One of the most colorful and charming First Ladies in America’s history, Dolley Madison was born to a Quaker family from Virginia in 1768, as one of eight children.  She married a Quaker lawyer named named John Todd , Jr. in 1790.  Three years later he and their newborn child William Temple died of yellow fever, leaving Dolley with their remaining young son, John Payne.

Only 25 years old, Dolley was alone in Philadelphia.  But her vivacious personality and warm heart soon made her popular.  In 1794, a mutual friend named Aaron Burr introduced the young widow to a 43 year-old bachelor named John Madison.  Although he was 17 years her senior, the two were considered by friends to be an ideal match, especially considering John’s shyness in public arenas and Dolley’s abilities as hostess.  She found him to be delightful and clever.  John Madison was already making waves as a leader of the new Republican Party, a very intelligent leader who believed strongly in religious freedom and had fought to add the first ten amendments to the Constitution (which are now called the Bill of Rights).  Although he stood at only five and a half feet tall, he held great stature in the eyes of his young nation as the “Father of the Constitution” (a title he strongly protested).

Dolley Todd and James Madison had a short courtship of about four months.  They were married on September 14th of 1794, no doubt to the relief of Dolley’s cousin, Catherine Cole, who had written her in June that John “thinks so much of you in the day that he has Lost his Tongue, at Night he Dreams of you & Starts in his Sleep a Calling on you…”.  The newlyweds retired to Monpelier, John’s childhood home in Virginia, where they lived until 1801.  In that year, John was called to Washington, D.C. to be President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State.

Dolley, discarding the rigid habits of her childhood religion, dressed stylishly and elaborately, and soon become the social hub of Washington.  During their first 8 years in the city, Dolley often acted as Jefferson’s hostess, since the President was a widower.  The city was a raw and untamed town during this time, with a residency of only about three or four thousand.  Traditional social life was impossible, but Dolley seemed determined to help make the capital of American politics into something the nation could be proud of through social events in which the old ways of class and protocol were very often forgotten.

In 1809 John Madison was elected the 4th President of the United States, and Dolley became First Lady.  She was now the toast of Washington, and indeed, the most important woman in social America at that time.  In fact, Madison’s Presidential opponent, Charles Pinckney, said that he was “beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison”.  He added, “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.” 

Dolley furnished and decorated the White House as tastefully as she could, striking a balance between understated simplicity and the ornate style popular in that era.  She wanted the White House to be a place for all kinds of people.  She held a Wednesday night “salon” open to the general public, and hosted state events with impeccable etiquette.  Washington social chronicler Margaret Bayard Smith wrote that “she looked a Queen…It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did”.  Gracious, tactful, elegant and kind to everyone, Dolley is still remembered as the original First Lady, setting a precedent for the wives of American presidents to follow.  She always remembered names and had a gift for making people of all types and backgrounds feel welcome.  That she was far more than just a social butterfly was proven during the War of 1812, when Dolley became a national heroine for her bravery and strength, sleeping with a sabre by her bedside during the dangerous wartime.  Even when British troops captured Washington in 1814, Dolley kept levelheaded and managed to save many vital government papers, White House treasures, and an important portrait of George Washington from the White House before invading troops set it on fire.  The President was absent at the time, reviewing the American forces.  Dolley left behind her own possessions to preserve items important to her country, writing, “I am accordingly ready; 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.”

Even after Madison’s term ended in 1817, Dolley remained one of the most important and beloved persons in America.  The couple retired to Montpelier.  Throughout the years, Dolley remained first and foremost supportive of her husband.  She was young, beautiful, and outgoing, he was small, sickly, shy, and reserved.  Many thought them an odd match, but Dolley was devoted to him and John adored his wife.  As Dolley once said, “our hearts understand each other.”

Dolley Madison died in 1849 and was buried next to her husband on the Montpelier estate.  A brilliant hostess, intelligent leader and loyal First lady, Dolley was the first President’s wife to entertain in Washington D.C. and remains a beloved name in American history.  She will always be remembered as simply Dolley: wartime heroine, Washington’s favorite lady, and American.  As Henry Clay once said, “everyone loves Mrs. Madison.”

Resources:

  1. “Dolly Madison Quotes” http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/dolley_madison.html
  2. “Dolley Madison” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolley_Madison
  3. “The Dolley Madison Project” http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison/
  4. “Dolley Payne Todd Madison” http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/dm4.html
  5. “Dolley Madison: Biography” http://www.answers.com/topic/dolley-madison
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