportunity to remarry someone of wealth and status. In this case, however, she seemed to genuinely care for the man she called “the great little Madison”. Dolley and James Madison were married in September 1794, less than a year after her first husband’s death. Because she had, in the opinion of the Quakers, married too soon, and outside of the Quaker faith, Dolley, was “read out” from Meeting. From then on, she attended Episcopal services with James, and later complained about her rigid Quaker upbringing. There is no evidence that, despite her childhood faith, she disapproved of the Madisons as slaveholders. After all, her father had owned slaves, and his decision to free them had almost destroyed the family. Even though slavery was not a point of contention between them, James Madison was still an odd match for Dolley. A shy, wealthy bachelor of 43, he was famous as the man who drafted the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, Dolley was a widowed mother who charmed everyone she met.
By all accounts, theirs was a good marriage, and a powerful political partnership. When James’s adversary, John Adams, won the Presidency in 1796, the Madisons moved from Philadelphia to Montpelier, James Madison’s tobacco plantation. In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson won the Presidency, they moved again, this time to the nation’s unfinished new capital, Washington City. Because Jefferson was widowed, Dolley often cohosted events at the White House if women were present. This gave her first-hand insight into the political questions that plagued Washington and generated much of the in-fighting. How big should the federal government be? How do we get the nation’s work done? How do we avoid producing our own brand of tyranny? Democratic-Republicans like James Madison and President Jefferson tended to come from the slave-holding South and valued tradition. They conflicted sharply with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and other Northerners who focused on cities and manufacturing. Beginning when James Madison was Secretary of State, the Madisons often entertained crowds and their home on F Street became the center of Washington’s social life.
When James Madison won the Presidency in 1808, on the day of James’ inauguration, Dolley began the process of defining the position of First Lady of the United States - the American equivalent of the queen married to the reigning monarch. She chose a gown of beige velvet and wore a turban with a feather. For accessories he wore the most American of jewelry, pearls. Pearls were a major statement. A British aristocrat, male or female, encrusted himself in diamonds but Dolley Madison wore pearls rather than diamonds. By American standards, her dress was elegant, even regal; by European standards it was far too simple and plain. It was a statement of American republican leadership: fit for a new nation while good enough to meet the diplomats representing the world’s powers. The Madison presidency also began with an inaugural ball — the first ever held in Washington. This inaugural ball would be vastly different from the somber formal occasions of earlier administrations. Dolley wanted to include a true cross-section of her countrymen and although 400 people were invited, in fact anyone who could afford the $4 price of a ticket could attend. For some gentlemen this was a bit of a shock, to find themselves sipping cider next to a humble farmer or small businessperson. But for Dolley, it was important to show that all were welcome, that this was a country where everyone was equal.
Dolley began to decorate the White House, working with the famous architect Benjamin Latrobe and her old friend, his wife, Elizabeth Hazlehurst Latrobe. Dolley required that the furnishings be American made. The chairs and sofas incorporated Grecian and Roman motifs. The symbolic meaning was clear: Americans were the heirs of democracy’s creators.
Dolley soon brought big get-togethers back to the White House. But they were not the sedate affairs of earlier years. According to reports they were fun, noisy, and relaxed and so popular and crowded that they came to be known as “squeezes”. Elegantly dressed for the occasion, Dolley made introductions where needed and kept cordial conversations going, even between enemies. Her events were important because they were not simply parties. By supplying an environment where officials could meet socially, regularly, across their divisions, she helped create an informal but essential political culture.
The biggest crisis faced by the Madison administration was the War of 1812. Mrs. Madison’s activities throughout the War were those of peace, trying to decrease the bitter feelings between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. In August 1814, the British landed troops thirty-five miles from Washington. Dolley wrote that,
“The British sent word that unless I leave Washington, my house will be burned over my head and I will be taken hostage and paraded through the streets of London. . . . I may be a Quaker, but I have always supported the principle of fighting when attacked. And I keep my old Tunisian saber within reach at all times”.
The Madisons, being aware of the threat to the city of a British invasion, made prearranged plans to escape if the British attacked. On Tuesday, August 23rd, Dolley received two letters from her husband saying that the British were likely to overrun the American positions and enter the city. Dolley wrote to her sister Anna that:
“I have pressed as many Cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation”.
The next day, she again wrote to Anna saying:
“Three o’clock – Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly. . . . At this late hour, a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house. . . . .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, . . . 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 of New York, for safe keeping”.
James Madison's personal enslaved attendant, the fifteen-year-old boy Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness. Later, after buying his freedom from the widow Dolley Madison, Jennings published his memoir in 1865, describing the activities at the White House that day:
Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual; I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all the Cabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected. While waiting, at just about 3, as Sukey, the house-servant, was lolling out of a chamber window, James Smith, a free colored man who had accompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg, gallopped up to the house, waving his hat, and cried out, "Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!" All then was confusion. Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage, and passing through the dining-room, caught up what silver she could crowd into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into the chariot with her servant girl Sukey, and Daniel Carroll, who took charge of them; Jo. Bolin drove them over to Georgetown Heights; the British were expected in a few minutes. Mr. Cutts, her brother-in-law, sent me to a stable on 14th street, for his carriage. People were running in every direction. John Freeman (the colored butler) drove off in the coachee with his wife, child, and servant; also a feather bed lashed on behind the coachee, which was all the furniture saved, except part of the silver and the portrait of Washington (of which I will tell you by-and-by).
Jennings goes on to say, about the Washington portrait:
It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President's gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President's party.
Jennings memoir was in no way trying to denigrate Dolley Madison as he says of her:
Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. Whenever soldiers marched by, during the war, she always sent out and invited them in to take wine and refreshments, giving them liberally of the best in the house. Madeira wine was better in those days than now, and more freely drank. 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 (Daniel Webster – ed.), 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 needed, 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.
With the public buildings, the Navy Yard, the Rope Walks, the Capitol Building and the Executive Mansion all in flames, panic filled the city. Rumors came and went that the whole city was to be put to fire and the sword. Only hours after the attack began, a sudden, very heavy thunderstorm put out the fires. It also spun off a tornado that passed through the center of the capital, setting down on Constitution Avenue, lifting two cannons before dropping them several yards away, and killing British troops and American civilians alike. Following the storm, the British troops returned to their ships, many of which were severely damaged. Whatever the case, the British occupation of Washington lasted only about 26 hours.
The capital was in ruins, and now there was serious talk of abandoning Washington forever. The city of Philadelphia was offering them good old Independence Hall, and they could go back to the comforts of a civilized capital. It was very tempting, and the first vote in Congress was very heavily in favor of moving out. Dolley Madison understood that Washington was an important symbol, and she strongly felt that to go back to Philadelphia, tail between legs, was in some ways a concession to the British. She was not going to see Congress walk out of this place.
When the Madisons returned to Washington, in September 1814, they moved into the Octagon House, a mansion owned by John Tayloe situated close to the White House, and immediately began to give parties. The whole message of these dinner parties was “do not abandon Washington”. Dolley made it clear to members of Congress that she had no intention of abandoning Washington, and she took tangible measures to make clear to everyone that she believed in the future of Washington. Dolley championed the establishment of an asylum for girls left orphaned by the war, becoming the original First Lady to adopt a charitable cause. She was also the first directress of the asylum, giving $20 and a cow and offering to cut patterns for the clothes for the girls. Due to Dolley’s efforts, by a very narrow margin, nine votes, Congress decided to stay put in Washington, to return to this ravaged city and to rebuild.
The Madison’s resided at The Octagon House until March 1815 when they moved to the townhouse located at 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue for the rest of the Madison Presidency. This building was nicknamed the "House of a Thousand Candles" after the Madisons hosted a reception for General Andrew Jackson and his wife in the building in late 1815. By 1817 Dolley had succeeded in positioning herself as the First Lady of the land, and in so doing set the model for her successors to follow. As her old Philadelphia friend Eliza Collins Lee wrote her on March 4, 1817, “it is more difficult to deserve the gratitude and thanks of the community than their congratulations. You have deservedly received of all”.
James Madison left office on March 4, 1817. The Madisons remained in Washington for another month, packing up their belongings, going to parties in their honor, saying good-bye to what had been, in so many ways, their city. In April they left and returned to Montpelier, the Madison family estate. It was a huge change for Dolley. Although she had lived in the countryside for the first fifteen years of her life, since then she had lived an urban life, first in Philadelphia and after 1801 in Washington, DC. Prior to their retirement in 1817 the longest period she had spent in Orange County was the four years between 1797 and 1801. She had been a young mother then, and during her Washington years Montpelier had been more of a summer home than a permanent residence. Now she was moving to a quiet, rural, plantation where she would be mistress of over one hundred slaves living in villages of slave cabins on four different farms.
The Madisons received visitors by the score. Some were local gentry, members of the Madison and Payne families, the distinguished politicians, writers, diplomats, reformers, as well as other dignitaries who added their numbers to the ranks of those for whom Dolley provided. Dinners for twenty were not unusual. It would have been difficult in the best of circumstances to entertain such a constant flow of company, but economic conditions in Virginia after the end of the war made the effort even harder. Demand for U.S. grain sharply declined, and there were dreadful seasons for tobacco and wheat. And yet there were always so many mouths to feed: slaves, family, and visitors.
Problems with her family members made matters worse. Her son, John Payne Todd gambled and drank his way up and down the East Coast, spending money as if it were water. Beginning around 1832, James’s health began steadily to decline. Visitors continued to flock to Montpelier even when James was confined to his bed, too ill to move about. Throughout this period Dolley helped James in editing his papers which James believed the sale of would bring significant funds to support Dolley as a widow. The two of them spent hours editing and copying letters and writings. By the beginning of 1836 James was clearly failing. Dolley increasingly had to spend her time nursing her husband, who had become her patient. He died on June 28, 1836.
Her marriage had lasted forty-two years. It had been an enormous success, giving her security, loving companionship, care for her child, and a role to play on the national stage. She in turn had served her husband well with love, support, and steadfastness. After his death she would enter the last period of her life, that of a widow, now on her own. It would be a new undertaking, and in many ways the most difficult one of all.
When Dolley Madison became a widow on June 28, 1836, she was faced with the task of selling her husband’s papers. Between July 1836 and the spring of 1837, she struggled to sell those writings. The couple had retired from Washington in 1817, and over the succeeding twenty years Dolley herself had put in many hours of labor copying James’s materials and helping him in any way she could. James was certain that his notes on the debates during the Constitutional Convention, combined with many other essays, records, and letters, would be worth the small fortune of $100,000 when sold. Dolley believed him and approached the problems of widowhood with that promise in mind. Her tasks were multiple: to find a publisher for his papers, to pay out of the money received for these the bequests and the legacies contained in his will, and to continue to run Montpelier, the Madison family plantation.
As she pursued the tasks of selling her husband’s papers, distributing his charitable donations, and finding all the nieces, nephews, great-nieces, and great-nephews to whom James had left a bequest, she met many problems. It proved impossible to find a publisher whom she could trust and who wanted the manuscript, and so eventually she sold James’s papers to the Federal government for the sum of $30,000. Montpelier had been a financially losing proposition for decades, and at the age of sixty-eight Dolley had no skills to run the farm and manage over one hundred slaves, let alone do so profitably. As her health seriously deteriorated, she lost weight, suffered from chills and painful eye inflammations, and could barely handle a pen well enough to sign a letter. Dolley survived by listening to the advice of a few well-connected friends and playing her old Washington game of influence to the best of her now-rusty abilities. In these years we see Dolley begin the process of selling off pieces of Montpelier from financial necessity. Between July of 1836 and April of 1840, she made twelve conveyances of land, thus shrinking Montpelier and the Madison estate.
She returned to Washington in October of 1837 and moved into the house James had bought there. Dolley slipped back into society, visiting with the President; Henry Clay and his wife; William Preston and his wife; Daniel Webster and his wife; James K. Polk and his wife; the ministers from France and the independent nation of Texas, and more. At the beginning of 1839, Dolley Madison was living in Washington, DC. In her correspondence and newspaper reports we hear about her active social life as she sees the president, Martin Van Buren, and many of her old friends. She stays in the capital until sometime in late July or early August, at which point she goes back to Montpelier. Dolley remained at Montpelier throughout the rest of 1839 and 1840. In the fall of 1841 Dolley went to Washington to enjoy her friends and a season at the national capital. She stayed nearly ten months, with a brief visit in April 1842 to Philadelphia and New York, arriving back at Montpelier in September. She remained there for over a year and finally returned to Washington in December 1843. Thus, of the thirty-six months that make up the years 1841 through 1843 she spent twenty-six, or more than two-thirds of her time, in Virginia.
Financially, Dolley was very much troubled, caught as she was in the tangle of her son’s debts and her plantation’s insolvency. Moreover, all this was taking place during a national economic depression that must have seemed endless and a credit squeeze that plagued Virginia and the nation. Dolley saw her debts snowballing. She rented out her house in Washington to a series of prominent tenants and tried to take charge of her plantation management. Her main assets were her houses and land. Though she rented her house in Washington she still needed cash, so she considered leasing out the half of the Montpelier house in which her mother-in-law had once lived, but she decided against it. Instead, she received a three-thousand-dollar mortgage on Montpelier from John Jacob Astor in September of 1842 and sold off pieces of the estate, some to neighbors, and some to a Richmond merchant named Henry Wood Moncure. In 1843, Dolley had John Payne Todd as her agent open negotiations—to sell the whole property to Moncure. The deal was completed in 1844.
Dolley went to Washington, or as The National Intelligencer announced on 12 December 1843, “the respected widow of the late illustrious President MADISON, has again taken up her residence, for the winter season, in this city” On 8 January 1844, the U.S. House of Representatives bestowed upon her the greatest Congressional honor possible for a woman—a permanent seat in the House—declaring “that a committee be appointed on the part of this House to wait on Mrs. Madison, and to assure her that, whenever it shall be her pleasure to visit the House, she be requested to take a seat within the hall”. Dolley’s life in Washington glittered. After a two-year absence, she was fêted and honored; the newspaper accounts repeatedly portrayed her as radiant and healthy. But all the while her finances continued to collapse.
Dolley Madison had an extensive social life in Washington, DC, where she had already become a fixture. Every year, on New Year’s Day, the president opened the White House to visitors. Concurrently, Dolley received guests in her own home. She filled her house, situated across Lafayette Square from the Executive Mansion, with “a crowd of ladies and gentlemen, who had gathered to pay their respects to this very estimable old lady, the beloved widow of the late lamented ex-President Madison”. The presidents and their families, both Tyler and Polk, paid homage to her as did the public.
Dolley socialized with old and new friends as well as government officials and foreign dignitaries. There are accounts of dinners attended by both Dolley and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton, the only other surviving reminder of the founding fathers. Those far afield sometimes wrote, as did the grandchildren of Thomas Jefferson. Dolley filled the gaps created by absent old friends with new ones from the current administration and other elites of the city. Her social life was curtailed by her health, but she was an elderly woman. In early February she sustained a carriage accident, from which she took some time to recover, retreating to her room for several weeks. Without Montpelier to go to, the heat of the Washington summers was hard on her and her eyes still bothered her, and she continued to struggle with debt for the rest of her life.
1849 began with the city’s festivities, including Dolley Madison’s yearly New Year’s reception, and newspaper reports show her as still an active participant in the capital’s life, a figure of national importance. During her last six months, Dolley Madison continued to promote her friends and connections in their searches for employment and kept up her social connections with the White House, occasions the daily newspapers loved to describe.
Dolley Payne Madison died on Thursday, 12 July 1849. She had been declining for months and then her health rapidly deteriorated over the last several weeks of her life. Throughout the country, newspapers expressed the deep respect with which the nation held this great lady. The Daily Intelligencer (Washington) announced “with saddened heart” the passing of Dolley Madison, and “for ourselves…it would not be easy to speak in terms of exaggeration”.
The New Orleans Daily Picayune wrote only days later, “the softening and dignifying influence of woman in society was never more happily illustrated than in the late Mrs. Madison”. The Philadelphia Bulletin noted that she had become “almost as well known… as any of our statesmen of the same period”. In a letter to the editor of the Richmond Whig, proposed that the women of Virginia wear a black mourning band for a month as a token of their esteem.
Her funeral was a state occasion with both houses of Congress adjourned to attend the services and follow the procession. The pall bearers were a Who’s Who of important and prominent people in Washington, as well as being personally important in Dolley’s long life. The Daily Intelligencer, Washington’s key publication, carried the notice of Dolley Madison’s funeral on July 17, 1849, held at 4 p.m. at St. John’s Church with the pews packed and the galleries filled. President Zachary Taylor, a distant relative-by-marriage, attended with members of his family. Rev. Pyne delivered an eloquent and heartfelt eulogy to the congregation of Cabinet officers, congressmen, military officers, diplomats, and “citizens and strangers”. By 5:30, the funeral services concluded, and the largest procession ever seen in Washington up to that time, followed the casket from the Church to the Congress Cemetery. The procession included forty-eight carriages while thousands more lined the sidewalks or watched from windows, as church bells tolled. Upon reaching the Congress Cemetery, Mrs. Madison was laid to rest, where she remained until her casket was reinterred at Montpelier to lay beside that of President Madison.
Dolley Madison’s life was the stuff of legends. What is not a legend, however, was her immense popularity and influence. She was never allowed to vote, never held public office, and refused to take credit for any political policy, insisting that she only believed in “politics by people”. During the fifty-some years she spent as Mrs. Madison, Dolley was at the pinnacle of political society, and she reigned supreme. What she wore became instant fashion. What she served at her table became cherished recipes for hundreds of imitators. How she greeted her guests – personally, without waiting for introductions – changed standard etiquette. Her fondness for snuff and rouge shocked public morals, then quickly became conventional. Visitors to Washington were far more interested in meeting her than they were to meet her husband, the President. Even in her elder years, as The Widow Dolley living thriftily in a rented house, her New Year’s Day reception found the creme of political Washington stopping in after they had attended the White House reception.
Dolley Madison did not fundamentally alter Washington politics, which remained a rough game. But her social events, which she planned so carefully and understood so well, supplied a model that stressed civility over the cold shoulder, and cooperation over coercion. It allowed adversaries to see each other as human beings, something we desperately need in today’s partisan environment. With those accomplishments, who could we have better chosen to feature here on our blog for Women’s History month.
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Barnard, Ella Kent. 1909. Dorothy Payne, Quakeress. Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach.
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Madison, Dolley. 1896. Memoirs and Letters of Dolly Madison. Edited by Lucia B. Cutts. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company.
Schulman, Holly C. 2004-2021. The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. Charlottesville.
Witteman, Barbara. 2003. Dolley Madison: First Lady. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books. Accessed January 11, 2021. https://archive.org/details/dolleymadisonfir0000witt.