First Ladies: Dolley Payne Todd Madison

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Dolley Madison brought the role of hostess to a whole new pinnacle during her husband’s time in office.

a young Dolley Madison

She was born Dolley Payne on May 20, 1768 in New Garden, Guilford County, North Carolina. She was born in a Quaker Settlement to John and Mary Coles Payne,Jr.

By 1769, her family returned to their Virginian plantation, but Dolley was raised in the Quaker faith. Dolley had three sisters and four brothers.

Following the Revolutionary War, her father, John Payne, emancipated his slaves in 1783.

In January 1790, Dolley married a Quaker Lawyer, John Todd in Philadelphia. The couple had two songs, John Payne and William Temple.

John Payne, Dolley’s father, died in October 1792.

However, tragedy was far from over for the young woman. In August 1793, a yellow fever epidemic broke out and both Dolley’s husband and son, William, died on October 24, 1793. The epidemic also took both of John Todd’s parents.

Dolley Madison was known for her social graces

It is believed Aaron Burr introduced Dolley Todd to James Madison, who was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Dolley and Madison were married on September 15, 1794. Because her new husband was not a Quaker, she was expelled from theSociety of Friends, for marrying outside her faith.

When James Madison became Secretary of State to President Thomas Jefferson, Dolley insisted on a large house. She felt that entertaining was important in Washington. At times she even stepped in and served as hostess for President Jefferson. She also worked with the architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to help furnish the White House.

During the Presidency of her husband, Dolley was renowned for her social graces and hospitatlity. Her gift as serving as such as graceful hostess contributed to her husband’s popularity as president.

Dolley was the only First Lady to be given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress. She also became the first American, and First Lady, to respond to a telegraph message. {Note: Although I’ve used the term First Lady here, it is a term not yet used for the President’s wife}.

In 1814, the British set fire to Washington, DC. As the troops approached, Dolley ordered the Stuart painting of President Washington to be removed.

The following account exist of that moment, “Our kind friend Mr. Carroll has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with

Dolley Madison saved the portrait of George Washington when the British burned the White House

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.”

Dolley hurried to her waiting carried and fled to Georgetown.

Upon the end of her husband’s term, Dolley and James Madison retired to Montpelier in 1817. Half of the plantation was mortgaged to pay off her son’s debts in 1830, after he was sent to debtors’ prison.

James Madison died on June 28, 1836. Dolley Madison organized and copied her husband’s papers, which Congress authorized for publication.

Picture of an older Dolley Madison

In fall 1837, Dolley moved with her niece,Anna Payne, back to Washington, DC.

Dolley left the plantation in the hands of her son, Payne Todd, who was unable to manage the plantation. She was eventually forced to sell Montpelier to pay off outstanding debts.

The lively socialite of earlier times now lived in absolute povery at times. Paul Jennings, the former slave of the Madison’s, 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.”

Dolley died on July 12, 1849 in Washington, D.C. She was 81 years of age. She was initially buried in Washington, D.C. but later re-interred beside her husband at Montpelier.

However, her legacy lives on as a guide for future First Ladies to serve as hostess during the husband’s Presidency.


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